Archives For Theological Matters

Epitaphs & C.S. Lewis

June 10, 2020 — 15 Comments

Have you already decided on an epitaph for your headstone? Or are you trusting others to sum up your life in familiar, traditional words of relationship? C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that a unique sentiment was most appropriate for such occasions.

My own decision has been made by default. At the present time I’m leaning towards simply using a military marker. They look distinguished, and the money that is saved can benefit the living, or perhaps one of the charities we support.

Basically, they have name, rank (I just want “Chaplain” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel”), dates and sometimes a very short personalized element. I think I’ll opt for the simple “Christian cross” which is familiar to those who have visited military cemeteries. I am tempted though, to use the agnus dei, even though it is listed as the official emblem of the United Moravian Church.

Due to the religious diversity (and confusion) in the United States, the Veterans Administration offers a theological smorgasbord of options. You can see the seventy-five options currently available here.

They include established American faiths such as Zoroastrianism and the Tenrikyo Church as well as more contemporary favorites Wicca and Eckankar (which claimed not to be a religion when I encountered its missionaries during my college years). Not to be ignored, are Humanism and its sibling, Atheism. For those preferring ethnic options, we have the Medicine Wheel, ancestor worship (African Ancestral Traditionalist), and the Hammer of Thor.

How Much Should an Epitaph Say?

I’ve seen some headstones that record only a name. Leaves only questions. Some give a brief observation, such as Boot Hill’s marker for Dan Dowd who perished in 1884. It records single word, “Hanged.”*

There are a few longer epitaphs, such as this one, sounding almost like an apology. “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.” Sadly, they learned too late the horse they assumed he had stolen, was purchased legally.

In New Hampshire, there is a headstone with a 150 word inscription. Apparently, the woman’s husband had quite an axe to grind with a local congregation.

Caroline H., Wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Churches As follows: Sep’t. 28, 1838; aged 33 She was accused of lying in church meeting by the Rev. D. D. Pratt and Deacon Albert Adams. Was condemned by the church unheard. She was reduced to poverty by Deacon William Wallace. When an exparte council was asked of the Milford Baptist Church, by the advice of their committee, George Raymond, Calvin Averill, and Andrew Hutchinson They voted not to receive any communication on the subject. The Rev. Mark Carpenter said he thought as the good old Deacon said, “We’ve got Cutter down and it’s best to keep him down.” The intentional and malicious destruction of her character And happiness as above described destroyed her life. Her last words upon the subject were “Tell the Truth and The Iniquity will come out.”

C.S. Lewis’ Epitaph

Lewis wrote a moving epitaph for his wife, Joy Davidman. It was based upon one he had written for his good friend Charles Williams. The phrase “Lenten Lands” was used by his stepson David Gresham, as the title of his story of his parents’ marriage.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

To adorn C.S. Lewis’ own grave, his brother Warnie opted for simpler verse. It was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“Men must endure their going hence.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another noteworthy epigraph. It was in a poem by that very name. It was originally published in 1949 in Time and Tide magazine. It has been included in the collection of Lewis Poems as a stanza in “Epigrams and Epitaphs.” He shared it with his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter when it was first written, writing “I append my latest Short, your most obliged C.S. Lewis.”

My grave my pillory, by this blabbing stone
Forbidden to rest unknown,
I feel like fire my neighbours’ eyes, because
All here know what I was.
Think, stranger, of that moment when I too
First, and forever, knew.

In 2013, C.S. Lewis received the great honor of having a memorial stone placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription was chosen from one of his talks.

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

I began with the question of what each of us might hope is inscribed as the legacy of our life. In truth, I don’t care if my marker even bears my name, since the Lord knows me as a member of his flock. But what I would like to see gracing my passing, are the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).


The photograph adorning this post comes from side-by-side monuments for two Yale chemists. You can read the curious story about them, and the reason for the “Etc.” that adorns the second. Apparently it was added by the family at a later date, since they regarded “Nobel Laureate” as insufficient.

* The most famous epitaph in Arizona’s Boot Hill Cemetery reads “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More.”

Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.

Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.

Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.

The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Coleridge)

Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
(Robert Stroud)

Lewis and Irish Sand

It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.

Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.

My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.

To another friend, he wrote:

I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.

But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)

Sand as a Metaphor

Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.

Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.

[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
(Genesis 22:17)

[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
(Joshua 11:4)

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.

“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
(Proverbs 27:3)

[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
(Isaiah 35:7)

[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
    Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
    a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
    though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
(Jeremiah 5:22)

[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor

In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.

We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.

But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.

All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.

A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).

“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”

Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.

In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.

[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.

As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.

Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.

Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.

It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.


* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.

Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .

Who are you? If you were to fully answer that question, it would require serious introspection. However, if you were to answer it completely, it would also require an honesty that is extremely rare.

That’s because anyone who reveals everything about themself, comes to a point where the qualities and actions are no longer flattering. They ultimately arrive at the place where the exposé becomes a confession.

The truth is that no one actually knows everything about themself. But some of the things we are aware of . . . some of the secrets we desire to hide, even from ourselves . . . are seldom shared. That is one great value of the “confessional.” There, one can unburden themselves and face their demons, so to speak, in a setting where they know their confidence won’t be violated.

As a Protestant pastor, who has never used a physical confessional stall or screen, I note that I have nevertheless heard thousands of confessions. They are, as one would expect, a common element of counseling as people seek to experience healing and restoration. As a Lutheran, I belong to a tradition that guarantees the privacy of these confessions, or what is considered “privileged communication.” Moreover, as a military chaplain, I was grateful to serve a nation that enshrines the same promise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As Lewis wrote, “if there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it” (Letters to an American Lady). Once that is done, the pastor (or any “confessor”) can assist the individual with working to make as right as possible in the future what was damaged or destroyed by their choices in the past.

From the Psychological Vantage Point

If you have never encountered it before, I commend to you the model called the Johari Window. I have written about it in the past in the context of honesty and dishonesty.

The model illustrates just how complex our personalities are. The arrows on the model below reveal how we can expand the “open” part of ourselves. Naturally, there are some “hidden” aspects that should only be disclosed in certain contexts.

When it comes to the darkness in our lives, that which we strive to keep veiled, psychologists describe it in a variety of ways. One chaplain with whom I worked was particularly enamored with the work of Carl Jung. He loved to toss around the word “shadow,” and suggest there was some dark psychological significance to even the most offhand comment or expression. In essence, the shadow is the part of our personality we don’t want to admit to having. In terms of the Johari Window, you might think of it as the sinister stuff in the Hidden quadrant.*

C.S. Lewis wrote about Jung in an essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” Lewis disparages the Freudian theory, saying “poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.” Jung, he argues, presents “a much more civil and humane interpretation of myth and imagery.” Of course, Lewis is discussing these psychoanalysts from the perspective of a literary critic, not a psychologist. In that regard, we can appreciate his assessment of one of Jung’s major works.

Thanks to my training I can suspend my judgement about the scientific value of Jung’s essay on “Mind and the Earth:” but I perceive at once that even if it turns out to be bad science it is excellent poetry.

From the Christian Point of View

I have already described how confession can serve as a means of expanding our self-awareness in a constructive and healing way. That’s why confession and absolution are a formal part of many worship service, going back to the earliest times. If we want to read the finest primer on confession, we need look no further than the book of Psalms.

As King David, in recognition of this great sins, prays in the fifty-first psalm:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

One of the earliest Christian classics (outside the Bible itself) was aptly entitled Confessions. It was written by Augustine, the bishop of a North African city called Hippo. His description of our self-awareness is so deep and profound, it will likely require more than a single reading.

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him . . .

Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (Augustine, The Confessions, translation by Maria Boulding)

One of C.S. Lewis’ many correspondents was a man who was acutely troubled by his own self-awareness, and in particular, the consciousness of his own selfishness and egotism. Lewis offered some comforting and sound spiritual direction to the man. Since I believe the letter has a message for us all, I choose to close with it.

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as “excessive selfness.” But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease: fortunate are the minority who know they have it.

To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotized by the mere sight of the chasm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer.

The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regard, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will

A text you should keep much in mind is I John iii, 20: “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.” I sometimes pray “Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.” Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e. keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.


* In contrast to the insignificant or embarrassing things we are aware of that we may prefer to keep to ourselves. For example, although I sing decently, I am an exceptionally poor instrumentalist. This despite the fact I married a talented and patient music teacher. It’s not my lack of talent which motivates my secrecy, it is the sad fact that I am a total sluggard when it comes to practicing. And this reveals a major flaw in my personality—if something is not inherently fun or doesn’t come easily to me, I have a terribly difficult time applying myself to the task. (And this shortcoming has very real consequences, both in terms of professional success and interpersonal relationships.)

⁑ Several years ago, a member of our Mere Inkling described in her blog how everyone experiences seasons of restlessness.

In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Yet even those who have found Christ feel restless at certain times, and these times lead us to a salutary discovery.

Augustine’s Confessions is a Christian classic. You can download a free copy here.

C.S. Lewis & Nuns

January 30, 2020 — 14 Comments

One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to be one of the church’s most commendable elements.

In 1947 he wrote to one of his regular correspondents who wondered why he had not forsaken his “low church” loyalties for a more elevated perspective. His response reveals his perception of the virtues of consecrated nuns.

I am particularly pleased to have been of any help as a bridge between the parish and the convent. I’m not especially ‘high’ Church myself but Nuns seem to me the strong argument on that side.

They are in my experience almost invariably so very nice—and so happy: much more so either than the same number of married women picked at random or the same number of monks. I don’t know why this should be so.

One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate people who consecrate their lives to God, willing to make radical sacrifices like living a life of celibacy. Nearly four decades ago, while I was serving a congregation in Citrus Heights, California, I earned a (post-M.Div.) Master of Theology degree. Since I was focused on Patristics, I was enrolled at a Jesuit seminary in the Bay area.

One day during my studies, an Episcopal priest and I were having lunch with a half dozen Roman Catholics, most of whom were religious sisters.* The conversation turned to a celebration by the sisters present that they no longer had to wear habits. The respectful person I am, I remained silent as they discussed their “family” business. Apparently, though, I was softly grinning, because of one them (it may even have been my thesis advisor) asked, “what are you smiling about?”

My response was that it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, but when they pressed, I said, “well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.” My companions were shocked and at a loss for words. In retrospect, I believe that C.S. Lewis might have offered a similar comment.

Due to the century during which he lived, and his setting in the British Isles, Lewis encountered nuns far more frequently than I do. In fact, since their “liberation” from the habit, we can’t know precisely how many religious sisters cross our paths. In 1947 he describes to a close friend a trip to see his brother who was hospitalized in Ireland. His colorful description of the town he visited ends with an uplifting remark.

My Brother, thank God, was out of danger when I reached him on Monday morning last but was at the unearthly city of Drogheda where almost every building is a church or a tavern⁑  and what men do but pray and drink or how life is supported in their bodies I can’t conceive. . . . And you hear more wit and humour in one day of London than in a week of Drogheda. My Brother was in the care of the most charming nuns.

Nuns are found in various Christian traditions. In addition to those who take such vows in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches trace the lineage of these female monastics back to the ancient eremites. ⁂ There are also Anglican and Lutheran convents. In fact, one of C.S. Lewis’ close friends was an Anglican nun. Sister Penelope, CSMV (1890-1977), was a member of the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Lewis dedicated his novel, Perelandra, “to some ladies at Wantage,” her convent.

In a 1941 letter to the BBC, Lewis pleads that he is unable to add to his current speaking commitments. These apparently included specific presentations to nuns.  

I’m afraid in view of my other commitments I should be ‘over-talked’ if I accepted the job you kindly suggest for me. I’m talking already to the R.A.F., to the general public, to nuns, to undergraduates, to societies. The gramophone will wear out if I don’t take care! With thanks and much regret.

Lewis’ Three Theses

Mary Willis Shelburne was a widow in Washington, D.C., with whom Lewis corresponded for a number of years. Beginning in 1950, they exchanged more than a hundred letters, which were collected in the volume Letters to an American Lady. Lewis arranged for her to receive financial support from the sales of his books in the United States. This support continued after his own passing. In 1952 Shelburne converted to Roman Catholicism, and proposed that Lewis follow her example. His response was gracious.

It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho’ you have taken a way which is not for me. I nevertheless can congratulate you—I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you—but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion.

In a short note written four years later, Lewis thanks her for a picture of herself and a nun. He uses the occasion to voice his sentiment that nuns are happy and pleasant. He then proposes three curious theses, noting that his presumption is subjective and she may disagree with him. Do you agree with his opinions here?

Problem: why are nuns nicer than monks and schoolgirls nicer than schoolboys, when women are not in general nicer than men? But perhaps you deny all three statements! All blessings.

My own experience with the first category are limited, but the monks I’ve met have all been very kind, as have the nuns. I fully agree with his second contention. Girls are much nicer than boys. That seems to me a no-brainer . . . although I assume there are many girls who have been bullied by their peers and would disagree.

As for the final thesis, that neither women nor men are better than each other as a group, I would strongly disagree. While it is only a generalization, of course, I believe men tend far more toward cruelty and greed than do women. On the other end of the spectrum, experience tells me that women are significantly more disposed toward virtues such as nurture, mercy and compassion, than their Y chromosome counterparts.

Obviously, C.S. Lewis proposed this question to his correspondent off the cuff. Given the opportunity to discuss it at greater length, say over a pint at the Eagle and Child, it’s certainly possible he could persuade me that his ideas on this matter are correct. After all, we both share a respect for women who feel called to a religious life.


* The essential difference between nuns and sisters is that the former normally live in monasteries, while the latter takes a more tempered vow and often serves in a non-cloistered setting.

⁑ Although this article focuses on England, it provides details on a sad trend in which church buildings are being converted for use as pubs and bars.

⁂ Eremites are Christian hermits. This was the earliest form of monasticism, with individuals removing themselves from secular society. Communal monasticism developed later.

C.S. Lewis & Tattoos

January 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

How is this for an odd New Year resolution? Getting a new tattoo—with a connection to the writings of C.S. Lewis.

I suppose I’m betraying my age here. Being a retired pastor, my body remains a totally uninked canvas. Not that I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. In fact, if I end up making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before I journey to the New Jerusalem, I may still opt to get inked. In Jerusalem there is a tattooist whose family traces their art back for 700 years to when their Coptic family lived in Egypt.

Our ancestors  used tattoos to mark Christian Copts with a small cross on the inside of the wrist to grant them access to churches . . and from a very young age (sometimes even a few months old) Christians would tattoo their children with the cross identifying them as Copts. . . .

One of the most famous of Christian types of tattoos, however, is still in use today—that of the pilgrimage tattoo. At least as early as the 1500s, visitors to the Holy Land . . . often acquired a Christian tattoo symbol to commemorate their visit, particularly the Jerusalem Cross.

In Bethlehem, another Christian tattooist practices his art “near the Church of the Nativity, offering pilgrims ink to permanently mark their visit.” He offers designs featuring scriptural texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Tattoos have a fascinating history, and it should be noted some people consider Torah prohibition to bar even religious tattoos. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). However, most Christians* and increasing numbers of Jews do not agree that the passage forbids the current practice.

That doesn’t mean all tattoos are appropriate, of course. Most tattoos are innocuous. Some are humorous. A small number are actually witty. Yet some tattoos can be downright malevolent.

Like so many human activities, the significance of a tattoo depends in great part on the intention of the person asking for this permanent mark. For example, my wife and I approved of our son and his wife having their wedding rings tattooed in recognition of God’s desire⁑ that a marriage will last as long as both individuals live.

What has this to do with C.S. Lewis?

Precious few writers have penned more inspiring and enlightening words than Lewis, that great scholar of Oxford and Cambridge. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that there are many Lewis-inspired tattoos gracing bodies. There is even a website devoted to C.S. Lewis-inspired body ink.

I imagine that Lewis himself would regard this as quite peculiar. I don’t believe he had any tattoos of his own, but it’s quite possible his brother Warnie—a retired veteran of the Royal Army—may have sported one or more.

In 1932, Lewis wrote to Warnie about his recent walking trip. Warnie was his frequent companion, when he was not elsewhere deployed. In this fascinating piece of correspondence, Lewis described his most recent excursion. I include a lengthy excerpt (comprising the first half of the journey) not because of its single passing mention of tattoos. Rather, because of the portrait it paints of the young and vigorous scholar in the prime of life. If you would prefer to skip to the mention of inking, see the sixth paragraph.

Since last writing I have had my usual Easter walk. It was in every way an abnormal one. First of all, Harwood was to bring a new Anthroposophical Anthroposophical member (not very happily phrased!) and I was bringing a new Christian one to balance him, in the person of my ex-pupil Griffiths. Then Harwood and his satellite ratted, and the walk finally consisted of Beckett, Barfield, Griffiths, and me.

As Harwood never missed before, and Beckett seldom comes, and Griffiths was new, the atmosphere I usually look for on these jaunts was lacking. At least that is how I explain a sort of disappointment I have been feeling ever since. Then, owing to some affairs of Barfield’s, we had to alter at the last minute our idea of going to Wales, and start (of all places!) from Eastbourne instead.

All the same, I would not have you think it was a bad walk: it was rather like Hodge who, though nowhere in a competition of Johnsonian cats, was, you will remember, ‘a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

The first day we made Lewes, walking over the bare chalky South Downs all day. The country, except for an occasional gleam of the distant sea—we were avoiding the coast for fear of hikers—is almost exactly the same as the Berkshire downs or the higher parts of Salisbury Plain. The descent into Lewes offered a view of the kind I had hitherto seen only on posters—rounded hill with woods on the top, and one side quarried into a chalk cliff: sticking up dark and heavy against this a little town climbing up to a central Norman castle.

We had a very poor inn here, but I was fortunate in sharing a room with Griffiths who carried his asceticism so far as to fling off his eiderdown—greatly to my comfort. Next day we had a delicious morning—just such a day as downs are made for, with endless round green slopes in the sunshine, crossed by cloud shadows. The landscape was less like the Plain now. The sides of the hill—we were on a ridgeway—were steep and wooded, giving rather the same effect as the narrower parts of Malvern hills beyond the Wych.

We had a fine outlook over variegated blue country to the North Downs. After we had dropped into a village for lunch and climbed onto the ridge again for the afternoon, our troubles began. The sun disappeared: an icy wind took us in the flank: and soon there came a torrent of the sort of rain that feels as if one’s face were being tattooed and turns the mackintosh on the weather side into a sort of wet suit of tights.

At the same time Griffiths began to show his teeth (as I learned afterwards) having engaged Barfield in a metaphysico-religious conversation of such appalling severity and egotism that it included the speaker’s life history and a statement that most of us were infallibly damned. As Beckett and I, half a mile ahead, looked back over that rain beaten ridgeway we could always see the figures in close discussion. Griffiths very tall, thin, high-shouldered, stickless, with enormous pack: arrayed in perfectly cylindrical knickerbockers, very tight in the crutch. Barfield, as you know, with that peculiarly blowsy air, and an ever more expressive droop and shuffle.

For two mortal hours we walked nearly blind in the rain, our shoes full of water, and finally limped into the ill omened village of Bramber. Here, as we crowded to the fire in our inn, I tried to make room for us by shoving back a little miniature billiard table which stood in our way.

I was in that state of mind in which I discovered without the least surprise, a moment too late, that it was only a board supported on trestles. The trestles, of course, collapsed, and the board crashed to the ground. Slate broken right across. I haven’t had the bill yet, but I suppose it will equal the whole expences of the tour.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing to join C.S. Lewis on one of these walking trips? A Lewisian tattoo is no substitute, to be sure, but I imagine it does offer certain people a sense of connection to the great author. Perhaps, if I were a younger man . . .


* Two recent converts to Christianity, Kanye West and Justin Bieber have made public their recent religious additions to their vast tattoo collections.

⁑ As Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The motivational poster above was created by Mere Inkling, and represents only an infinitesimal number of the misspelled tattoos adorning human bodies. What a travesty . . . one that may have been prevented by remaining sober. The tattoo below, on the other hand, strikes me (being a writer) as quite clever.

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

C.S. Lewis begins his essay “Miracles” with a rather odd analogy. “I have known only one person in my life,” he writes, “who claimed to have seen a ghost.” As he tells the rest of the story, it works well to illustrate his point about the necessity of faith for recognizing miracles.

It was a woman; and the interesting thing is that she disbelieved in the immortality of the soul before seeing the ghost and still disbelieves after having seen it. She thinks it was a hallucination. In other words, seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear in talking about miracles. Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural.

In our previous post, we explored a number of references to ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ works and correspondence. Most of these notes relate to encountering these disembodied spirits in literature.

For example, as a young man, he commended a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) to his friend Arthur Greeves.

I was sure that you wd. like “Balder Dead . . .” it is a topping piece of work, especially the journey, as you say, and the description of the ghosts, and the ending with its impressive pause before the glorious line “At last he sighed & set forth back to Heaven.” Doesn’t it all make you think of the dear old days when we were writing our great opera on Loki & Odin & the rest?

It is easy to see how “Balder Dead” resonated with Lewis, given his affinity for “Northernness.”

And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control presides…
And all the nobler souls of mortal men
On battle-field have met their death, and now
Feast in Valhalla, in my father’s hall;
Only the inglorious sort are there below…

In 1952, C.S. Lewis was invited to comment on a volume written by Phyllis Elinor Sandeman. The sensitive Inkling displayed the virtues of every good member of a writing critique group. Lewis begins with praise, and offers a single, concrete constructive comment, to aid the author.

Dear Mrs. Sandeman, I have read Treasure on Earth and I don’t believe you have any notion how good it is. . . . The only page that I can’t enter into at all is p. 83. I can’t conceive not being afraid, as a child, of those unseen presences. I should have behaved like little Jane Eyre in the Red Room when she dried her tears for fear a ghostly voice should awake to comfort her. One would rather be scolded by a mortal than comforted by a ghost.

Lewis is referring to a passage in which a specific location in her childhood home presumably granted the author immunity from fears: “Stories of ghosts and witches so delightful in cheerful company returned to trouble her when alone in the dark. It was impossible ever to feel fear in the drawing-room—there could surely never be a room more conducive to peace of mind.”

Two months later, Lewis again wrote Sandeman, perhaps to address her disappointment at receiving his comment about ghosts.

You were perfectly right to put in the bit about the friendly ghosts. I think the absence of fear is, as far as it goes, probable evidence that the experience was not merely imaginary. Everyone fears lest he should meet a ghost, but there seems to be some ground for supposing that those who really meet them are often quite unafraid.

Notice that angels, on the other hand, seem in Scripture to be nearly always terrifying & have to begin by saying “Fear not.”

In Ireland I stayed at a lonely bungalow last summer which the peasants avoided not because a ghost had been seen near it (they didn’t mind ghosts) but because the Good People, the Faerie, frequented that bit of coast. So apparently ghosts are the least alarming kind of spirit.

In a letter to another correspondent, Lewis describes the same stay at the isolated Irish lodging. “I have been really in quiet and almost unearthly spots in my native Ireland. I stayed for a fortnight in a bungalow which none of the peasants will approach at night because the desolate coast on which it stands is haunted by ‘the Good People.’ There is also a ghost but (and this is interesting) they don’t seem to mind him: the faerie are a more serious danger.”

The Anthroposophist Connection

Anthroposophy is a religious philosophy created by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). It is diametrically opposed to Christian revelation, and was the cause of one of C.S. Lewis’ greatest disappointments. Tragically, his dear friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, subscribed to Steiner’s doctrines. C.S. Lewis’ “Great War” with Owen Barfield describes a five year period when the two young scholars argued about the religion. Unfortunately, this was prior to Lewis’ own conversion, so he did not bring a Christian faith to the battle.

Steiner’s religion is complex and confusing. There are, in his view, a plurality of gods. And the god to whom he refers as humanity’s Creator is not the God of Genesis. Steiner argues we have lost sight of the true knowledge or gnosis.

During this [contemporary] era, people no longer see Christ as the being who came down from the stars, because they do not understand the stars themselves as an expression of the spirit as it weaves in the cosmos. For humanity today, there is no God or Christ in the cosmos. (The Three Eras of Human Religious Education)

Naturally, since Barfield was such a good friend of Lewis, there is much that is commendable in him . . . despite his esoteric beliefs. Lewis, after all, entrusted Barfield to be the executor of his estate. Despite their differing theologies, Lewis wrote nakedly about his deep sorrow in the wake of the death of their fellow Inkling, Charles Williams.  

My dear Barfield Thanks for writing. It has been a very odd experience. This, the first really severe loss I have suffered, has (a) Given corroboration to my belief in immortality such as I never dreamed of. It is almost tangible now. (b) Swept away all my old feelings of mere horror and disgust at funerals, coffins, graves etc.

If need had been I think I could have handled that corpse with hardly any unpleasant sensations. (c) Greatly reduced my feeling about ghosts. I think (but who knows?) that I should be, tho afraid, more pleased than afraid, if his turned up. In fact, all very curious. Great pain but no mere depression.

In this letter C.S. Lewis is speaking wistfully about the ghost of a friend. He is well aware of the fact that—despite the British fascination with spiritualism—that is not how the afterlife works. Those who die “in Christ” join him in Paradise, just as he promised the believing thief who perished beside him.

Ghosts do not wander around the earth. Those are different types of spirits, to be discussed another day. By contrast here are some Steinerian thoughts on the subject.

When human beings cling too strongly to earthly things it may be difficult for them to find their bearings in the sphere of the Moon Beings [which] may cause human beings who have to pass after death into the Moon sphere—the soul-world—but are unable to understand the Moon Beings, to be trapped . . . and they can actually be seen . . . wandering about as ghosts, as spectral shades. (Steiner, Karmic Relationships)

The accumulation in the etheric body caused through these [wicked] experiences of the soul . . . brings about detachments from the beings working in the spiritual worlds and these likewise are now to be found in our environment—they are the “specters” or “ghosts.” (Steiner, Nature Spirits)

Ghosts, as they are generally called, are spirits which have acquired a sensory-physical character (or have become tangible) through the human organisation, whereas impulses, instincts, desires and passions are modern spectres pointing towards the future, spectres which have not yet been raised to spirituality. (The Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West)

But enough of quotations that foster more confusion than understanding. Let’s look at a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1920. In it Lewis describes a visit with Leo Kingsley Baker (1898-1986). Like Lewis, Baker was a young veteran of the First World War. Both served in France, Lewis in the trenches and Baker as a pilot in the RAF. Baker also happened to be an Anthroposophist, and it was in fact Baker who introduced C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield.

I was in [Leo] Baker’s rooms with [Rodney] Pasley last night: Pasley departed early and the conversation between us two fell on shadowy subjects–ghosts and spirits and Gods. You may or may not disbelieve what followed.

Baker began to tell me about himself: how he had seen things ever since he was a child, and had played about with hypnotism and automatic writing: how he had finally given it all up, till now “things” were coming back of their own accord. “At one time” he said “I was afraid to look round the room for fear of what I might see.”

He also stated confidently that anyone could compel a ghost to appear, that there were definite ways of doing it: though of course the thing you “fished up” might not be what you wanted—indeed quite the contrary.

The greater part of his views I will reserve for our next meeting: what I wanted to tell you was the effect on me. I got, as it were, dazed and drunk in all he said: then I noticed his eyes: presently I could hardly see anything else: and everything he said was real—incredibly real.

When I came away, I moved my eyes off his, with a jerk, so to speak, and suddenly found that I had a splitting headache and was tired and nervous and pulled to pieces. I fancy I was a bit hypnotised. At any rate I had such a fit of superstitious terror as I have never known since childhood and have consequently conceived, for the present, a violent distaste for mysteries and all that kind of business. Perhaps he is a bit mad.

It comes as little surprise that an encounter such as this would leave one with a serious headache. Likewise, further consideration of these arcane matters here at Mere Inkling would likely promote similar cranial vexation. Suffice it to say, as we close, that we who trust in Christ need not fear any spirit or demon we might encounter, because “greater is he who is in [us] than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.