Jul 18, 2006
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.