Archives For Women

C.S. Lewis & Nuns

January 30, 2020 — 12 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 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.

Those Lazy Males

October 12, 2016 — 4 Comments

squirrelIn some places a debate rages over the question of who works the hardest, men or women. In our family, there is no such disagreement. We all recognize that the typical woman works far more than her male counterpart.

Take my case. I’m a Type A workaholic who lost (unused) leave every year of my military career. I still keep extremely busy, but when it comes to work ethic and effort, I don’t even pretend to hold a candle to my wife.

Now another example from the animal kingdom has confirmed what most people have suspected—females do far more than their share of the work.

Men have been embarrassed for generations by the example of lazy lions who rely on the lionesses to do nearly all of the hunting. Not to mention taking care of the family’s domestic responsibilities.

And now men have been betrayed by a more modest mammal—the squirrel.

I happen to like squirrels. I always have, even when they try to hijack the birdseed we always have available at our home. I hate hearing people refer to them as “tree rats,” and considered it good fortune that the street where we built our home is named “Squirrel Place.”

C.S. Lewis loved small animals. Reepicheep, a mouse, is one of the great heroes of Narnia. But it was a squirrel who played a role in one of his earliest “mystical” experiences. Fittingly, it also relates to Autumn, the season those of us in the Northern Hemisphere currently enjoy.

The following passage comes from Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. It describes the impression left on him after reading one of Beatrix Potter’s children’s books.

It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . .

But imagination is a vague word and I must make some distinctions. It may mean the world of reverie, daydream, wish-fulfilling fantasy. . . .

The . . . glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.

It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible— how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it.

And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

Squirrely Dads

Returning to the recent research that proved beyond any shadow of doubt that even among industrious, nut-gathering rodents, the males cop out. Don’t be put off by the study’s title—“The secret life of ground squirrels: accelerometry reveals sex-dependent plasticity in above-ground activity”—this is serious.

Apparently, while mom is down in a dark burrow nursing the kids, dad’s out lounging in the sunshine. It’s inexcusable.

And don’t try to use some lame excuse or misogynist argument that these findings are only true for Urocitellus parryii, semi-fossorial arctic ground squirrels, but they’re only fooling themselves. We all know that women work harder than men, especially when it comes to raising kids.

The female squirrels are literally so drained by the demands put upon them that they have to begin their hibernations before the males and end them after the males emerge from their hibernacula!

Following the termination of heterothermy in spring, male arctic ground squirrels remain below ground for a three to five week interval during which they consume a food cache to regain body mass lost during hibernation . . . Males intercept and mate-guard newly emergent females that become pregnant within a few days of emergence; gestation lasts for approximately 25 days, and lactation is another approximately 28–35 days.

Unlike males, females do not cache food and, with the exception of early gestation when they continue to lose body fat, they appear to fuel their reproduction using energy gained concurrently through foraging. [Note: it doesn’t appear the males share. Another strike against them.]

In addition, females are delivering energy to pups as milk during lactation . . . Once their young have been weaned, females undergo a moult and fatten; autumn immergence occurs in August [while] males that fatten and cache food later in the autumn immerge in early- to mid-October.

And there is no doubt that the people who conducted this research are right, after all, they used “collar-mounted light loggers and triaxial accelerometers!”

 

C.S. Lewis & Women

January 11, 2016 — 21 Comments

hermeneuticDid C.S. Lewis disrespect women? Some of his detractors make that argument, but two new books reveal just how weak the notion is.

There is a great book review in the herŸ.menenutics column of the current issue of Christianity Today. You can read it here, but please finish reading this post before checking it out.

Readers of Mere Inkling who are only familiar with Lewis through the Chronicles of Narnia or his classic Mere Christianity, may be surprised to learn that there are some who claim he was a misogynist. While they pull decontextualized examples from his works, the essence of their arguments seem to arise from an animosity to Lewis’ Christian worldview.

Even if you do not go on to read either of the books discussed, taking a moment to read the review itself will be worthwhile. For example, they cite one of Lewis’ longtime friendships.

Lewis’s good friend the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked that when it came to women as a whole, “he had a complete blank in his mind.” But this didn’t keep her from liking and corresponding with him, often in the form of cheerful and vigorous argument . . .it was friendships like hers that “blew away Lewis’ assumptions about women,” helping his ideas to change and develop over time.

The first text discussed in the review is Women and C.S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today’s Culture, edited by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key. The volume has a diverse collection of contributors and portrays the writer honestly. Many of the chapters are written by well respected authors who have written their own works on Lewis.

The book offers no foolish attempt to make a feminist of Lewis. The contributions are thoughtful and nuanced. Lewis’ views were a product of his era and upbringing. Yet, to that stodgy context, he added a Christian appreciation for the all of humanity, male and female, created in the image of God.

The second volume examines the life of the woman who played the most significant role in C.S. Lewis’ life. This is a true biography of Joy Davidman, not restricted to the years she spent with Lewis, who was her second husband. It is no hagiography of this convert from atheism to Christianity. Precisely because of that, it promises to provide valuable insights into the woman, Lewis, and Lewis’ attitudes towards women.

And, great news for those interested in this subject. The Kindle version of Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis is currently on sale for only $2.99, a price any student of the Oxford Inkling can scarcely ignore.

If you don’t recall my post several months ago about Lewis and “dating,” you may find it interesting.

I will close now with a quotation from a letter Lewis wrote to a Benedictine monk in 1952. I chose it because it juxtaposes two aspects of his experience with women. The first is based on his daily experience with the discipline of carrying on an excessive correspondence with readers. The second was a remark in passing about Jane Austen which compliments her for both her substance and her strength.

It isn’t chiefly men I am kept in touch with by my huge mail: it is women. The female, happy or unhappy, agreeing or disagreeing, is by nature a much more epistolary animal than the male. . . . I am glad you think J. Austen a sound moralist. I agree. And not platitudinous, but subtle as well as firm.

Just one small example of what the linked book review praises as “his ability to see and appreciate a woman as a whole, multifaceted person.”

2019 Addendum: Last year a new, well-reviewed book was published on this subject: Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis by Patti Callahan.