One of the lesser known and lesser read works of CS Lewis is his correspondence with Rev. Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria. Few indeed have read them since they were written in Latin. And though an English translation was published in 1998, I know few who have ever heard of these letters. The full collection of these letter is here: The Latin Letters of CS Lewis
I first wrote on these letters two years ago but a recent conversation prompts me to re-post on them. Why? There are many who are rightly bewildered at the steep decline of faith in here in America which seems to have happened very dramatically in the late 1960s. But as these reflections by CS Lewis witness, the decline in faith and the erosion of moral life in Europe was already well underway in the late 1940s. Indeed, it was linked to the horrifying experience with two world wars, that seems to have both resulted from, and further exacerbated the decline of faith there.
Had not our Lady warned at Fatima in 1917:
The war (WW I) is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. (Second Secret of Fatima).
Of course we know the sad story. The repentance did not take place and, following one of the most vivid displays of the Northern lights ever recorded (Jan 25, 1938) the Second World War was underway. Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938 and Poland was invaded in 1939. WW II was engaged.
Many of us in America know little of the steep decline of Faith in Europe that took place long before the cultural revolution here of the 1960s. Our knowledge of world history is poor and little do most modern Americans understand the horrifying blood bath that the 20th Century was. Conservative estimates are that 100 million people died in wars or were exterminated for ideological purposes. Loss of faith was surely a cause and also a lasting effect from the cauldron of that horrible Century, a Century marked by amazing invention and yet a body count of almost unimaginable numbers, even more, when we add the horror of Abortion.
These Letters of CS Lewis open a window on that mid-century period of European History. There are some very important insights that CS Lewis offers for the loss in faith in Europe already well underway in the early 1950s when the letters were exchanged.
Indeed I would call his insights stunning in many ways. Lewis argues, in effect that Europe was in a far worse state than paganism. Would that she were even pagan, for the pagans accepted natural law. But Europe, having cast off the faith, is in a state far worse than even before she ever heard of Christ.
In the quotes that follow CS Lewis makes this case quite well an then proffers a solution that we may wish to consider in these times that are even darker for Europe and the whole of the West. Allow me to present just a few excerpts. The Latin text is italicized. The English translation (by Martin Moynihan) is just below the Latin in black bold and italic type face. My comments are in red.
Let us begin with Lewis assessment as to how and by what stages Europe lost the faith:
Neque tamen sine peccatis nostris evenit: nos enim justiam illam, curam illam pauperum quas (mendacissime) communistae praeferunt debueramus jam ante multa saecula revera effecisse. Sed longe hoc aberat: nos occidentales Christum ore praedicavimus, factis Mammoni servitium tulimus. Magis culpabiles nos quam infideles: scientibus enim voluntatem Dei et non facientibus major poena. Nunc unicum refugium in contritione et oratione. Diu erravimus. In legendo Europae historiam, seriem exitiabilem bellorum, avaritiae, fratricidarum Christianorum a Christianis persecutionum, luxuriae, gulae, superbiae, quis discerneret rarissima Sancti Spiritus vestigia? (Letter 20, Jan 7, 1953)
But (this) did not happen without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do not do it, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, or fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?
He makes a remarkable description here. Quite sobering! In effect there grew an appalling lack of love for God, for the poor and for one another. Greed and sloth also took their toll. The lip service faith meant that even Communism appeared more virtuous to some than the Faith.
The wars of which Lewis speaks encompass not only the 20th Century, wherein, as we remarked, as many as 100 million souls perished in two World Wars and the dropping of the Iron Curtain, but war had taken a terrible toll all through the Christian era. Consider this list: European Wars of the Christian Era. The list is unbelievably long. War upon war, and so much of it was Christian killing Christian.
To be sure, 2oth Century was a kind of death blow to Europe. These terrible things happened on the Christian watch. We must be honest about that. Good things, wonderful things happened too: the monasteries, universities, hospitals etc, the great flowering of all that is best in Western culture. And it can be argued that the faith ushered in these things and also prevented things from being far worse. But a gradual internecine lack of love also took its toll and in the aftermath of the bloodiest century the world has ever known, Europe woke up to a largely faithless landscape.
Next Lewis describes how great is our fall:
Quae dicis de praesenti statu hominum vera sunt: immo deterior est quam dicis. Non enim Christi modo legem Naturae Paganis cognitam negligunt. Nunc enim non erubescunt de adulterio, proditione, perjurio, furto, certisque flagitiis quae non dico Christinaos doctores, sed ipsi pagani et barbari reprobaverunt. Falluntur qui dicunt “Mudus iterum Paganus fit” Utiam fieret! Re vera in statum multo pejorem cadimus. Homo post-Christianus non similis homini pre-Christiano. Tantum distant ut vidua a virgine….(est) magna differentia intra absentiam sponsi venturi, et sponsa amissi! (Letter 23, March 17, 1953)
What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the Law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery perjury, theft and other crimes, which I will not say Christian doctors, but the Pagans and Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say: “The world is turning pagan again.” Would that it were! The truth is, we are falling into a much worse state. Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow….there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away.
Powerful analysis indeed. He makes similar remarks elsewhere about paganism but here it is succinctly stated. The modern European (and I would add American) are in a state below paganism. For at least the pagans had belief in the supernatural, some respect for Natural Law and could see what reality plainly taught. Modern Westerners are blinded even to that.
The pagan world was a virgin waiting for her groom. The modern West is an adulterous divorce’, cynical, angry and “so through” with Jesus. It is hard to know how the secular West will come round. Will she die in her sins, or will the miracle of broken, humbled heart emerge? Pray! Fast!
He reiterates and adds a stunning but biblical insight:
Certe sentio gravissima pericula nobis incumbere. Haec eveniunt quia maxima pars Europa apostasiam fecit de fide Christiana. Hinc status pejor quam illum statum quem habuimus ante fidem receptam. Nemo enim ex Christianismo redit in statum quem habuit ante Christianismum, sed in pejorem: tantum distat inter paganum et apostatam quantum innuptam et adulteram. Ergo plerique homines nostri temporis amiserunt non modo lumen supernaturale, sed etiam lumen illud naturale quod pagani habuerunt. (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953)
I certainly feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the great apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence, a worse state than the one we were in before we received the faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity, but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress….Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which the pagans possessed.
A powerful and stunning reminder that leaving the faith does not simply put them back to the status quo ante. You can never go home. The West is now in a worse state than paganism for the reasons Lewis states.
Jesus made the same warning: When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-25) Yes, having found the house bereft of the Holy Spirit, quite empty of true faith, Satan returns now with seven more demons and that last state is worse than the first.
St. Peter makes the same point: For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).
But, calling for Hope, CS Lewis considers a way back:
Sed Deus qui Deus misericordiarum est etiam nunc non omnio demisit genus humanum….Non desperandum. Et haud spernendus numerus (apud nos) iam redeunt in fidem….Equidem credo laborandum esse non modo in evangelizando (hoc certe) sed etiam in quadam praeparatione evangelica. Necesse est multos ad legem naturalem revocare antequam de Deo loquamur. Christus enim promittit remissionem peccatorum: sed quid hoc ad eos qui, quum legem naturalem ignorent, nesciunt se peccavisse. Quis medicamentum accipiet nisi se morbo teneri sciat? Relativismus moralis hostis est quem debemus vincere antequam Atheismum aggrediamur. Fere auserim dicere “Primo faciamus juniores bonos Paganos et postea faciamus Christianos. (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953)
But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.”
To some extent, recent Popes have said the same, we have to begin all over again. But Lewis’ point goes even further since the apostles found a Europe where, at least people were in touch with reality and accepted reality’s testimony as a reliable guide.
Further, the Europe, the West that the apostles encountered had false religion, but at least it accepted that there was a spiritual realm that must be respected as real.
We in the post Cartesian West have retreated out of reality and into our minds. Reality, Natural Law is not a datum, is not a common ground on which to meet. There is no accepted reality, just thought, opinion, views. There is nothing outside ourselves to which we all owe allegiance and which demands our assent. No, we live, not in reality, but in a world of thoughts and abstractions.
Think I’m exaggerating? Try telling a homosexual that the body isn’t designed for homosexual acts and watch how quickly you get a blank stare or indignant response: “What’ my body got to do with it? Its what I feel that matters.” Yes, apparently our bodies have nothing to say to us and neither does anything else in the real world which we dismiss with our ideologies.
Our task in reintroducing the West to reality, to Natural Law, will not be easy, but CS Lewis thinks we’re going to have start there.
Pretty powerful insights, thought provoking, frank and insightful. I am interested in your thoughts.