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Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church

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I dreamed of a boy who was born in the land of Puritania and his name was John. – The Pilgrim's Regress [1]

The opening sentence of The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis's first attempt at autobiography, serves as an appropriate place at which to commence our quest to understand Lewis's complicated and often problematic relationship with the Catholic Church. The boy of whom Lewis was dreaming was in fact himself. In the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis described John's 'Regress' as 'my journey', [2] indicating unequivocally that he was the Pilgrim at the centre of the autobiographical allegory. It is also significant that Lewis chose the medium of allegory as the means by which to write his autobiography, since the juxtaposition of allegory and autobiography signifies that there is an underlying meaning to life.

Our goal, therefore, will be to follow Lewis in the manner by which he meant to lead us. We shall endeavour to understand the meaning of his life by trying to understand his life as a pilgrimage in search of the meaning of life itself This was his intention in writing The Pilgrim's Regress and also his intention in writing his other autobiographical works, Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed. We shall take him as he meant to be taken and shall follow in his footsteps, and mind-steps, as he traveled in search of the Truth.

Lewis's journey begins in Puritania, a place that has two levels of meaning. On the allegorical or metaphysical level–the level of Truth–it represents Puritanism; on the physical level–or the level of Fact–it represents Lewis's childhood in the Puritanical atmosphere of Protestant Belfast.

It would be a grave mistake to ignore the importance of Lewis's place of birth on the subsequent shaping of his mind, heart and life. It would also be a mistake to ignore the extent to which the poisonous twins of pride and prejudice exert a vice-like grip on those brought up in the sectarian shadow of Ulster in general, and Belfast in particular. For those who have never been to Belfast, and who have never savoured the bitterness that descends like an omnipresent fog over its warweary and war-worried inhabitants, no words will convey the power that all-pervasive prejudice wields on both sides of the religious divide. [3]

Yet, having commenced with an insistence that it would be a serious error to ignore the importance of Lewis's Ulster Protestant roots, it is necessary to insist, with equal vehemence, that it is possible to err in the direction of overemphasizing its importance. There is a real danger of stressing the power of Puritania to such an extent that it becomes a substitute for any serious consideration of Lewis's religious position. There is a danger of believing that Puritania predestined Lewis to become the sort of Christian that his admirers and detractors have come to love or loathe. Lewis, whose works are awash with the importance and the potency of free will, would have been horrified at such a deterministic interpretation of his life and beliefs. As such, we will be doing him a grave injustice should we fall into the trap of translating Puritania's importance into a presumed omnipotence. It is important but it is not that important.

In essence, although Puritania remained a powerful presence in Lewis's life, it was by no means an all-powerful presence. It would be truer to say that Puritania cast a shadow across the length of his life. Sometimes it was a shadow from which he sought to escape in order to discover the brightness beyond its domain; at other times it was a welcome shade, or shield, in which, and behind which, he hid from the heat of controversial debate.

There is, however, little doubt that the first twenty years of C. S. Lewis's life were dominated by the influence of Puritania and by his desire to escape from it. His grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Hamilton, was a clergyman of the Church of Ireland whose view of the Catholic minority in Belfast was coloured by the theology of bigotry. Catholics were, in his estimation, the devil's own children,[4] and he I never tired of deprecating the Catholic Church from his pulpit'. [5] Lewis insisted, however, that his father, as distinct from his maternal grandfather, was 'far from being specially Puritanical' but, on the contrary, I was, by nineteenth-century and Church of Ireland standards, rather "high".' [6]

For those unversed in the ecclesial position of the Church of Ireland, Lewis's words will be misleading. Although the Church of Ireland is part of the Anglican church it is far 'lower', that is, far more Protestant, than the Church of England. The key to understanding Lewis's words is found in the sub-clause, 'by nineteenth-century and Church of Ireland standards'. The truth is that what might be considered 'rather "high"' by the standards of the Church of Ireland in the nineteenth-century would be considered very 'low' by the standards of the Church of England at the time. Certainly there was no question of Lewis's father adopting the 'high church' position of the Oxford movement and its followers. On the contrary, he would have disapproved strongly of the 'popery' of Pusey and Keble and would have been outraged by the 'poping' of Newman.

Lewis's words must, therefore, be taken in context. His 'rather "high"' father was, in fact, rather 'low' in the wider spectrum of Anglican churchmanship. He was also, apparently, rather tepid in the practice of his faith and failed to convey any degree of faith or fervour to his son. 'I was taught the usual things and made to say my prayers and in due time taken to church', Lewis wrote. 'I naturally accepted what I was told but I cannot remember feeling much interest in it." Recalling his childhood, Lewis remarked that 'aesthetic experiences were rare' and that 'religious experiences did not occur at all.' [8] Such was the apparent indifference of his parents with regard to his religious instruction that Lewis recalled that he received his first inkling of spiritual truth from his Presbyterian governess, Annie Harper, who, during 'a longish lecture', conveyed 'the first thing I can remember that brought the other world to my mind with any sense of reality'. [9] In summary, Lewis's religious upbringing seems to have been characterized by an inherited anti-Catholicism, whether implicit or explicit, combined with a tepid low-church Anglicanism spiced with Presbyterianism.

Consciously or subconsciously, Lewis reacted against the more Puritanical strictures of Ulster Protestantism, particularly in the way in which it manifested itself in the family life of his friend Arthur Greeves. The Greeves family had been Quakers for several generations but when Arthur was about twelve years old his father, Joseph, became a member of the Plymouth Brethren, perhaps the most puri-tyrannical of the Puritan sects. Insisting that his wife and children follow his lead, he had the entire family baptized in the bathtub.

Lewis remembered that Joseph Greeves 'was timid, prim, sour, at once oppressed and oppressive. He was a harsh husband and a despotic father.... My own father described his funeral as "the most cheerful funeral he ever attended".' [10] Years later, Lewis reiterated in a letter to Arthur Greeves his hostile reaction to Puritanism:
I begin to see how much Puritanism counts in your make up-that both the revulsion from it and the attraction back to it are strong elements.... I feel that I can say with absolute certainty ... that if you ever feel that the whole spirit and system in which you were brought up was, after all, right and good, then you may be quite sure that that feeling is a mistake.... My reasons for this are 1. That the system denied pleasures to others as well as to the votaries themselves: whatever the merits of self-denial, this is unpardonable interference. 2. It inconsistently kept some worldly pleasures, and always selected the worst ones-gluttony, avarice, etc. 3. It was ignorant.... Your relations have been found very ill grounded in the Bible itself and as ignorant as savages of the historical and theological reading needed to make the Bible more than a superstition. 4. 'By their fruits ye shall know them.' Have they the marks of peace, love, wisdom and humility on their faces or in their conversation? Really, you need not bother about that kind of Puritanism. [11]
It is interesting to note Lewis's criticism in this letter of what might be termed bibliolatry–the superstitious and idolatrous worship of the Bible which results from its being read without due deference and reference to theological tradition.

Such was the sectarian apartheid, de facto, if not necessarily de jure, that existed in Ireland during the first years of the twentieth century that it is likely that Lewis had scarcely even met a Catholic prior to his arrival in England. This being so, it might be helpful to compare his cultural and psychological roots with those of another Protestant Irishman, George Bernard Shaw.

'All the influences surrounding Bernard Shaw in boyhood were not only Puritan', wrote G. K. Chesterton, 'but such that no non-Puritan force could possibly pierce or counter-act. He belonged to that Irish group which, according to Catholicism, has hardened its heart, which, according to Protestantism, has hardened its head, but which, as I fancy, has chiefly hardened its hide, lost its sensibility to the contact of the things around it. In reading about his youth, one forgets that it was passed in the island which is still one flame before the altar of St. Peter and St. Patrick.' [12] Chesterton's assessment serves as a timely reminder that pride and prejudice are always obstacles to sense and sensibility: 'It could never cross the mind of a man of the Garrison that before becoming an atheist he might stroll into one of the churches of his own country, and learn something of the philosophy that had satisfied Dante and Bossuet, Pascal and Descartes.' [13]

Elsewhere in his study of Shaw, Chesterton discussed the fortress mentality of Protestant Unionists:
Bernard Shaw is not merely an Irishman; he is not even a typical one. He is a certain separated and peculiar kind of Irishman, which is not easy to describe. Some Nationalist Irishmen have referred to him contemptuously as a 'West Briton'. But this is really unfair.... It would be much nearer the truth to put the thing in the bold and bald terms of the old Irish song, and to call him 'The anti-Irish Irishman'. . . . This fairly educated and fairly wealthy Protestant wedge which is driven into the country ... is a thing not easy superficially to summarise in any terms. It cannot be described merely as a minority; for a minority means the part of a nation which is conquered. But this thing means something that conquers and is not entirely part of the nation.... There is only one word for the minority in Ireland, and that is the word that public phraseology has found; I mean the word 'Garrison.' The Irish are essentially right when they talk as if all Protestant Unionists lived inside 'The Castle.' They have all the values and limitations of a literal garrison in a fort. [14]
Chesterton's views are reflected by Michael Holroyd, Shaw's biographer: 'No Shaw could form a social acquaintance with a Roman Catholic or tradesman. They lifted up their powerful Wellingtonian noses and spoke of themselves, however querulously, in a collective spirit (as people mentioning the Bourbons or Habsburgs) using the third person: "the Shaws".' [15]

There is, of course, a danger in taking the parallels between Shaw and Lewis too far. Shaw was born and raised in Dublin, an overwhelmingly Catholic city in which Protestants were the privileged minority; Lewis was born and raised in Belfast, a predominantly Protestant city in which the Catholics were a much-maligned–and, in consequence, an increasingly malignant–minority. Nonetheless, Protestant Unionists in both cities shared the same supercilious sense of superiority with respect to their Catholic neighbours.

The deeply-ingrained and all-pervasive prejudice of Lewis's childhood was recalled, with whimsical humour, by his brother, Warnie. 'We went to church regularly in our youth, but even then one sensed the fact that church going was not so much a religious as a political right, the weekly assertion of the fact that you were not a Roman Catholic Nationalist. Our butcher and our grocer attended one suspected primarily to draw customers' attention to the fact that at their shops could be bought decent Protestant food untainted by the damnable heresies of Rome.' [16] Warnie also recalled how he and his brother would play a game called 'Catholics versus Protestants', much as children in England might play 'Cowboys versus Indians' or 'British versus Germans'. In these sectarian games Lewis would always insist on taking the Protestant side.[17]

Further evidence of the anti-Catholicism that Lewis inherited as a child is provided in a letter he wrote to his father at the beginning of October 1908. Written shortly after his arrival at Wynyard School in Watford, the nine-year-old Lewis informed his father that he was shocked by the 'highness' of the ritual in the local Anglican church. 'I do not like church here at all because it is so frightfully high church that it might as well be Roman Catholic.' [18] These sentiments, obviously expressed with the implicit assumption that his father would approve of his plaintive contempt for the 'frightfully high' services, must throw into question Lewis's claim, many years later, that his father was 'rather "high"' in his churchmanship.

In November 1909, more than a year after his initial complaint to his father, he recorded the following anti-papist appraisal in his diary: 'We were obliged to go to St John's, a church which wanted to be Roman Catholic, but was afraid to say so. A kind of church abhorred by respectful Irish Protestants.... In this abominable place of

Romish hypocrites and English liars, the people cross themselves, bow to the Lord's Table (which they have the vanity to call an altar), and pray to the Virgin.' [19]

Now, however, comes the first hint of the conundrum of apparent contradictions that appear to have accompanied Lewis, throughout his life, in his love-loathe relationship with Catholicism. Compare the virulence of the words written in his diary with Lewis's recollection of the effect that he later ced that the Anglo-Catholicism at St John's had on his youthful development.
But I have not yet mentioned the most important thing that befell me at [Wynyard]. There first I became an effective believer. As far as I know, the instrument was the church to which we were taken twice every Sunday. This was high 'Anglo-Catholic'. On the conscious level I reacted strongly against its peculiarities-was I not an Ulster Protestant, and were not these unfamiliar rituals an essential part of the hated English atmosphere? Unconsciously, I suspect, the candles and incense, the vestments and the hymns sung on our knees, may have had a considerable, and opposite, effect on me. But I do not think they were the important thing. What really mattered was that I here heard the doctrines of Christianity (as distinct from general 'uplift') taught by men who obviously believed them. As I had no skepticism, the effect was to bring to life what I would already have said that I believed. [20]
What is one to make of the palpable tension caused by the effect of Anglo-Catholicism on the young Lewis? Perhaps one has little option but to repeat the words, quoted earlier, which Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves: 'I begin to see how much Puritanism counts in your make up–that both the revulsion from it and the attraction back to it are strong elements. . . .' These words might make some sense of the contradictory conundrum. The revulsion from Puritanism might have fed the attraction to Anglo-Catholicism, whereas the ingrained revulsion from Catholicism would have attracted Lewis back to his Puritan roots. The result, at any rate, was a confusion of mutually confounding faiths.

Ultimately, perhaps, the appeal of Anglo-Catholicism might have resided in nothing more, or less, than a deepseated desire to escape from Puritania, once and for all. This was achieved, apparently at least, some time between 1911 and 1913, not by the embrace of Anglo-Catholicism but by the rejection of all forms of Christianity. 'And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief."' He had escaped from the clutches of Puritania–or at least he fooled himself with the illusion that he had done so. Little did he realize that Puritania could not be shaken off so easily. It, or at least its shadow, would continue to haunt Lewis, like a ghost of his past, on every step of his quest for the truth.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress, 3d ed. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943), p. 20.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Perhaps it would be appropriate to mention that I have experienced the prejudiced politics of Ulster at first hand. Prior to my conversion I was, for a time, embroiled in the politics of Loyalist extremism. At the age of seventeen I was present at a major Loyalist riot on the Waterside in Derry and later became involved with Loyalist paramilitaries, forging friendships with leading members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

[4] Unpublished 'Lewis Papers', cited in Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, rev. ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. xx.

[5] Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, p. 119.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: HarperCollins, Fount ed., 1998), p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Unpublished 'Lewis Papers', cited in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, p. 119.

[11] Walter Hooper, ed., They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963) (New York: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 432-33.

[12] G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw (1909), Collected Works, vol. II (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pp. 385-86.

[13] Ibid., p. 386.

[14] Ibid., pp. 374-75.

[15] Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, vol. I, The Search for Love (London: Chatto, 1988), p. 5.

[16] W. H. Lewis, 'C. S. Lewis: A Biography' (unpublished manuscript); Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

[17] W. H. Lewis in conversation with George Sayer, in Christopher Derrick, C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981), pp. 26-27.

[18] Walter Hooper, ed., C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 1:7.

[19] Ibid., p. 8.

[20] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 24-25.

[21] Ibid., p. 49.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him | An Interview with James T. Como
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

C. S. Lewis | Ignatius Press resources:

6 By C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters)
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | by Joseph Pearce
Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
The Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover volume)
The Chronicles of Narnia Set | by C.S. Lewis (7-volume set, softcover in case)
Chronicles of Narnia Set (3 tapes)
The Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
Shadowlands (BBC edition; DVD)
The Magic Never Ends (DVD)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Literary Converts | by Joseph Pearce

There are many Protestants and Catholics who have been deeply affected and spirituality changed by the writings of C.S. Lewis, including many converts to Catholicism who credit C.S. Lewis for playing a significant role in their conversion. But the ironic and perplexing fact is that Lewis himself, while “Catholic” in may aspects of his faith and devotion, never became a Roman Catholic. Many have wondered why.

Joseph Pearce (IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page), highly regarded literary biographer and great admirer of Lewis, is the ideal writer to try to answer that question. The relationship of Lewis to the Roman Catholic Church is an important and intriguing topic of interest to both Catholics and Protestants. In C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Pearce delves into all the issues, questions, and factors regarding this puzzling question. He gives a broad and detailed analysis of the historical, biographical, theological, and literary pieces of this puzzle.

His findings set forth the objective shape of Lewis’s theological and spiritual works in their relation to the Catholic Church. This well-written book brings new insights into a great Christian writer, and it should spark lively discussion among Lewis readers and bring about a better understanding of the spiritual beliefs of C.S. Lewis.

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