C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, romanticism, Creation, community, sex – musings on Catholicism and the quiddity of things


Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Still hammering away at Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Turning now to the “creation chapter.” Here are a few halting thoughts toward an introduction. They won’t appear in the final book in this form, but they suggest some linkages between medieval Western faith and modern Catholicism – in an area Protestants could learn from:

Modern Catholic tradition still draws from the Creation emphasis in the medieval church, which has attenuated in Protestantism.

Lewis picked this Creation-positive spirituality up too. Think of his love of storms, rocks, trees; his laughing exuberance in storms, rain, fog, drizzle (making him the perfect Englishman), as he reveled in “the quiddity [“that-ness,” essential nature] of things”; his use of long walks in the country to recharge himself.

We might see in these things the influence of the Victorian romanticism still lingering especially in literary and artistic corners of the British Isles during Lewis’s growing-up years: that sense of the mystic sacredness of nature itself, the sort of lavish and sometimes dark and even pagan pantheism that made Blake such an odd duck, led the brilliant Catholic engraver Eric Gill to create his frank and shockingly explicit public works of art, and brought the late-19th-century Decadents such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde (both of whom became Catholic) down into their pit of muck.

Of course romanticism contained, as an acute observer once remarked, a lot of “spilt religion.” It was also allied in many of these figures with a deep, longing, wistful medievalism – as in the novels of William Morris and (in the previous generation) Sir Walter Scott. But in the mature Lewis, something more direct and potent was at work, I think: his own deep absorption in medieval Christian literary sources brought his very personality into alignment with this particular aspect of the medieval ethos: its love for, enjoyment of, and even veneration of Created goods.

A professor of mine in my undergraduate days at St. Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia), Emero Stiegman, who is a world-class scholar on Bernard of Clairvaux and himself a former monk, was a living demonstration of something Clarissa Atkinson said about the affective tradition in medieval Christianity—a tradition not coincidentally forged by Bernard. Atkinson notes that “the friars addressed people in what they cared about most deeply—the desire for love and the fear of death,” and she speculates that the Fransicans’ and Dominicans’ “enthusiasm for the concrete and tangible” led directly to their tremendous success, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. In other words, those mendicant preachers were earthy.

Three of the most popular classes in St. Mary’s’ religious studies curriculum were taught by Dr. Stiegman. They were simply titled “Love,” “Death,” and “Marriage.” In those courses, Dr. Stiegman drew on a combination of practical theological wisdom from the church and social-scientific understandings. His way of opening these topics up to his young students had the effect for me, then a non-Christian, of making a powerful cumulative argument for faith. I began to muse that perhaps Christianity, if I was beginning to understand it rightly, actually teaches us how best to reckon with our created nature and keep that nature healthy and in healthy relationships—not to mention helping us to best make sense of the ending of that nature in death. To find that faith mattered in such down-to-earth ways proved one of the best advertisements I had seen for Christianity. And Dr. Stiegman’s own warm, attentive, solicitous, and genuine personality—forged, I had no doubt, in the fires of monastic discipline—was for me another such advertisement.

In those young pre-Christian days, the few Catholic encounters I had–a Catholic wedding here, a Cursillo weekend there–reinforced my sense that not just Dr. Stiegman but Catholics in general had retained some genuine insights about community—all that it means to live among and with other human creatures—that came integrally from their own tradition. And while we can certainly talk about the relational and affective wisdom of the Western tradition, and I do in another chapter, I think this sense of sacred community is rooted most profoundly in Catholics’ engagement with the doctrine of Creation.

In fact modern Catholicism has continued to place such a high valuation on Creation that it has held up as sacred not only the things that God has created, with humanity as the most shining instance, but also the way God created us, male and female, reproducing “after our own kind.” And this has led an ironically celibate leadership to impose upon its people an extremely controversial, yet at its heart laudable, insistence that humans not limit or interfere with the creative potential inherent in our sexuality. In this chapter I want to look into the roots of that remarkable theological/biological insistence—the Western Catholic love for Creation.

One final note: I can’t resist bringing to bear on our topic the voice of another modern Catholic, that towering British Christian mind, precursor to and influence on C S Lewis and other “Inklings,” G. K. Chesterton, was a further advertisement [disclaimer: I am not now tempted to be a Catholic. But would certainly like to be more catholic!]. Chesterton not only blazed a singularly brilliant trail through the world of letters as an essayist, journalist, poet, novelist, and apologist, but was also a man of what used to be called ‘artistic temperament,’ whose only formal training took place in the Slade School of Art. On his long path from nominal atheism to whole-hearted Catholicism, Chesterton possessed and fostered a particular stance toward Creation. He would (figuratively and I’m sure often literally) wake up in the morning, go to his window, and marvel. Marvel not at the beauty of a sunrise or the fresh greenness of grass, but rather marvel that there is anything. That creation exists. And this essential sense of wonder, often manifested in his prolific creative output, his gifts for allegory and imagery, and the exuberance with which he lived and wrote, touched every aspect of his life and work.

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