C.S. Lewis & Nuns

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.

Generalizations (& Those Who Criticize Them)

“That’s the worst of girls,” said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. “They never can carry a map in their heads.”

“That’s because our heads have something inside them,” said Lucy. (C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian).

It seems that if an author wishes to alienate vast swaths of readers today, they need do no more than “generalize.” Thus, C.S. Lewis has received unjust criticism due to some passages such as this.

To make a judgment such as Edmund’s leaves unmentioned the implied fact that there are, indeed, many useful things that are manifestly present in the heads of girls. But this example of difficulty in reading maps refers to a common perception . . . and if you’ve never heard it voiced before you read it here, you have led a shockingly sheltered life.

No one believes that there are no women capable of defeating even well-trained men in rigorous navigational competitions. Likewise, I have no doubt there are many gifted female cartographers. But please reseal the tar barrel and restuff the pillows; Lewis’ use of this dialog is not intended to be offensive!

I long for the days when a reader gave the writer the proverbial “benefit of the doubt.” A time when our assumption was that they meant something other than the meaning which offended us . . . or, at least, that they intended no malice.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in most of the United States, such days of literary curtesy are long behind us. Today we often read things with an eye to finding the “problem” (ignorance, prejudice, or political viewpoint foreign to our own).

My wife and I attempted to raise our children with critical minds. (Critical in the best sense of the word.) We taught them that there are absolute truths. We informed them that, while people are entitled to hold to all sorts of notions and beliefs, that fact does not make the contending concepts “true.”

At the same time, we did our best to teach our children to respect others. To recognize that all human beings are created in the image of God. To understand that not even the basest man or woman is beyond redemption and restoration.

One practical element of this education in basic virtues took the shape of an adage we taught our kids. I’m sure others have advised this throughout history, and that many have voiced it far more eloquently, but we simply said: Judge everyone and everything by their best cases, rather than their worst.

In practice, this would mean that when a teenager compliments his dad on his wisdom, the dad does not immediately assume his prodigy is attempting to manipulate him. Now, further conversation and “investigation” may certainly prove that manipulation is indeed the goal, but it should not be the very first suspicion of the father.

As a pastor, one of your greatest challenges (and joys) comes in the pulpit. One major difficulty is discussing some extremely complex subjects in a relatively brief period of time. Pastors sometimes lapse into a sort of theological shorthand—which can be confusing or troubling to those unfamiliar with the underlying presuppositions. Taken out of context, individual statements may sound strange, or even heterodox.

I have always encouraged the members of my congregations and (especially) visitors to specifically ask me about what was meant by any statement or phrase that left them uneasy. It is no exaggeration to say that 98% of the time, that has cleared the air in and of itself, as I’ve had an opportunity to elaborate and clarify. (Of course, the other 2% of the occasions constitute a second pastoral “joy.”)

It saddens me when I hear people berate C.S. Lewis for a handful of passages that critics deem to be misogynistic or racist. They fail to extend toward him the goodwill he strove to offer to others. Most of these very few passages can simply be explained by the age in which he lived. It is disingenuous to judge by today’s standards someone who died a half century ago.

Like Lewis’ peers (and, in fact, all human beings), on occasion Lewis himself generalized. Let those who have never done the same cast the first stone. I confess that I’m guilty of it. In fact, returning to the quotation with which we began, I could most definitely echo Edmund’s words in reference to my wife. Ironically, they would be utterly inaccurate in reference to my daughter. For many years she was my “official navigator” as our family often drove across country (relying upon those seven foot by seven foot paper maps that are nearly impossible to refold.)

So, in my own nuclear family I’m batting .500 in terms of the accuracy of this generalization. The next generation may decide. Four of my six grandchildren are girls, and since the oldest girl just turned five, it’s about time to set them out in the woods with a map and a compass to see how they do!