C. S. Lewis

Round Up

Lately, I’ve been blessed to have my writing featured on a number of different websites.

After my Wes Anderson article was published at Catholic World Report, I also reviewed the recently-released film Little Boy for CWR. 

Director Alejandro Monteverde’s upcoming film Little Boy offers a story about childhood, faith, and prejudice set in a tiny California town during World War II. The film, in theaters this weekend, features beautiful imagery and a compelling storyline, and demonstrates careful production that captures the charm of 1940s America.

The film is rich in potential, and some are rushing to support it merely because it is a “Christian” film, while others wonder whether Monteverde’s latest effort might not feature the same weaknesses of storytelling and pacing that handicapped his 2006 pro-life movie Bella. Read the rest at Catholic World Report. . . 

Then, the Civilized Reader over at Crisis Magazine published my piece on C.S. Lewis’s last novelTill We Have Faces, which I found profoundly powerful and moving.

Oft forgotten amid the fanfare for The Chronicles of Narnia and his sci-fi trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces was the last novel he wrote; and it is an unforgettable fiction that feels, in some ways, a little too real.  Much as The Screwtape Letters dissects the shameful foibles of the human soul with insight sharper than a surgeon’s knife, Till We Have Faces takes up with shocking clarity a grim problem as old as Job: man’s complaint against a seemingly inscrutable God.

The result is not easy reading. Although the plot races through a powerful drama based on the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche, readers must keep pace with difficult spiritual questions as the narrator navigates painful memories and grave soul-searching. Lewis thus takes a bold and unfiltered look at some of humanity’s darkest struggles: pride; doubt; anger against God; the problem of suffering; and the mysterious battle between love and selfishness in the human heart. Read the rest at Crisis Magazine . . .

Hell is Other People

 Hell is other people.
A production of Sartre’s Huis Clos
At least, that’s what French existentialist and Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre said. The line comes from his 1944 play Huis Clos (“No Exit”), in which three damned souls discover that their eternal punishment is not fire-and-brimstone tortures such as abound in Dante’s Inferno, but rather to be locked in a room with the people who will most get on their nerves, to put it mildly, for all eternity.
Sartre’s “Hell is other people” line is usually taken as his commentary on the discomfort caused by living in community with other human beings. The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.
But another man, an English contemporary of Sartre, had a vastly different vision of Hell. In The Great Divorce, a novel written in 1945, C. S. Lewis made it shockingly clear that Hell is not being forced to live with others you hate; rather, real, genuine, horrible Hell is to be all alone at last with nothing but your sins; alone without any true communion with others or with God. Condemned souls, from Lewis’ point of view, are not souls who suffer because they are forced to be around people they don’t like; they suffer because they are utterly absorbed into themselves, and are left in the end with no solace from their own sins.
Like Huis Clos, Lewis’ novel dispenses with the typical depictions of hell as a place of physical torture; yet unlike Sartre’s play, The Great Divorce paints hell as a grey, mundane, dull town where people are constantly restless and dissatisfied, in increasing and agitated personal and spiritual isolation from one another even if they yet remain in some façade of a community. To be sure, they retain a sizeable contempt for their fellow sinners and even for the saints; the arrogant poet considers them all intellectual inferiors, the narrow-minded cynic thinks them all fools, and the self-satisfied apostate thinks them all unenlightened. Yet their punishment is not to be in company with such people, but to have isolated their souls from real and selfless relationship with an “other,” leaving them alone with their pride, or their cynicism, or their lust, or their selfishness.
The essential point Lewis is trying to make is that, in the end, Hell is not a punishment imposed by God upon unwilling, unfortunate souls. It is a deliberate, individual choice, a choice a soul makes freely.  As Lewis’ “guide” through other-worldly regions explains: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” He goes on to clarify that at some point, a condemned soul decided it would rather keep a damning little sin, even if it cannot be happy with it, rather than have that sin taken away altogether. When that happens, a soul becomes practically swallowed up by its self-destroying sin; the soul almost ceases to be itself, and begins to be merely the stuff of its own sins. 
Often, as flawed human beings we can be easily tempted to think our problem is other people. If only so-and-so wasn’t such a jerk, this wouldn’t be so frustrating; my life would get so much better if people just appreciated me. He is just so unreasonable; she whines all the time. Dealing with other people can be so trying an experience that we may despondently declare that someone is “giving us Hell.”
But Lewis’ insight is clear: Hell is not bearing with the (perhaps grave) faults of other people, but living willingly in our own. In reality, human community (“other people”) is our greatest opportunity to grow in charity; it sanctifies us in this life, and is one of the great joys of the next. Here on earth, living with “other people” is not our hell, but our Purgatory: it teaches us to learn about, cope with, and grow out of our own faults in order to function as best we can in a faulty human society. In heaven, at last, we will be relieved of our deficiencies and our sins will be erased from our souls, so that the “other people,” the community of saints and angels, will not be a burden but an everlasting joy—that exchange of mutual love with each other and with that all-important “other,” God, for all eternity.

 While Sartre may have been on to something about the pain of living in community, he missed the other side of the coin: in a certain sense, Heaven is other people—because we cannot get there, and we cannot choose to be there, without being other-centered, without coming to live in the selfless communion of love with God and man.
Jean-Paul Sartre
C.S. Lewis

The Person You Are Meant To Be

During his recent visit to Croatia, the Pope addressed a crowd of young Croatians at a prayer vigil in Zagreb. Among his words to them that evening, he emphasized one phrase in particular which he must strongly believe that the youth of today need to hear, as he also chose it to be the message for the upcoming World Youth Day. “Dear young people,” he told them, “If you are rooted in Christ, you will fully become the person you are meant to be.”
“The person you are meant to be.” This phrase is steeped in deeper meaning than it might at first appear. Young people often struggle with painful questions of identity; during adolescence, they feel a deep desire to discover and cement their personality as something distinctly their own. They have an innate sense that their personhood must be not only uniquely valuable, but also definitely valued by someone else. Without being “rooted in Christ,” without a solid spiritual foundation and guidance, they will turn desperately to what guidance they are given: the voice of the world. This is why many young women struggle with anorexia, why young men join gangs, why the mandates of fashion convince so many young people to all adopt the same style of shoes and haircut and listen to the same music.
But the reality is that outside of Christ the human soul loses its true identity. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the master-tempter Screwtape comments to his devil-nephew Wormwood on how vice and virtue affect a soul’s personhood: “When [God] talks of [humans] losing their selves,” says Screwtape, “He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality . . . when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (Letter XIII).
Even a cursory view of humanity illustrates this. Who are the most unique persons in all human history? The answer is not always the most famous people in history. World conquerors, for instance, all blend into a certain mold; “a lust for power united with extraordinary military genius” equally describes both Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar. A puzzling amount of renowned artists and musicians seem to have had the same sort of tragic personal life: torn by infidelity and scarred by sin. Even the villains of history aren’t unique. When they are more evil, they are less original, and begin to all fit the same pattern: the horrid shape of the demonic. Hitler was more unique as a German schoolboy playing games than he was as the Fuhrer; Robespierre, a brilliant student with a love for Cicero, was more himself before the Revolution. It is when they became evil that they lost their identity and became uncannily like one another: corrupted mass-murderers exercising worldly power to persecute others.
The most unique persons in history are the saints. The word “saint” may draw to mind images of monks and nuns kneeling on clouds, in an aura of light, and gazing upward with saccharine smiles on their faces. But saints aren’t like that. Saints, in conforming themselves to Christ, don’t become all the same. They each become distinctly themselves. They become, as the Pope said, the person they were meant to be. The fiery, down-to-earth Teresa of Avila spent her life traveling through Spain, facing opposition and disappointments, to dramatically reform the Carmelite order. Gianna Molla was a doctor, wife, and mother who gave her life to save her child. Thomas More was a lawyer executed for refusing to deny Christ on a point of law; Junipero Serra traversed the California wilderness to bring the universal law of the love to those who did not know Christ. Edith Stein sought God through philosophy; St. Isidore the Farmer sought God while humbly plowing his farm.
These people are unique, they are fascinating, they are authentic–they are who they were meant to be, because they were truly rooted in Christ. Vice destroys our human identity. Virtue completes it. Pulling away from God robs us of our only source of true individuality. Like prisoners in a dungeon, starved and hidden away from the sunlight, souls that feed on sin alone begin to all look alike: malnourished, ill at heart, sad, bitter, even if they are surrounded by worldly glory and pleasure. But God designed each soul to have its own special character. A soul who embraces Christ embraces the fullness of his own identity, because God gives that soul the grace of becoming what His plan always intended him to be: a saint.