Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt
from "C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church"
Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt
S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
I dreamed of a boy who was born in the land of Puritania and his name
was John. The Pilgrim's Regress 
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',  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
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 levelthe level of Truthit
represents Puritanism; on the physical levelor the level of Factit
represents Lewis's childhood in the Puritanical atmosphere of Protestant
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. 
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, and he I never tired of deprecating the Catholic
Church from his pulpit'.  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".' 
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.'  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'. 
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
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".'
 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.
It is interesting to note Lewis's criticism in this letter of what might
be termed bibliolatrythe 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
'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.'  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.' 
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. 
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".' 
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-malignedand, in consequence, an increasingly malignantminority.
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.'  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
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.'  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.' 
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 claimed
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. 
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 upthat 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
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 Puritaniaor 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.
 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress, 3d ed. (London: Geoffrey
Bles, 1943), p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 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).
 Unpublished 'Lewis Papers', cited in Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter
Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, rev. ed. (London: HarperCollins,
2002), p. xx.
 Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, p. 119.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: HarperCollins, Fount ed.,
1998), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Unpublished 'Lewis Papers', cited in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis:
A Biography, p. 119.
 Walter Hooper, ed., They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis
to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963) (New York: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 432-33.
 G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw (1909), Collected Works,
vol. II (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pp. 385-86.
 Ibid., p. 386.
 Ibid., pp. 374-75.
 Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, vol. I, The Search for Love
(London: Chatto, 1988), p. 5.
 W. H. Lewis, 'C. S. Lewis: A Biography' (unpublished manuscript); Wade
Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
 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.
 Walter Hooper, ed., C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters (London:
HarperCollins, 2000), 1:7.
 Ibid., p. 8.
 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 24-25.
 Ibid., p. 49.
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C. S. Lewis | Ignatius Press resources:
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C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover
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Set (3 tapes)
Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
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Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Converts | by Joseph Pearce
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 Lewiss 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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