C S Lewis’s quasi-medieval ministry of mercy – part II


C.s.lewis3 (1)Here is the rest of the conclusion of the “compassionate ministry” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (the first part is here). Here we see more of how Lewis applied the classic medieval virtue of mercy in his own life, as well as how he accused modern materialists of forgetting that we cannot solve all of our problems by application of better and better techniques.

More concretely, Lewis was also lavish in his almsgiving. He said this on giving: “Giving to the poor is an essential part of Christian morality. I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, and amusement, is up to the standard common of those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. . . . For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear – fear of insecurity. This must often be recognized as a temptation.”[1]

Barfield, who was Lewis’s trustee as well as his friend, observed how Lewis followed this principle in his own life. “He gave two-thirds of his income away altogether and would have bound himself to give the whole of it away if I had let him. . . . There were substantial donations to charitable institutions, but what he really liked was to find someone through a personal connection or hearsay whose wants might be alleviated. He was always grateful to me for suggesting any lame dog whom my profession [as a lawyer] had brought to my notice.” (14) Nor did he worry about wasting his money on undeserving types. Instead, he reflected, “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.” Then, like the medievals, he tied the principle back to Matthew 25: “After all, the parable of the sheep and goats makes our duty perfectly plain, doesn’t it.”[2]

Another lesson we may learn from medieval medical ministry is that we cannot expect to do away with suffering altogether through some utopian program, or through scientific advancement. We are often in the position of only being able to provide limited, palliative care—that is simply a fact of life: pain and suffering will always be with us. So part of our healthcare approach must be to address that persistent fact. Lewis accused the social-scientific schemers and dreamers of his time of “assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure.” From that belief, he argues, comes “the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest.”

Instead of wasting resources and energy on such utopian schemes, Lewis counseled, “the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives . . . not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, [45] or peace.” In the end, he concludes, “the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.”

The pastoral as well as practical force of this he reflected as he talked with a group of workers at an industrial company office in Middlesex: “Christianity really does two things about conditions here and now in this world: (1) It tries to make them as good as possible, i.e., to reform them; but also (2) it fortifies you against them in so far as they remain bad.”[3]

It does matter, Lewis reminds us, whether we do our works of mercy from a Christian or a non-Christian perspective. While “a Christian and a non-Christian may both wish to do good to their fellow men . . . [t]he one believes that men are going to live for ever, that they were created by God and so built that they can find their true and lasting happiness only by being united to God, that they have gone badly off the rails, and that obedient faith in Christ is the only way back. The other believes that men are an accidental result of the blind workings of matter, that they started as mere animals and have more or less steadily improved, that they are going to live for about seventy years, that their happiness is fully attainable by good social services and political organizations, and that everything else (e.g., vivisection, birth-control, the judicial system, education) is to be judged to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ simply in so far as it helps or hinders that kind of ‘happiness’.”[4]

This sort of reflection brings us into the important realm of medical ethics, in which Christians should surely have a distinctive witness. But it also impacts the sort of medical care we provide to individuals. The story of the medieval Christian origin and operation of the hospital can pull us back toward a balance that tends to be lost today in the medical field. Think for example of how it took the British Christian Cecily Saunders and her hospice movement to back us away from the medical obsession with taking every heroic, technology-assisted measure to keep a person alive, even to the detriment of their quality of life. Death will happen, as will suffering, and there are kinds of pain to which medical science will never have an answer. What is needed in those cases is a different kind of care—something less like the gleaming machinery, tubes, and beeping screens of the modern palliative care unit, and more like the brothers of the monastery lining up on both sides of the dying man’s bed, praying and singing as he suffers and sinks toward death.


[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 375.

[2] Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume III, 1376 [October 26, 1962].

[3] “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” God in the Dock, 49.

[4] (God in the Dock, book I, chap. 12, p. 109.)

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