Till We Have Facesby C.S. Lewis Originally published in 1956; available at Amazon.com in the 1980 Harvest Books edition for $10.78. C.S. Lewis seems to be every Catholic’s favorite Protestant. At times, he sounds so Catholic that it is hard to remember that he is a Protestant at all. Why so? For American Catholics, perhaps it is because Lewis exemplifies the personal moral consensus largely shared by Catholics and mainline Protestants until the 1930s. But that consensus was starting to unravel even as Lewis reached the peak of his popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. It is barely a memory today. Nostalgia for a more comfortable era when Catholic moral norms approximated general standards of behavior is not sufficient to explain Lewis’ continued popularity among Catholics.Perhaps it is because, in our Christ-starved, post-Christian society, we are willing to clutch to our bosom anyone who sounds vaguely Christian. We are willing to make common cause with Buddhists, Taoists, Animists or even Muslims, with anyone who expresses the least doubt about the despondent triumph of secular materialism. Whether such indiscriminate alliances are well or ill-considered, I leave for another day. But, surely, if we can stretch ecumenism to include these characters, Lewis really looks likes one of us. Such an attitude is not fair to Lewis. It is a symptom of desperation and desperation simply does not explain our attraction to him.Neither does his Chronicles of Narnia or even its recent film version, as pretty a plaything as it is. Lewis intended the Narnia stories as an evangelical project in disguise. He intentionally and obviously wrote them as Christian allegories. Once you catch on to their “code” (a word I use guardedly), you can see all the analogs fairly clearly. But, if you can see all the Christian analogs, you are not among the audience Lewis intended Narnia to reach. Lewis wrote these tales for the unchurched, whether the unbaptised or the baptised and uncatechised. By recasting the Gospel in the guise of a children’s story, he hoped to reached the unformed souls of children and those of the neglectful parents who had failed to form them. For this audience, composed of those who have not yet heard and those who have not yet paid attention to the Gospel, the Narnia tales serve as a sort of subtle protoevangelion, a quiet primer of Christian vocabulary and concepts. Lewis hoped that these people would not find the Gospel strange or absurd when they finally encountered it. He hoped they would find it familiar because it would resonate with the patterns surreptitiously traced in their hearts by the tales of Narnia. This is an extremely ambitious evangelical project. Lewis was trying to do for modern, materialist man in seven short children’s stories what God did for the Hebrews in the Old Testament. But his effort demands our respect. He was an extremely persuasive Christian evangelist, one who honed his preaching skills by speaking to live audiences of British servicemen and women during World War II. In the crucible of wartime fears and stress, Lewis learned which arguments went to the hearts of these common people and which made very little impression at all. He made use of these lessons in such enduring works as The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. But not even his skill as a Christian evangelist explains what makes Lewis attractive to Catholics. There are any number of skilled Protestant evangelists who leave Catholics cold. I believe what distinguishes C.S. Lewis for Catholics is not that he could write works like those mentioned above, but that he could write a novel like Till We Have Faces.In Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ reworks the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. In the original, Psyche, a surpassingly beautiful princess, arouses the jealously of the goddess Aphrodite. To appease the goddess, Psyche is chained to a stake and abandoned in the wilderness. Aphrodite sends Cupid to punish her, but instead he falls in love with the girl, makes her his wife, and takes her to his palace. There, Psyche lives attended by invisible servants, never seeing her husband, who comes to her only in the dark of night and who has warned her never to attempt to see him. Psyche lives happily for some time, but finally grows tired of her lonely days. She asks Cupid to allow her sisters to visit her. Reluctantly, he sends the winds to fetch them. As soon as they see her palace, Psyche’s sisters are consumed with jealously. They convince her that her unseen husband must be a monster to remain hidden in the dark. Taking their advice, Psyche lights a candle that night while Cupid sleeps and sees, not a monster in her bed, but a god. While she admires him, hot candle wax falls on Cupid. He wakes, curses her, and flies away. Psyche is condemned to wander through the world, suffering through many adventures, until she is at last re-united with Cupid and becomes a goddess herself. In Lewis’ version, the tale is told by Psyche’s eldest sister, Urual, the princess of Glome, as glum a kingdom as ever was. Through Urual’s eyes, what was originally a pagan mystery play becomes the story of the progress of a soul, Urual’s soul, told with an intensity of introspection rivaling that of St. Augustine in his Confessions. Urual believes she is telling the story of her love for Psyche, but what becomes evident in the telling is Urual’s self-absorbed obsession with Psyche. In her accounts of her panicked interview with Psyche after the girl is condemned to be sacrificed, of her despairing search for Psyche’s mortal remains, and of her strange reunions with Psyche at Cupid’s palace, Urual’s words always focus on her own emotions - her grief, her anger, her confusion and her growing rage at Psyche for not being as entirely consumed with Urual as Urual is with her. Her loss of Psyche leads Urual to abandon herself as a human person, to hide behind a mask, to lose the ability to see the truth about the people around her. Almost to the end, her only passion is to complain against the unjust gods. But in the very act of writing down her story, of making her complaint against the gods, her memory brings up small incidents which expose the chinks in the wall she has built around herself. The incredible reversal of Urual’s understanding of herself and others which occurs in the second section of the novel is a true conversion triggered by self-examination. In the course of this examination of her own conscience, Urual perceives a sacramental significance underlying the gods’ rites. As in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis does not propose Christianity directly in Till We Have Faces. But what he does is lay the groundwork, not for a Christian vocabulary, but for a Christian disposition. If in Narnia he has foreshadowed the externals of the Christian story, in the self-examination and sacramental worldview of Till We Have Faces he has anticipated the shape of a Christian’s interior life. Here, I think, is the secret of Lewis’ appeal to Catholics.
Lepanto, by G.K. ChestertonWith Explanatory Notes and CommentaryEdited by Dale Ahlquist (American Chesterton Society, Minneapolis, 2003)$11.95 at www.chesterton.org <http://www.chesterton.org> “People who cannot see the value of Lepanto are half dead. Let them remain so.” -Hilaire BellocBefittingly enough, G.K. Chesterton wrote his greatest poem, Lepanto, on October 7, 1911, the 340th anniversary of that great battle. He finished it under the pressure of an editor’s deadline as the mailman waited impatiently at his door. Both the poem and the battle were close-run things.The battle occurred in 1571 between the fleet of the Holy League (Spain, Venice and the Papal States, with recruits from Genoa and Portugal) and the much larger fleet of the Ottoman sultan, Selim II. Selim had just completed the conquest of the isle of Cyprus, formerly an important possession of Venice, and was threatening Europe with invasion by both land and sea. He had concentrated his navy in the Gulf of Patras on the western coast of Greece, in the harbor of the town of Lepanto (present-day Naupaktos). From there, it raided Venetian islands to the north in the Adriatic Sea. His target was Italy and Rome, which his plundering soldiery had greedily nicknamed “the Red Apple.” Under Pope Pius V’s hand-picked commander, Don John of Austria, bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor and half-brother of the King of Spain, the Christian fleet sailed into the Gulf and unexpectedly, even miraculously, smashed the Turkish fleet. In one day of ferocious combat, the outnumbered Christians sank over 200 Turkish ships and killed 30,000 Turks. While the battle still raged, far away in the Vatican gardens in Rome, Pius V was praying to the Mother of God for his fleet’s success. As the tide of battle turned in favor of the Holy League, the Pope simultaneously had a vision of the victory. He ascribed it to the intercession of the Virgin and, in thanksgiving, subsequently declared October 7th to be the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary. It remains so to this day. The Turks, who had overrun Constantinople and there raised their minarets around the second greatest church in Christendom, the Hagia Sophia, began their long decline. Europe, delivered from the threat of Islam, was left at liberty to tear itself to pieces in the internecine strifes of the Reformation, Enlightenment and Modernity. No one raised minarets around St. Peter’s, at least not until our own lifetimes. In commemoration, Chesterton begins:White founts falling in the courts of the sun,And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.Turning from the evil “crescent” grin on Selim’s “blood-red” lips, Chesterton describes how the Pope’s pleas for “swords about the Cross” fell upon the deaf ears of Christian monarchs: “cold” Elizabeth of England, “yawning” Charles of France, and Philip of Spain, preoccupied with his New World adventures. Then the poet’s mood abruptly shifts and, in the rhythym of his words, we hear the beat of drums and the tramping of feet:Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall, The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,That once went singing southward when all the world was young,In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,Don John of Austria is going to the war,Stiff flags straining in the night blasts coldIn the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.The scene shifts abruptly again. In language for which our bloodless leaders would apologize today, Chesterton describes “Mahound” - that is, Mohammed - in his “paradise,” summoning up dark angels, genii and giants to the aid of the Turk. For Mohammed knows what is coming out of the West.But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I knowThe voice that shook our palaces - four hundred years ago:It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.Here, Chesterton anticipates those who translate “Islam” as “peace” by equating “peace” with “submission,” which is the literal meaning of “Islam.” But Chesterton submits that the submission required by Islam is not submission to the will of God, but submission to the conqueror’s foot. The “peace” his Mohammed offers is that of the down-trodden. In rapid succession, he shifts the scene to the north of Europe, where the Protestant powers ignore the deadly danger posed by the Sultan’s fleet; to Spain, whose King Philip hesitates, fearful and sickly, jealous of his half-brother; to the Pope at prayer; to the “countless, voiceless, hopeless” Christian slaves, chained to the oars of the Turkish galleys; and, at last, to the triumphant figure of Don John. Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,Scarlet running over on the slivers and the golds,Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,Thronging of the thousands up that labor under seaWhite for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.Vivat Hispania!Domino Gloria!Don John of Austria has set his people free!Indeed, he did. On that October day in 1571, Don John’s victory set free thousands of slaves. The galleys of both sides used slaves as rowers. The Holy League had promised its slaves, mostly convicts, freedom in the event of victory. As the battle began, they were unshackled from the rowing benches and armed to take part in the fighting. But the Turks offered their Christian slaves chained below decks no more incentive than the fear of a watery death. So desperate were these men for freedom that, at the sound of the great war-cry that went up from Don John’s ships, some managed to tear their shackles free and whip their captors with their chains.The 143 lines of this miniature epic close with a most interesting miniature. Miguel de Cervantes, who would later write Don Quixote, actually fought and was wounded at Lepanto. Chesterton envisions him aboard a victorious galley, setting his sword back in his sheath,And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,And he smiles, not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade ….(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)So what are we to make of all this in our effeminized and pacifist age? What are we to think of a Pope who organizes a war fleet and prays for its victory and is, nevertheless, a champion of the Rosary and a canonized saint? What do we think of an admiral who requires that Mass be said on each of his ships before battle is joined, who issues a rosary to each fighting man, and who sends boarding parties led by Capuchin monks charging onto his enemies’ ships? What do we think of a poet who glories in all this carnage and unabashedly call it a “Crusade?” Are our times so different from theirs that we can no longer understand them? Do we know so much more about this world and the next that we can dismiss them as ignorant, morally inferior or bigoted?The American Chesterton Society’s edition of Lepanto includes the full text of the poem, detailed notes which explain all of its references and allusions, four essays on the history of the battle and of the poem, and two ingenious essays on related topics by Chesterton himself. There is more than enough here to help you ponder the answers to my questions and perhaps even some of your own.
Without Roots: The West, Relativism and Islamby Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, trans. by Michael F. Moore, foreword by George Weigel (Basic Books, New York, 2006)Western secular liberalism is still talking, as Socrates talked for a while after he had downed the fatal cup of hemlock. But there is no feeling in its extremities and its bowels are gone. An inexorable, creeping sepsis will soon still its heart. The only difference is that Socrates knew he was dying; secular liberalism can not read the signs.Secularism’s invincible ignorance is not limited to the lunatic left. Even the most perceptive secular conservatives fail to see the real issues raised by the confrontation between the West and the Islamic ummah. For example, an online post by National Review columnist Victor Davis Hanson numbers among the weaknesses of the “Islamofascists” (i.e., Muslims) their “homophobia” and their resistance to “gender equality.” While I generally admire Hanson’s critiques of our social and military policies, I cannot believe that sodomy and radical feminism are banners around which to rally Western Civilization. The West would be far stronger with straighter sex and more mothers at home raising more children. But secularists, no matter how conservative they are, can not quite see clearly on this issue. The reason for their lack of clarity here is that secularists, whether conservative or liberal, generally hold to the “liberationist” view of history and, from the liberationist point of view, the main thing that the West has liberated itself from is the Catholic Faith. This leads them automatically to accept the Reformation as a good thing, to celebrate the French Revolution as a mostly good thing, and to greet the rise of Progressivism as a sort of good thing. Not until the end of the twentieth century did the secularists start to suspect that something had gone awry, and then only after those two sides of the Progressive coin, Fascism and Communism, combined to murder more than a hundred million people. Now, “conservative” secularists on both sides of the Atlantic think they have identified the problem. The problem is relativism.Without Roots: The West, Relativism and Islam, addresses the problems of relativism. The book contains the text of two addresses and two letters. The addresses were coincidentally given on successive days in May 2004. One was given by Marcello Pera, a professor of philosophy and president of the Italian Senate, and the other by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI. The addresses were strikingly similar in subject matter, a similarity that led the two men to exchange the included letters. Cardinal Ratzinger’s address, entitled The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, traces the spiritual history of Europe from its roots in the twin Christian empires of Rome and Byzantium, through their respective northward retreats to continental Europe and Russia in the face of Muslim expansion, and to their ultimate secularization in the wake of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, according to the Cardinal, provided Europe with a new “spiritual framework” that isolated God within the “domain of sentiment, not of reason,” excluded Him from the “public sphere,” shattered “the ancient idea of Empire” and substituted the secular nation-states of Europe. Each of these secular states “considered itself the depository of a universal mission,” which led them to compete across the globe for colonies and culminated in the world wars of the twentieth century. But Europe, “despite its enduring political and economic power, seems to be on the road to decline and fall.” Citing the historian Arnold Toynbee, the Cardinal ascribes Europe’s decline to its “abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism, and militarism,” that is, for the cult of “secularism.” Toynbee had suggested that the remedy was to reintroduce the “heritage of Western Christianity” through the “energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals.” Exploring whether such a “reintroduction” is possible, the Cardinal describes the differing views of church/state relations prevailing in the modern Latin and Germanic nations and in the United States. He mentions three challenges facing Europe – that of human dignity in the face of modern biotechnology; that of the definition of marriage and our understanding of the human person; and finally that of Christianity in the face of “multiculturalism” and Western “self-hatred.” He concludes:Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the heritage of Europe, we will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien to the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves. *** [W]e must agree with Toynbee that the fate of a society always depends upon its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of all humankind.This is not exactly the stuff of St. Augustine’s City of God, written in response to the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 A.D., a threat to Western civilization at least as severe as that faced by Europe today. But it is better than the secularist Professor Pera’s suggestion contained in his Letter to Joseph Ratzinger:[I]t is my firm conviction that this work of renewal should be done by Christians and secularists together. What we need today is a civil religion that can instill its values throughout the long chain that goes from the individual to the family, groups, associations, and civil society without passing through the political parties, government programs, and force of states, and therefore without affecting the separation, in the temporal sphere, between the church and state. In Europe and in the West so enriched by Europe, such a religion would already be Christian by nature because the Western European tradition is Christian. What I am suggesting is therefore a non-denominational Christian religion. As I envision it, this religion would have more monasteries than central churches, more monks that articulate and communicate than church officials, more practitioners than preachers. [emphasis in original]Professor Pera’s main essay, Relativism, Christianity and the West, contains several very good observations, such as his critiques of European “political correctness,” of the “relativism of the theologians,” of Vatican II’s notion of “dialogue.” But on the main issue, he misses the point.Putting aside the comic-opera dimension of his suggestion that the Europeans construct a civil religion out of some form of non-denominational Christianity, there is the more serious objection that only relativists could participate in such a process. The professor seems to want the Europeans to imitate the civil religion of the United States, much as they imitated our vast national economic union by creating the Common Market and our political union by creating the E.U. But what passes for civil religion in the U.S. is what Cardinal Ratzinger describes as a “Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms, but rather in association with the country’s sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world.”In other words, the Americans – including the Americanized Catholics who form the country’s largest single religious denomination – actually believe this stuff! They are not relativists; they are not choosing a convenient version of truth. They have not adopted their consensus because they think it useful or prudent or profitable or necessary to avoid the pitfalls of relativism. They have adopted the view that God has “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” because they believe it is true. They believe it so true that they are willing to fight for it, to live for it, to die for it, to kill for it. Americans who do not believe in this truth are not part of the American consensus; not surprisingly, they are trying to Europeanize America.Europe cannot find a belief in anything until it believes that something is true. The Islamists do not envy Europe’s wealth; they mock Europe’s unbelief. They know that the God in Whom Europe fails to believe will deliver all of Europe – its wealth, its territory, its people – into their hands. The only truly “creative” thing a Christian minority can do for Europe is to give it that Truth in which Europeans, including Professor Pera, can actually believe.
Despite the ubiquity of "best sellers," my experience is that only a minority of people – perhaps a small minority – actually read books. People offer a variety of excuses for not reading anything longer than a USA Today article or a webpage, most often their lack of time. Generally, lack of time is a pretty poor excuse, but I find myself pleading it on my own behalf this month. So, if you will be kind enough to excuse my lack of time this month, I offer from my files a little commentary I wrote some time ago on the a familiar passage from the very best book of all – the parable of the Good Samaritan from St. Luke’s Gospel.
“Male and Female He Created Them”: On Marriage and the Family, by Jorge Cardinal Medina Estevez (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2003), 236 pp., $14.95 at www.ignatius.com, (published originally in Spanish as “Y los creo varon y mujer”: Escritos sobre el matrimonio y la familia).
Rather than a book, I am going to discuss some old feature films in this column. Most of these films are based upon novels or short stories so, while it is a stretch, I can just barely classify them as literature. Some of them are available on DVD; virtually all of them are shown from time-to-time on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. They are all worth watching.