Archives For Letters

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Few authors are so gifted that even in their casual, never-intended-to-be-published moments they continuously offer brilliant insights into life.

Of course, here at Mere Inkling we know that C.S. Lewis is one of those few.

I decided to attempt an experiment with this post. It’s motivated by the fact that I’m spending the week watching over three of my grandkids (the youngest of whom is two, and wailing right now . . . be back in a moment. That’s resolved for now, although he wants his sisters to play UNO now, according to his shifting infantile rules.)

For my experiment, I am selecting random pages in Lewis’ three volumes of correspondence. The letters were not written for publication, but I hypothesize that each page will contain some insight or wisdom that merits deeper reflection. I won’t provide the discussion here, I’ll simply select a quotation I believe meets the requirement. (Pagination is from my Kindle copies, so it may be off a bit from the print edition.)

Volume I Page 111

In 1915, Lewis describes to his father a veteran who has recuperated quickly and is in very good spirits. This foreshadows Lewis’ own wounds he will receive in the same military theater.

That Gerald Smythe of whom I told you, who lost an arm in the war, was staying with us last week. He is really wonderful: he has only been out of bed about a month and is going back to the front again next week. It does one good to see a person thoroughly cheerful under circumstances like his, and actually eager to be there again. Even in so short a time he has learnt to be quite independant, and can cut his food, light his pipe, and dress–tho’ how a man can tie a tie with one arm, I don’t know.

Page 333

In 1917 he describes to his friend Arthur Greeves the difference between prose and poetry.

You have started the question of prose style in your letter and ask whether it is anything more than the ‘literal meaning of the words’. On the contrary it means less–it means the words themselves. For every thought can be expressed in a number of different ways: and style is the art of expressing a given thought in the most beautiful words and rythms of words. For instance a man might say ‘When the constellations which appear at early morning joined in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction’. Expressing exactly the same thought, the Authorised Version says ‘When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’

Volume II Page 111

In a 1933 letter to Greeves, Lewis shares how he has set his expectations low for the reception of his second literary undertaking, based on his first effort.

I had an extremely kind letter from Reid about the book. I think it is going to be at least as big a failure as Dymer, and am consequently trying to take to heart all the things I wrote you when you were bowled over by Reid’s decision on your first novel–not entirely without success. How goes the detective story? [Note: the Reid here is Greeve’s friend, the novelist Forrest Reid (1875–1947).]

Page 333

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warnie during the latter’s convalescence, Lewis recalls how relaxing how recuperating under medical care comprised some of his fondest memories related to his military service!

I trust it has proved a time worthy to be added to your rich store of blessed periods in sick rooms, ‘san’s,46 and hospitals-pleasant backwaters whence one drowsily hears the roar of the main stream going past. They are certainly among the nicest recollections I have of school and army. One such I spent at Le Tréport with the now probably abolished complaint of ‘Trench Fever’ very early in 1918;47 of specially blessed memory since it was there I first began to conceive that beer was not an utterly unpleasant drink. As my experiments were being made with bottled Bass, it is a little odd that such a result was reached. I remember too nice solitary walks on the ‘front’ of that empty watering place: which, mixed with recollections of the Olderfleet48 in winter and the not disagreeable feebleness of a convalescent’s first walks, increase the general ‘backwater’ feeling.

Volume III Page 111

In a 1951 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, he relates that only by appreciating things in their proper order (i.e. subordinate to their Creator) can they be truly enjoyed. A keen insight into the nature of idolatry.

it seems to me, the subordination of Nature is demanded if only in the interests of Nature herself. All the beauty of nature withers when we try to make it absolute. Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.

Page 333

In a 1953 letter to a young girl who had sent him drawings of some of Narnia’s characters, Lewis’ extends his appreciation and relates a quaint personal peculiarity.

Reepicheep in your coloured picture has just the right perky, cheeky expression. I love real mice. There are lots in my rooms in College but I have never set a trap. When I sit up late working they poke their heads out from behind the curtains just as if they were saying, ‘Hi! Time for you to go to bed. We want to come out and play.’

That review of letters was fun, and hopefully you enjoyed portions of it as well. It was certainly a good choice for me with no fewer than eight or nine interruptions during its course. Well, the dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets are about ready to come out of the oven, so it’s time to conclude.

Priceless Letters

May 26, 2015 — 22 Comments

letterHow precious is a single letter?

If it is eagerly anticipated correspondence from a close friend or loved one, it may be invaluable.

Telephones and email have diminished the impact offered by the contents of an individual message, yet even now we value the touch of the written word shared by our soul mates across the miles.

Prior to the invention of the internet, and before the cost of international calls grew reasonable, I spent a year in the Republic of Korea, far from my wife and three young children. Naturally, like all military members serving far from home—even during times of peace—I missed them terribly.

While many wonderful things happened during the course of that year, and lifelong friendships were born, the highlight of each day was a visit to the installation post office. And, due to the faithfulness of my mother, sister and wife, I was greeted nearly every day by one or more handwritten messages of love and encouragement.

So important were these bonds that, prior to my departure, Delores and I covenanted to write one another every single day. A promise we both kept. In addition, I promised to write each of my three children their own letter each week. One evidence of the impact of those letters was the seamless reunion our family experienced when I returned after a year away.

In the even more distant past, this means of communication was even more vital. As little as a century ago, when individuals and families emigrated from their homelands they recognized the sad truth that they would probably never see their loved ones again.

Think about that for a moment. Saying “goodbye” usually meant “I will never see you again in this life.” How precious those missives must have been when they found their way between intimate companions!

Eighty-five years ago, C.S. Lewis was carrying on an active correspondence with the dearest friend from his youth, Arthur Greeves.

In the 1930s, the two men were corresponding on a weekly basis. Lewis opened one of his letters with the following paragraph to gently reprimand Greeves for allowing other responsibilities to delay his writing.

July 8th 1930

My dear Arthur,

Your letters get later and later every week. If you write on Monday the first week, on Tuesday the second week, and so on, then in seven weeks you will be writing on Monday again: but you will have written one letter less than you should.

In a year you will have written eight letters less, that is thirty six pages. Assuming that we both live thirty years more you will in that time have cheated me out of one thousand and eighty pages. Why, oh why, do you do these things?

As I said, the “reprimand” is gentle, even humorous, but it is sincere. It reveals just how meaningful each piece of his friend’s correspondence was to Lewis.

Many of us can relate to Lewis’ experience. We know firsthand how a smile comes to our lips and our pulse quickens when we find a message from a close companion.

I wanted to share this thought with each of you today for two reasons. First, I thought it might remind you of those whose words have encouraged and supported you in the past.

My second motivation is more important. I would like to suggest that you pause to consider just how important your letters are to others.

There are thousands of reasons for not scheduling (and guarding) time to write letters. Life is busy. The distractions vying for our attention are certainly more numerous, and loud, than they were in decades past.

Still, reminded of the value of the gift we offer when we write, perhaps it is time to shuffle our priorities.

Plagiarizing Screwtape

October 28, 2014 — 21 Comments

breigHow many letters have you read that were penned in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ groundbreaking Screwtape Letters?

If you’re a fan of the collection, you’ve probably read similar correspondence that owed its very existence to Lewis’ work.

Now a more sensitive question—have you ever written anything similar to The Screwtape Letters? I must confess that I have. In fact, I’m currently working on a similar collection I hope to finish during the coming year.

Many writers have tried their hand at writing angelic letters, with varying degrees of skill and success. After you finish this column, you might want to check out two examples right here at Mere Inkling: Screwtape Letters Anniversary and Screwtape Goes to War.

Some letters have been composed from the perspective of a heavenly angel (often perceived of as a “guardian” angel). Others have been, like Lewis’ innovative example, written from a diabolical angle. Demons, we recognize, have been cast out of the heavens for which they were created, but they still remain angels, albeit fallen angels.

One of the lures that motivates those who emulate the Screwtape Letters is found in C.S. Lewis’ statement that they were rather easy to compose, once he had undergone the uncomfortable process of placing himself in the mind of an enemy of God.

It is disorienting, to reverse reality. For example, to hate what God loves (i.e. his creation, and especially humanity). And it is this discomfort that Lewis alludes to in describing his reluctance to pursue the genre any further than he did.

Considering Copyrights

For writers, copyrights are precious. It is good news, unknown to many, that current law (at least in the United States) protects everything we write. As soon as it is created (the words are arranged in their unique order), our work is protected by copyright whether or not we use the © symbol.

I say this because the arrangement of words can be protected by law, but “ideas” cannot. (I’m not talking about patents here, but literary ideas or techniques.)

Thus, it’s possible to freely follow Lewis’ example. However, quotations should only be used with permission. (There are, of course, “fair use laws” that describe the acceptable use of quotations in various contexts.)

There was a bit of a scandal a few years after Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Well, “scandal” is too serious a word. More like an awkward and uncertain moment, when an American journalist wrote a book that was clearly inspired by Lewis.

I’ve only recently received my copy of The Devil You Say by Joseph A. Breig. It was published in 1952, and the introduction echoes Lewis’ own. While the letters themselves appear to be independent of Lewis, I suspect the following parallel from the two prefaces shocked Lewis when he saw it.

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. (Lewis)

I have not the remotest intention of disclosing to anyone—not even my confessor—how these choice tidbits of demonology fell into my hands. (Breig)

Following its publication, one of Lewis’ correspondents, Idrisyn Oliver Evans, sent him a copy. Lewis’ response follows.

Magdalen College Oxford

27/ 4/ 53

Dear Evans I am really very sorry. The Devil you Say got put on a pile of ‘books received’– most of them (I don’t include yours) a major plague of my life–and I forgot all about it. I have now read a few pages: there was nothing to tempt one to go on. It certainly seems to be a gross plagiarism: I am writing to New York Macmillan to draw their attention to it. Thanks very much for sending it. With all good wishes, and thanks also to your American friend. Yours C.S. Lewis

I cannot find any record of whether or not Macmillan challenged the publication of the new volume.

Lewis had no objection to another writer developing his idea about devilish correspondence in their own creative direction. He simply desired to ensure his own work was not usurped.

Before ending, I would not want to leave a negative impression about Mr. Breig. In looking further into the work, one sees just how little resemblance it bears to The Screwtape Letters. It clearly is not plagiaristic. In fact, it’s quite possible that the line cited above was actually intended to be an homage to Lewis.

It turns out that Joseph Anthony Breig (1905-1982) was an accomplished and well respected Roman Catholic journalist.

Breig stayed at the Universe Bulletin until his retirement in March 1975. He continued to write his columns after 1975. They appeared not only in the Universe Bulletin but also in several other Catholic newspapers in the USA. Besides being a newspaper writer, Breig also wrote for many magazines (Ave Maria, Our Lady’s Digest, The Family Digest, Crozier, and others) and published eight books and several short stories and plays.

In honor of his work he received two honorary doctorates (St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1954, and Carroll College, Helena, Montana, 1967). He also won several awards, one of which was the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association in 1966. (The Book of Catholic Authors).

I’ll close with a final quotation from the same biographical source. When writers gaze at a blank sheet of paper they see many things. Some see it as naked canvas, and others as a challenge. I enjoyed the compliment offered by one of Breig’s editors, who praised his prolific literary production.

“Douglas Roche of Sign magazine . . . holds that Breig cannot endure the sight of a sheet of paper not covered with words.”

I edit a free online journal for military chaplains. Articles have been contributed by clergy from most of the world’s continents, sharing their experiences and opinions. Much of the material will be of interest to anyone interested in the nature of ministry within the armed forces.

The current issue was “published” at the end of June, and includes one article that may be of particular interest to the readers of Mere Inkling.

On page fifty-seven you’ll find the preface to a series of six letters. They are collected under the same title as this post, “Screwtape Goes to War.” It is available via this link: Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece of diabolical correspondence will require no introduction. Here’s an excerpt from one of the six epistles gathered in this modest collection. Remember, it is from the pen of a senior demon advising a junior Tempter on how to corrupt his “patient” (in this case a chaplain).

While preaching can in theory be used by the Enemy to draw his servants closer to himself, it’s equally possible to use the pulpit to drive a wedge between the Enemy and those ordained to serve him. In fact, there is something uniquely satisfying about using a chaplain’s own preaching to immunize him to the disgusting message of hope and forgiveness.

There are so many tactics to undermining the effectiveness of your chaplain’s sermons . . . where to begin? I have found the following methods to be most useful.

1. Encourage him to subscribe to all sorts of periodicals and keep him as far away from the Enemy’s book as possible. Tell him that by this means he “will remain in touch with the culture” to which he is preaching. We do not want him opening the Scriptures. It’s not too challenging persuading many clergy today that they’ll bore and alienate their audience by citing passages from that archaic text. Let him explore all sorts of publications so he discovers ones he honestly enjoys. That will make the choice easier when he looks on his desk at a tempting contemporary publication lying next to that black book.

Not all journals are created equal, of course. Some actually contribute to the knowledge and comprehension of the Enemy’s book. Avoid these. Secular publications are usually safe, the more so when they celebrate selfishness, man’s favorite religion. The most precious, however, are those published by “religious” presses. You know those to which I refer. The ones penned by our allies who where wear the garb of the Enemy but live with either themselves or some other idol on the throne of their souls. Those who may praise him with their lips but deny him access to their hearts. Mind you, these documents need to be chosen with great care. But if you can find some which appeal to him, it will aid you immeasurably in bringing about his demise. . . .

Curtana discusses both historical matters and contemporary issues. It is interfaith and international in scope. The website includes a “subscription” form for those who wish to be notified whenever a new issue of the journal is published.

Don’t be confused when you see the date on the current issue. Like many minimally-staffed, free publications, we’ve fallen slightly “behind schedule.” Thus, the current issue is dated Fall & Winter 2011. (I promise this is due not merely to procrastination, but also to the editor’s chronic propensity for terribly over-extending himself.) At any rate, Curtana 3.1 is indeed the issue which includes the afore-described article.

C.S. Lewis the Poet

June 27, 2012 — 19 Comments

Many of us desire to write. And yet, we often consider ourselves “failed” writers because the novel buried within us is never published. Print on Demand technology has addressed this to a degree . . . but the fact remains that few of us are destined to receive accolades for our work.

And that, simply, is life. We cannot all be “successful,” especially as the world defines the concept.

It is good to have family and friends who remind us of what does truly make us precious, especially if we are enslaved by our passion to write, and discouraged by the meager fruits of our efforts.

In the writers group in which I participate, we enjoy that sort of supportive “family.” While we encourage everyone to refine their skills, expand their horizons and pursue their dreams . . . we are also realistic in our expectations. One of the most important things we can do for novice writers, in my humble opinion, is to help them discover the particular fields in which their literary labors will be most effective.

For example, many writers compose memoirs that prove invaluable to family members. When these stories capture the flavor of a bypast locale, their value extends to others who are interested in that beloved community. Likewise, I’ve known people whose gift for writing was most radiant in terms of letters. Their personal correspondence was glorious. Like radiant gems carved to perfection for each of the individual persons to whom they were addressed. In past eras, such correspondence was highly esteemed. Gifted writers such as these owe no apology for not writing best-selling fiction.

Still, we often judge ourselves by our failures, rather than our successes.

C.S. Lewis was no different. He was quite successful as a writer, and was certainly in high demand as a professor and adviser at Oxford and Cambridge. He received international praise for his work, and yet he was despondent about at least one aspect of his writing.

Lewis had longed from his adolescence to become a respected poet. This was partly due to the age in which he was reared. Poetry was viewed as the most cultured and elegant form of writing. Much more so than is true today. (Although I assume today’s poets still regard Euterpe, pictured above, as the most wondrous of Greece’s Muses. Her domain was Music and Poetry.)

Lewis’ poetry did not receive much critical praise. We’ll consider the subject more in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this fact caused him much grief. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary writes in his C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide: “The most noticeable effect of Lewis’ conversion [to Christianity] was the death of his old ambition as a poet and the emergence of a man never thereafter at a loss for the right words.”

Lewis still wrote poetry, of course, but he no longer sought his identity in it. The following love poem, inspired by his deep affection for his wife Joy, is quite powerful. As they faced her illnesses and death, I believe his words reach heights rarely attained by many a poet laureate.

As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

If you find this poem moving, it is well worth taking a moment to listen to Phil Keaggy’s musical treatment of Lewis’ lyrics.