Why I’m Becoming Catholic – The Holy Grail

It’s been an exhausting but happy week. We wrapped principal photography on The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers, though we have a couple days of pick-up shots this Friday and Saturday. I also received an e-mail informing me my visa was issued yesterday, which is a load off my mind, as it took longer than expected and I was worried I had been rejected for some reason and wouldn’t be able to leave on time. I leave for England on Sunday, barring any further pick-ups. I should arrive at the Kilns next Monday morning, Lord willing.

It’s time now to return to my series on why I’m becoming Catholic. I’ve finally run into some close family friends who are not too keen on my decision, grilling me on the Catholic worship of Mary (she’s not worshipped, she’s venerated – worship is reserved for God), Catholic belief in “earning” one’s way to Heaven through works (rejected by the Church early in its history as the Pelagian heresy), and Catholic focus on extra-Biblical practices and beliefs (the Church put together the Bible, and even the Pope is subject to the authority of Christ and the first Apostles – not to mention that sola Scriptura is itself an extra-Biblical doctrine).

I admit that I still have much to learn about Catholic doctrine and spiritual practices, and thus I don’t yet have the most robust answers to my challengers. But there is one important reason why I am pledging allegiance to Rome:

The Catholic Church has the Holy Grail.

No, I’m not about to write about some conspiracy theory involving the Templars or the Merovingian line. Rather, I realized that everything I love about King Arthur and the Quest for the Grail – the greatest legend of Western Christendom – can be found in the Catholic Church. When I participate in the Eucharist, even as a witness (since I have not yet been received into the Church), I participate in the reality behind the story that stirs the deepest longings of my heart. At the moment of consecration, the wine in the chalice becomes the very Blood of Christ, and thus the chalice itself becomes the figure of the Grail, the Holy Cup that holds the Blood of our Lord.

I think sometimes, in order to fully understand the rituals in which we participate in the “real world,” we need to enter into them through the side-route of the imagination. One example related to Lewis is the letter he received from Philinda Krieg, whose son Laurence, after reading The Chronicles of Narnia, was concerned that he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis responded by saying:

…Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not – I mean, the body of a lion. […]

Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother.

3/ If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.’ That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’

The full text of this letter can be found in Volume 3 of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. I’ve quoted most of it here, but the entire book (in all three volumes) is worth buying and keeping handy on your shelf, as it’s full of joys like this letter, in which Lewis’ love for his readers, especially the young ones, shines through.

Just as Laurence was learning to love Jesus through the imaginary figure of Aslan, I learned to love Christ through the figures of King Arthur and Aragorn (the good king), the Bishop of Digne in Les Misérables (the merciful priest), and numerous “suffering servant” figures in literature, film, and T.V. (like Frodo and Jean Valjean). For me, the painted pictures of Jesus on the walls at Sunday School didn’t become fully real until I saw flashes of Him in stories, and was able to realize that all that I loved in Camelot, in Middle-Earth, and in Hugo’s novel was completed and had its source in the Kingdom of God.

This sense of story being wrapped up in history was begun for me around the time I read G.K. Chesterton‘s The Everlasting Man, and came to its fruition in terms of my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church when I read Charles WilliamsTaliessin through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars.

Next up: Taliessin.

Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series on my journey to the Catholic Church.

ETA: As always, if you decide to get your own copy of one of the books mentioned above, please do so through the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s online bookstore, powered by Amazon. Doing so helps support the work of the Foundation, including holding study programs, founding C.S. Lewis College, and maintaining Lewis’ home, the Kilns.

C.S. Lewis Blog Post Round-Up

Last time I posted a round-up of C.S. Lewis blogs; this time it’s a round-up of particular posts of interest. I’m still working on the series about my journey to the Catholic Church; Part 2 will be up soon.

The Inklings posts an article from the Church Times on the history of Perelandra the Opera, which had its first performances in 40 years this weekend at the Keble College Chapel in Oxford. (If anyone attended, please let me know, and I’ll post your account of the event in full.) More information is available at the Perelandra Project website.

-The C.S. Lewis Foundation Blog announces that Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, will be speaking on theories of astronomy in Lewis’ books at Oxford Science Live on July 2.

-Not completely Lewis-related (though there is a Lewis quote at the end), Victor Reppert has a must-read post on “Some confusions about truth and religion”:

[I]f we define God as an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then either God exists or God does not exist, and if God does exist, then the people that believe that God exists are correct, and the people that do not believe that God exists are mistaken. On the other hand, if God does not exist, then the people who believe that God does not exist are correct, and the people who believe that God does not [sic] exist are mistaken. The idea that if you truly believe in God, then God exists for you, but if you don’t believe in God, God does not exist for you, is nonsense.

This “subjective truth” argument is one I have run into several times, and it’s infuriating. Dr. Reppert (the author of C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason) does a good job of showing why God either must or must not exist, however “intolerant” it may be to insist on that fact.

-The C.S. Lewis Society of Frederick, MD has a brief post on Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments.


Cole’s Top 10 Reading List

My good friend Tyler from high school is a restaurant manager at a top restaurant in New York City. Since I’ve moved to Baltimore, I don’t get to see him and his new wife (also a culinary professional) as much as I’d like. This week, Tyler asked me about a reading list, thoughtful books I’d recommend. So here it is, starting with my top choice, with a few notes on why each book is included:

1. The Bible – It may be a cliché, but there is a reason the Bible is the number-one best-selling book of all time. As a Christian, I believe it is the Word of God and contains the keys to eternal life. However, it has also had a greater impact on Western culture than any other book. If one would be literate in our culture, one must have some familiarity with its stories and symbolism. In addition, the ideas and people contained therein, especially the central Person of the New Testament, are a challenge to every thoughtful person.

2. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – IMHO, this is the greatest piece of literature of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time. Besides creating a thrilling story, Tolkien managed to tap into the deep sense of loss that is a part of being human. (Visit Bruce L. Edwards’ blog to read a good article by Megan J. Robinson on the sense of lost joy in Tolkien and the sense of future joy in Lewis – two sides of the same Christian coin.) There is such ravishing, sorrowful beauty in Middle-Earth, that to be lost in that world is both humbling and ennobling.

3. Les Misérables (Victor Hugo) – This is the book that made me choose to be a Christian, and first taught me that mercy and forgiveness were infinitely greater acts than an insistence on cold, hard justice. During my teenage years, I took Jean Valjean as my model, and his example of selfless love remains with me as (I hope) an influence on my behavior. When I re-read the book last year, for my third total reading of it, I was struck for the first time just how left-leaning the politics were, and how they wouldn’t fly with Lewis. For example, Hugo insists that universal education would solve crime, and that criminals shouldn’t be treated as people who willingly broke the law, but as patients in need of healing. Just read Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (in God in the Dock) to see how he felt about a theory of punishment that takes away any acknowledgement of a man’s free will. However, if one does not get hung up on the many mini-essays of this type with which the book is speckled, one can be profoundly moved by the story of a man who is redeemed by grace.

4. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) – Of course, I must have some Lewis on this list! Mere Christianity is one of the most concise, clearly-written explanations of what Christians believe and why, and would be my first recommendation (after the Gospels) for someone to read who wants to know more about Christianity.

5. The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis) – As I wrote earlier, this is one of Lewis’ most under-rated books. See this post for my thoughts on it. Moral relativism taught to children under the guise of an education in the liberal arts is a very dangerous thing. This book is best paired with a reading of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, especially the final book, That Hideous Strength, in which the ideas of Abolition take horrific fictional form.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl) – As a clinical psychology doctoral student, I was angered by schools of psychology (Freudianism, Behaviorism) that had a deterministic view of man. Your responses to the world are formed as a child, either by your parents or by rewards and punishments, and once they are set, you have little to no say as to how you will respond to life’s situations. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, took the view that the greatest ability and the greatest dignity of man was to be able to choose his own response to a situation, even one has oppressive as a Nazi death camp. He writes about how the prisoners most likely to survive the camps were the ones who felt they had a purpose, a mission to live for. Probably the most famous Frankl quote is this:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

7. The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton) – Again, I’ve spoken about this book here, but it really made me think about both Catholicism and particularly monastic life in a new way. If anything, the spiritual autobiography, and Merton’s beautiful language, are worth reading, even if one has no inclinations toward Catholicism. (Though be warned, he does have some harsh words for Protestants.)

8. Taliesin (Stephen R. Lawhead) – This fiction book is the first in Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle. It tells the story of Taliesin, the father of Merlin. It takes place during the introduction of Christianity to Britain, and the way Taliesin takes to the idea of one God, above all the gods he knew and worshiped, made me look at Christianity in a new way – not as a displacement of all previous knowledge and experiences of the divine, but as a fulfillment of them. Taliesin was also the first piece of contemporary Christian fantasy I had read; it made me glad to know that there were still writers carrying on the tradition of the Inklings. After Taliesin, my favorite Lawhead book is Avalon, which is a sequel to the Cycle, in that it takes place in modern-day Britain, when Arthur returns to take up the kingship of Logres in a country that is about to abolish the monarchy as an outdated and oppressive institution.

9. “On Fairy-Stories” (Tolkien) and “On Stories” (Lewis) – Two of the best essays on the importance of fantasy ever written. Tolkien’s breakdown of what people mean by the “escapist” accusation, and how the “escape of the prisoner” differs fundamentally from the “flight of the deserter,” provides especially good apologetic fuel to the lover of this type of literature. Also, Tolkien’s concepts of the Eucatastrophe and Subcreation are invaluable, especially for anyone who wants to better appreciate #2 on my list. (Read a nice little essay on the differences between co-creation and sub-creation here.) I tell ya, practically everything Tolkien writes brings nobility to the genre.

10. The Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton) – A look at the Christian story as the central fact and fulfillment of history. This book was an influence on Lewis. The two most important ideas I took away from it are 1) the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the literal crux of all history, and 2) civilizations and cultures are not all created equal. A culture that sacrifices babies to blood-thirsty gods is not as valuable as one that promotes the care of widows and orphans and the honor of all human life.

So there you are, a top 10 reading list. Top 10 of what, you may be thinking. Just the top 10 books to come to my mind when asked what I would recommend. There are books that are more thought-provoking, more morally strengthening, and more imaginative than most of these, but I’m giving you those books that first came to my mind when I thought of what had an impact on me. At the least, I hope I’ve provided some possible options to add to your bedside reading stack.

The Green Book

Last summer, I attended the first of two Summer Seminars-in-Residence at the Kilns. This one was led by Dr. Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. There were about a dozen of us who attended the seminar. The first weekend in February, eight of us got together for a reunion at Wheaton. Chris Mitchell took us into the lower depths of the Wade, into the double-sealed room that holds Lewis’ actual library. There Chris showed us Pauline Baynes’ original sketches for the illustrations in The Chronicles of Narnia, an afghan that Joy (Lewis’ wife) had knitted, and several books with Lewis’ own annotations, including one in particular: the Green Book.

In The Abolition of Man – one of my favorite Lewis works – CSL writes in reaction to a book of which he received a review copy. With his signature courtesy, even toward his intellectual opponents, Lewis declines to name the authors with whom he took issue – or even name the book. Instead, he calls them Gaius and Titius, and their book the Green Book. He assures his readers that the Green Book is no conglomerate of other modern educational books, or a hypothetical textbook, but an actual book sitting on his shelf.

I squee’d when Chris pulled the book off the shelf, and then not only revealed its identity, but let us hold it. When I received the book and tenderly opened its pages, I saw dozens of scrawled notes on the inside covers, as well as on the various pages. It was amazing to see a Lewis thought, and know how it had developed in the published Abolition.

The Abolition of Man is one of Lewis’ most under-rated works, and one of his most intellectually robust. However, it still maintains the clear readability of Lewis works like Mere Christianity. I highly recommend you put it at the top of your CSL reading list if you haven’t read it already.

The problem with the Green Book, according to Lewis, was that it purported to be an English textbook, but it really taught very little about English at all. Instead, it taught philosophy in the guise of literary criticism. And not only philosophy, but bad philosophy. Here students were taught moral relativism and subjectivity in the name of not being “taken in” by statements of feeling or value. Gaius and Titius quote the story of Coleridge at the Falls of Clyde, in which he speaks with a tourist, who calls the waterfall “sublime.” G & T inform the student that the tourist was not really making a statement about the waterfall, but about his own feelings about the waterfall. They go further to inform the student that poets are never really talking about the subject they seem to be talking about (e.g. Love, the Fall from Heaven, a cloud of daffodils), but are merely talking about their own feelings, their own psychological experiences. (See Lewis’ brilliant exchange with E.M.W. Tillyard on this Personal Heresy, now finally back in print in an inexpensive edited paperback edition!)

For Lewis, this reading of poetry took away any possibility of poetry communicating anything of value. G & T were in effect saying that nothing could be beautiful, or good, or true in itself, but only that we could feel happy, or calm, or safe, or some other feeling when we thought of them. But of course, if I’ve started to describe my psychological state, I’m no longer describing the waterfall. And what is the point of making poetry about majestic waterfalls, if all I’m really saying is that the waterfall induces feelings of majesty within my emotional experience? I might as well just show you a scan of my amygdala and be done with it. It would give you the same amount of information about the world in a more efficient manner, and be more honest.

To be continued when I review the new edition of The Personal Heresy

By the way, in case you’re wondering. The name of the Green Book? The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alec King and Martin Ketley (1939).

P.S. You can now follow Bruce L. Edwards, Lewis scholar and writer of the Introduction to the new Personal Heresy, on Twitter @cslewisnews! Oh, and you can follow me @colematson.