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C.S. Lewis tells you about the saints

LEWIS
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He describes what it is to live among possible saints and to be a possible saint yourself.

He was definitely a Protestant, was C. S. Lewis. I wish he weren’t, but he was. And because he was a Protestant, he offers a witness from outside the Catholic Church. And he gives us, mostly because he was so smart and so learned and so serious about his faith, useful illustrations and arguments. About the saints, for one thing.

Lewis didn’t see the saints the same way Catholics do. He didn’t see them as a personal part of the Gospel, the good news, as explained here. He tells a friend in a letter of 1952, speaking of the Hail Mary, that we could offer what he called “a salute” to a creature. But we shouldn’t say the prayer because we might start worshipping Mary. He adds the old Protestant line that if Mary is as good as the Catholics say, she wouldn’t want the attention anyway. Four years later he told another friend that the invocation of the saints would not help his own devotions. He seems to have seen the saints as models, but not so much as friends. He sometimes invokes their teachings to make a point, but he never speaks of a saint as someone he’s talking to. Those three things summarize how he treats the saints.

His thinking on the saints is not, by the way, part of his heritage our Protestant friends tend to esteem, or even notice. The excellent The Quotable Lewis, edited by two Evangelical college professors, contains in its 627 pages and 1,565 entries just two references to the saints. Neither matters.

The very good book on Lewis called Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, by my friend Chris Armstrong, talks about holiness and sanctification but not about the saints who incarnate them.

Lewis did say some very useful things about the saints

But Lewis did say some very useful things about the saints, some of them coming in a book published just after he died. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer offers made-up letters to a friend who seems a little grumpy. Lewis winds up explaining how some Catholic beliefs make sense, without going all in himself. He liked the idea of Purgatory, for one, but made sure to reject “the Romish doctrine.” He felt the same away about the Catholic relation to the saints, though he came closer to affirming Catholic teaching.

Lewis’ Insights Into the Saints

Lewis’ first insight is an insight into the value of the saints as challenges. The Protestantism of his youth felt too comfortable with heavenly things. His grandfather thought of meeting St. Paul like “two clerical gentlemen talking at ease in a club!” He continues:

It never seemed to cross his mind that an encounter with St. Paul might be rather an overwhelming experience even for an Evangelical clergyman of good family. But when Dante saw the great apostles in heaven they affected him like mountains. There’s lots to be said against devotions to saints; but at least they keep on reminding us that we are very small people compared with them. How much smaller before their Master?

Like mountains to us now, but Lewis insists that God wants the same thing for us. His second insight is an insight into the saints as models, or maybe promises.

In Mere Christianity, he warns us that without Christ “not one of us is safe from some gross sin.” We wouldn’t make it through the next 24 hours without making a mess. But, he continues, “no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life: but He means to get us as far as possible before death.”

One of the truths the saints model for us is the proper order of things. He wrote at the end of a period when mysticism had been rather a fad among Christians. For good and bad reasons.

On the one hand, a rediscovery of a Christian tradition, but on the other, an attempt get away from all that doctrinal and sacramental stuff into some safe realm of “pure spirit.” We see the latter today in the people who are “spiritual but not religious.”

Goodness before religion, Lewis might have said. Holiness before spirituality. “The saint, by being a saint,” he explains, “proves that his mysticism (if he was a mystic; not all saints are) led him aright; the fact that he has practised mysticism could never prove his sanctity.” The saint may win ‘a mortal glimpse of death’s immortal rose,’ but it is a by-product. He took ship simply in humble and selfless love.”

Praying to the Saints

Malcolm seems to be a somewhat grumpy Protestant. In the next letter, Lewis takes up his friend’s reaction to the invocation of the saints. He doesn’t do it himself, he writes, but “There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?” 

He’s pleased that Christians agree on praying with the saints, even if they disagree about praying to them. He had accepted the idea that we pray “With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” but only theoretically. “It is quite different when one brings it into consciousness at an appropriate moment and wills the association of one’s own little twitter with the voice of the great saints and (we hope) of our own dear dead. They may drown some of its uglier qualities and set off any tiny value it has.”

Goodness makes human beings more interesting, Lewis saw. “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. “How gloriously different are the saints.” He explains, in a passage I commend, why you can only be yourself when you stop trying to be yourself and give yourself to Christ.

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been. How gloriously different are the saints.

God wants you to be so gloriously different. He wants you to be a saint. Lewis offered one of the most arresting descriptions of the choice I know, and of our responsibility to others to be like Christ. He shares it at the end of his great sermon “The Weight of Glory. He preached it in Oxford’s university church early in World War II, when he and his listeners had already lost friends and students and for all they knew might themselves die soon. 

It is too long to quote it all, and I commend this passage to you as well. I read it often as a reminder and a kind of pep talk. He does not use the word “saint” in the whole sermon, but he describes what it is to live among possible saints and to be a possible saint yourself.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

A Society of Possible Saints

“It is a serious thing,” Lewis says, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

That being so, he continues,

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. …

“Our charity must be a real and costly love,” he says. “… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

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For the other articles in the “C.S. Lewis Tells You” series, see:

How to worship

What to do with your life

What to read

How to observe Lent

How to see others

Why you should like Purgatory