You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic.
~ Ross Douthat
That’s what it should say outside Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center. If C.S. Lewis is a gateway drug to Catholicism, then the Wade Center’s promotion of Lewis and those who influenced him is equivalent to an evangelical speakeasy. At least it was for me.
Growing up in an evangelical milieu, I discovered C.S. Lewis early on by way of his Narnia tales. I can well remember the rush of wonder and delight that accompanied my exploration of that world of talking animals and moral nuance. Like so many, I ripped through all seven books one after another with hardly a pause in between, and then had to endure the vacuum created at the end when there was no more. Occasionally books will distress us because of how they end, but rarely because they end at all. The Narnia saga ranks in the latter category.
After Narnia came Screwtape I think, and then The Great Divorce. I was in high school by the time I got around to reading the Space Trilogy, and somewhere along the way Mere Christianity. That whet my appetite for Lewis’ nonfiction, and I began dipping into more as I went off to college, particularly the wide ranging essays in God in the Dock.
What did Lewis teach me? First, a deep appreciation and anticipation of the supernatural – what Regis Martin calls the “numinous.” The numinous core of Lewis’ stories frequently even evoked a palpable response. Think of that tingly sensation you got as a kid when you faced the unknown – like when you went to summer camp for the first time, or your first mission trip overseas. It was a bit of fear, a bit of excitement, all tangled up with the sense that something important was at work. Moreover, encounters with the numinous in Lewis’ work are always mediated through encounters with things. The supernatural is never merely an abstraction in his stories – not just an idea or concept – but rather something incarnated and, consequently, something his characters bump into and trip over.
Lewis also introduced me to the idea of purgatory, and, through that, a much more profound desire for heaven. Through his stories and explanations, he showed me that Christianity went beyond avoiding sin and hell, and was ultimately about embracing a fullness of life, love, and joy. Lewis took the biblical Christianity that I’d been raised in and made it inhabitable – like that scene in the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children first gaze upon the painting of a wild sea, and then are actually drawn into it.
That was all harmless enough as far as it went. However, the more I read Lewis, the more I wanted to know about him, and by the time I got to Wheaton College, I was primed for the kind of Catholic correlations that the Wade Center seems designed to elicit.
Back then, the Center was housed in an out-of-the-way corner of the library, and I recall some of that tingly sensation as I tracked it down one day. Among other things, I’d heard that they had various Lewis artifacts, including his Oxford desk and chair and the actual Lewis family wardrobe – the very furnishing that undoubtedly influenced the genesis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. These were only “things,” to be sure, but they serve to connect the visitor with the author himself. And this, in turn, underscores the “thinginess” featured in Lewis’ writing – a sacramental vision of connecting with the unseen through the seen, with the ethereal by way of the concrete. For Lewis, ordinary things and events were never merely incidental. Instead, they were noble vehicles of grace and truth and revelation.
Even more significant for me, however, were the other six authors spotlighted by the Center: George Macdonald and Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and, of course, G.K. Chesterton. The Wade Center’s main focus is unquestionably C.S. Lewis, but the others are featured as well because of their influence on or relationship to Lewis. They had their differences, but altogether they had a rich, incarnational vision of what the Christian life was about.
Thus, a visit to the Wade Center allows the seeker a chance to linger in the literary presence of all seven of these great British writers and thinkers. Just to be there – among their manuscripts and letters, portraits and paraphernalia – was to drink in, as it were, their grand vision of the Christian life and to become intoxicated with their convictions about faith as an adventure. These were heady influences for a young, impressionable undergraduate, and they were equally heady when I returned years later for a day trip from my new home at the Chicago Catholic Worker.
It was a confusing time for me, and my faith was in crisis. I had firsthand knowledge that my Catholic Worker friends were living the Gospel and clearly followers of Jesus. But they were…well, Catholic, and I couldn’t bring myself to seriously entertain formally joining their ranks, despite my inclinations. There were too many unanswered questions, too many practices that didn’t make sense, and lots of doctrine that didn’t seem to square with the Bible. What to do?
So, who better to turn to than my mentors at the Wade Center, and I took the train out to Wheaton for a draught or two of their inebriating influence.
While there, I was particularly drawn to the Chesterton collection. I’d read a few of his works – The Man Who Was Thursday, for instance, and Orthodoxy – and I knew that Chesteron’s apologetics were instrumental in Lewis’ own religious conversion. Plus, there was that curiosity that Chesterton himself had become a Catholic after having embraced Anglicanism for a time, so what was that about?
The librarian – the Wheaton librarian, mind you – directed me to Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion, in which the author humbly laid out a defense of his ecclesial switch. I couldn’t read it all that day, but I read enough to convince me that I needed to track down a copy when I got back to Chicago – which I did with no little difficulty (in the days before Amazon and the internet).
There’s no way I could adequately summarize Chesterton’s masterful arguments and magnificent illustrations here, but suffice it to say he had me hooked. He didn’t attempt to defend individual Catholic doctrines or practices, but instead defended the idea that they could indeed be defended. He insisted that being a Catholic was reasonable and good. He provided example after example of the Church’s internal consistency and lucidity, and challenged the reader to test them for himself. And, finally, in the end, Chesterton made it plain that he could see no other way forward.
But if a convert is to write of conversion he must try to retrace his steps out of that shrine back into that ultimate wilderness where he once really believed that this eternal youth was only the “Old Religion.”…The difficulty was expressed to me by another convert who said, “I cannot explain why I am a Catholic; because now that I am a Catholic I cannot imagine myself as anything else.”
G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization is now in process, and it may well be that the interest generated by the investigation could blow the cover off of Wheaton’s underground Catholic hideaway.
In any case, if all goes well, we’ll all be visiting the Wade Center as pilgrims someday – to gaze on Chesterton’s correspondence and possibly even venerate volumes from his personal library as so many relics. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Imagine it! Wheaton College, a Catholic pilgrimage destination! C.S. Lewis, I trust, would be pleased.