Although C.S. Lewis didn’t convert me, he helped me stay Catholic by highlighting the soundness of Christian truth and the beauty of Christian culture. He’s been a cherished part of my life for 40 years, starting with one of those providential mistakes that would’ve amused him.
While in college, I attempted to order a book of his that I’d just seen reviewed called The Four Loves, on the different forms of love in human life. Instead, I mistakenly took his Allegory of Love, an academic study of romantic love in medieval literature. Lewis’s incomparable gift for sharing his enthusiasms made the rarified subject matter comprehensible even to me, a chemistry major without specialized literary background. Little did I know that graduate courses in Middle English literature lay three decades in my future or that I would wind up a medievalist and publish fantasies set in the Middle Ages.
During college I also read Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) and his explication of the medieval world-picture, The Discarded Image, which helped me understand the trilogy where angels are depicted as the old Neo-Platonic planetary spirits. My favorite piece of Lewis’s fiction, however, remains Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Then during graduate school, I finally caught up with The Four Loves. In consequence, I could’ve won the heart of an earnest Protestant schoolmate nicknamed “Man Mountain” who was seeking a Lewis-loving bride, but mercifully he was destined for an earnest Protestant girl.
When Lewis died 37 years ago today, on 22 November, 1963 the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated I must confess that I mourned Lewis more than Kennedy.
Not long afterward, The Lord of the Rings by Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien soared to bestsellerdom. I first read these books on the strength of Lewis’s jacket blurb and later wrote about them using The Allegory of Love as a critical tool.
I found and loved Lewis’s “Narnia” series years before my children were ready to read them (it takes an adult to fully appreciate good children’s literature). I even turned Pauline Baynes’ exquisite illustrations of Narnia into a prize-wining masquerade costume as Queen Jadis from The Magician’s Nephew.
Lewis’s poignant reflections on his wife’s death, A Grief Observed, comforted me during a personal crisis. His classic essay “The Inner Ring” on the spiritual perils of social cliques helped my son and daughter through some rough spots in their lives. His An Experiment in Criticism continues to prove useful in my own forays into literary criticism.
I think what keeps me and millions of other people reading Lewis more than two generations after his death is his matchless blend of professional brilliance and personal goodness, of reason and romance. Through his eyes we see the transcendant in the ordinary the Eternal Wedding Feast in a loaf of freshly baked bread.
Lewis shows us God’s truth learned through his own joys and sorrows. His inspiring conversion story, Surprised by Joy, recounts his discovery that Christian God was the Fountainhead of all joy, not the harsh cosmic tyrant taught to him in boyhood who repelled him into atheism. Years later, God surprised Lewis again by sending him a wife named Joy. She would, with heavenly irony, be the cause of much sorrow before he achieved acceptance of God’s will. And so are we all tested in our individual ways by the rhythms of “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”
Lewis’s faith was highly “inculturated.” He liked to call himself “an old Western man” because his thought was deeply rooted in the ancient and medieval sources of our civilization. I can well imagine him as a congenial dinner guest of St. Augustine or St. Thomas More. Lewis’s trenchant critiques of modern follies in religion, philosophy, education, and the arts are as relevant as when they were first written 40 or 50 years ago.
More importantly, Lewis was an old Western Christian man. He was one of the most effective Christian apologists of the past century, respected by Catholics and Protestants alike. His evangelization talks for radio, collected as Mere Christianity, have helped countless people to believe the Gospel. Lewis also shared his faith through allegory (The Pilgrim's Regress), fantasy (The Great Divorce), and satire (The Screwtape Letters). Above all, he taught his faith through his own grace-filled life.
I would like to think that when the holy angels conducted the soul of Clive Staples Lewis into paradise, they appeared as the shining eldils he had imagined dwelling in deep heaven.