November 22 is the anniversary of C.S.Lewis’ death in 1963 –on the same afternoon as the assassination of JFK.
One of things most refreshing about C.S.Lewis was his seeming unconcern about what others thought of him. There’s a whiff of real humility there. He was not worried enough about his career to stop writing religious books or popular science fiction or children’s fairy tales, and he suffered rejection by his peers–not being elected as Professor of Poetry at Oxford despite being the obvious choice.
He thought and lived outside the box. He didn’t give two hoots for the opinions of the liberal Bible scholars, and skewered their stupidity with a single thrust saying that he was not a Bible scholar, but a literary critic and their work as literary critics of the Bible simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
He was quite happy to ridicule the liberal bishop who wanted to turn Jesus into a do-gooder and water down the faith. He was impatient with all forms of religious hypocrisy, cant and holier than thou obfuscation. He brought people back to the main point and that’s the point. Time and again he fearlessly and happily declared the emperor to be naked. In his personal life he took risks–marrying a former Jewish atheist convert who was divorced and giving away most of his book royalties. A need for respectability was simply not in his make up.
He had learned the lesson as a boy at Malvern School. He recounts how the “bloods”–the upper crust boys ran an elitist club. They bullied the younger boys and Lewis was one of their victims. Lewis noticed how some boys would sell their souls to get into the “inner ring” or the elite club of real insiders. Spotting such cowardly and traitorous behavior from an early age, Lewis would live outside the box for the rest of his life.
At the same time he was said to be the most open, honest, friendly and welcoming of men. He had time for neglected undergraduate students, wrote endless letters of advice to nobodies who had written to him, and would be happy to swap stories and intellectual debates with anyone who was willing to engage with him on the same straightforward, no nonsense level. By rejecting the quest for the “inner circle” Lewis was able to belong to everyone.
This “everyman” quality is also what enabled him to write religion for the man in the street, children’s stories, essays for magazines and newspapers and science fiction fantasy. In an essay to seminarians on how to communicate the faith he is clear that the communication must be shorn of all fancy talk, jargon, theological jibber jabber, footnotes, high brow references and ecclesiastical mumbo jumbo. Never a member of the inner ring, it was his calling to communicate with the masses of individuals who were also never in the inner circle.
This explains why, when I moved to England–much influence by Lewis–I was astounded to find that in his own country he was virtually ignored. I, and many others, considered him one of England’s greatest voices in the twentieth century. At Oxford it was an error in taste to mention Lewis. Those in the intellectual inner ring of Oxford, Cambridge and the Church of England regarded him rather like an insane uncle–or perhaps like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins–an eccentric idiot.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Lewis was granted a plaque in Poet’s Corner–the sign of acceptance by the English establishment. The fact that he was given a plaque would have amused him endlessly. I can see him looking down and laughing…”What, me here with all those grand people? What, me in the inner ring? Come now, there must be some mistake! How ludicrous! All those establishment types giving me a plaque when they always avoided me like the plague!”
So today we laugh with him…glad for his life and witness, but more glad that he has found that Joy he so longed for.
Today I will celebrate Mass remembering St Cecilia, I’ll also pray for the repose of the soul of C.S.Lewis–wishing that we could call him Saint C.S.Lewis and knowing that when the score is added up he’ll have the . character even if he doesn’t have the title.