Archives For Monasticism

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.

When the Angel is a Demon

October 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

devil tatoo

Not every supernatural being claiming to be an angel really is.

C.S. Lewis’ most familiar discussion of fallen angels (also refered to as demons) appears in The Screwtape Letters. In the preface, he describes the equally disastrous errors people can fall into when pondering the occult.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

In a separate discussion, Lewis acknowledges the different opinions Christians can have on the subject, and he notes that it is not a salvific concern.

No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such beings exist, but that is my own affair. Supposing there to be such beings, the degree to which humans were conscious of their presence would presumably vary very much.

I mean, the more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it, on the principle that a man is still fairly sober as long as he knows he’s drunk. It is the people who are fully awake and trying hard to be good who would be most aware of the Devil . . .

Of course, they don’t want you to believe in the Devil. If devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anaesthetic—to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them. (“Answers to Questions on Christianity”)

I have mentioned in the past one of my seminary professors who served in Madagascar as a medical missionary. He had since become a successful psychiatrist. When he left for Africa, he did not believe in the existence of demons.

A final observation about demons, or devils as he typically refers to them: they act in a manner opposite to God. In That Hideous Strength, he includes the observation that, “In fighting those who serve devils one always has this on one’s side; their Masters hate them as much as they hate us.”

This echoes a truthful dialectic.

God loves everyone, even those who hate him. While Lucifer hates everyone, even those who love him.

An Ancient Illustration

I’ve been reading recently wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They left ancient Roman cities to pursue spiritual growth as hermits and monks beginning in the middle of the third century.

The history of Christian monasticism is fascinating. All the way up to our own day, male and female monastics of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions have pursued holiness by this particular path.

A common occurrence for desert monks involved waging spiritual warfare of a more intense nature than most of us ever experience. I particularly enjoyed the following encounter (which reminded me of Martin Luther’s advice about ridiculing Satan and his minions). The following episode comes from an ancient collection of Desert sayings.

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

Good riddance, C.S. Lewis and I would agree.


The image above is of a tattoo whose “wearer” will one day experience great remorse.

presence

Have you read The Practice of the Presence of God? Between the world wars, C.S. Lewis pondered this devotional collection written in the 1600s.

Lewis was rather disappointed during his initial reading, but he apparently grew in his respect for the slim volume. He read it in 1930, the year prior to his becoming a communing member of the local Anglican church. His body rests in its cemetery today.

In a letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes his impression of the work. It is impressive to note how he acknowledges that his own “mood” may have influenced his reception.

In reading I have of course little to record, and never shall have much in term time. I read in two evenings a little book that came from Leeborough called The Practice of the Presence of God which I picked up & put in the study when I was there last because it seemed to me a promising title. It is by a seventeenth century monk.

It is full of truth but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive, or can be, can’t it?

No doubt it depends very largely on one’s mood. I had just finished the fourth Gospel in Greek (as I think you know) before you came, and after that most other things are a come down. Not that I liked that in all respects either.

It’s fascinating that Lewis acknowledges that his reading of the humble kitchen monk and sandal-maker followed in the wake of his reading of The Gospel according to John, in the Greek. This must rank near the top of Lewis’ greatest understatements: “and after that most other things are a come down.” (Who among us would ever desire for even our finest writing to be compared to John’s inspired Gospel?)

Lewis was not dismissive of the seventeenth century work. As late as 1956, the two friends discussed the volume in their correspondence. That year Lewis wrote “Yes, Bro. Lawrence is of course right” in response to an unpreserved observation made by Greeves.

Christianity Today offers a brief account of the Frenchman’s life here. It describes a pivotal point in the life of the man who would become a soldier, and then a monk.

Born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in a small village in Lorraine, France, he had a soul-altering experience at 18. That winter, while looking at a leafless tree, he marveled that its barrenness would soon turn green again, flower, and bear fruit. This insight made him intimately aware of God’s love from then on.

The Soul of C.S. Lewis describes one example of the similarities shared by the Oxford professor and the French monk whose work he described as “full of truth.”

One of Brother Lawrence’s secrets was in realizing what Lewis would one day also discover: that every activity can be either religious or irreligious. The difference is in our minds and hearts.

Obviously, The Practice of the Presence of God is now in the public domain (since its author died in 1691). There is no excuse to ignore this Christian devotional classic which has long been appreciated by many Protestants, as well as Lawrence’s fellow Roman Catholics. You can download it in several formats here or obtain a (currently) free kindle version from Amazon.

Lewis Quotes Brother Lawrence

Although the following excerpt lacks sufficient context to make a great deal of sense, it is worth noting the following from That Hideous Strength, the final volume in Lewis’ space trilogy. It reveals that the wisdom of the uneducated monk remained with Lewis, even as he wrote his own religious treasures.

In the book, Dr. Dimble is a good-willed academic who Lewis uses to interpose some of his personal thoughts.

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne’s dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. “Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?” he thought.

Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. “Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness . . ?” The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. “And thus,” he quoted from Brother Lawrence, “thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.”

This intriguing passage suggests that Brother Lawrence’s thoughts continued to inspire Lewis . . . long after his initial exposure to them. Here the fictional professor nearly succumbs to his self-doubt before he reminds himself that this is a common result of introspection that ignores the love and presence of God.

If you have not yet decided to read, or reread, The Practice of the Presence of God, perhaps one of these excerpts will inspire you to do so.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

“That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.”

“We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

african-steerWho was the mysterious poet whose quiet, brim-shrouded attentiveness to C.S. Lewis in a pub inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to describe the hero Aragon in a similar pose?

Being neither a poet nor a literature major, I’m not ashamed to admit I have been unfamiliar with the interesting story of Roy Campbell. While his friendship with the Inklings of Oxford most intrigues me, his life itself is a fascinating story.

A South African who offered his deepest emotional devotion to Spain, his early years were influenced by the license of London’s bohemian underworld. He did, however, end up criticizing the excesses of the Bloomsbury Group.

Later, he and his wife would convert to Roman Catholicism, and even risk their lives to protect the letters of Saint John of the Cross from murderous Spanish revolutionaries who sought to burn them. They accepted responsibility for the documents shortly before the seventeen monks at the monastery were rounded up and shot in the street while their library burned.

Several days later the Campbells were visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of St John of the Cross, would be discovered.

The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it. (Joseph Pearce, “The poet who saved a saint’s priceless letters”)

C.S. Lewis & Roy Campbell

C.S. Lewis considered Campbell’s championing of the Spanish fascists (who protected the Roman Catholic Church from the Leftist rebels) to be naïve. He even wrote a poem in direct response to Campbell’s lengthy “Flowering Rifle,” which is included in issue 4.2 of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

I happen to edit the military chaplaincy journal Curtana, which is currently on hiatus. In the same issue I included another Campbell poem, “Christ in Uniform” (see pages 78-79).

In a second article, Joseph Pearce who was quoted above provides a lengthy exploration of the relationship between the two men. Its subtitle, “The Best of Friends and Enemies” reveals its theme. While Lewis remained critical of his acceptance of fascists, the two eventually became friends.

In spite of such an unpromising encounter, Lewis warmed to Campbell and invited him to meetings of the Inklings. He even offered to put Campbell up when he was in Oxford, offering him “dinner, bed and breakfast” at his home. They would exchange correspondence about the poetry of Milton, which both men admired, and settled into an altogether affable relationship.

Another peculiar thing about their friendship is how Lewis based a satirical character on Campbell in The Pilgrim’s Regress. When a song is requested, it is a one of the most savage of the men who first takes the stage.

“I will,” cried thirty voices all together: but one cried much louder than the others and its owner had stepped into the middle of the room before anyone could do anything about it.

He was one of the bearded men and wore nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles: and suddenly he began to beat on an African tom-tom and to croon with his voice, swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro and staring at them all, out of eyes which were like burning coals.

This time John saw no picture of an Island at all. He seemed to be in a dark green place full of tangled roots and hairy vegetable tubes: and all at once he saw in it shapes moving and writhing that were not vegetable but human.

The passage continues, but it’s best read in context. Especially since it precedes an accusation that John, the pilgrim in the tale, is so unsophisticated as to be unable to distinguish between art and pornography.

The Making of a Poet

Lewis and Campbell were both poets. Campbell was successful in this pursuit, and admired by many. Lewis . . . much less so. But it was my recent reading of one of Campbell’s poems on the subject of poetry that set me to researching for this column. So it’s only fitting that I close now with his poem entitled, “The Making of a Poet.”

It’s quite visceral, evoking the savage imagery of his native Africa, and hints at what inspired Lewis to caricature him in the way we read a moment ago.

In every herd there is some restive steer
Who leaps the cows and heads each hot stampede,
Till the old bulls unite in jealous fear
To hunt him from the pastures where they feed.

Lost in the night he hears the jungles crash
And desperately, lest his courage fail,
Across his hollow flanks with sounding lash
Scourges the heavy whipcord of his tail.

Far from the phalanxes of horns that ward
The sleeping herds he keeps the wolf at bay,
At nightfall by the slinking leopard spoored,
And goaded by the fly-swarm through the day.

You can read more of Campbell’s poetry here.