The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis
The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis
Letters: C. S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship
reviewed by James L. Sauer
Between 1947 and 1961, C. S. Lewis corresponded in Latin with two members of the Roman Catholic order of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence in Verona, Italy. Don Giovanni Calabria wrote Lewis after reading his Screwtape Letters. Calabria’s ecumenical purpose in contacting Lewis involved the persuasion of “the dissenting brethren whose return to the unity of the body, which is the Church, is most greatly desired,” to resume that ancient cohesion. After Calabria’s death in 1954, the communication was continued with Don Luigi Pedrollo.
Moynihan has done us a service in gathering, translating, and editing these letters. Though one must admit a certain annoyance at his publishing first a prospectus and commentary, and three years later, the letters. Certainly, the texts and commentary could have been brought together in one book; and the multiplicity of texts on Lewis, however lucrative, staunched. But it must also be added that the translation is better for the delay, Moynihan having polished the translations of the earlier excerpts.
If there is any universal theme to these letters it is that of “Christian unity.” This hallmark is set from the onset of their communication by Calabria and followed closely by Lewis. Calabria, a holy and pious man—and now beatified by the Roman Church—writes with a pleasant pastiche of Scripture and the holy fathers somewhat reminiscent of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation.
Lewis, on the other hand, writes with that vim we have come to expect; biblical allusions, classical quotations, high church anglicanisms, humor, and humble wisdom. Though there are discussions of theology proper, the problem of petitionary prayer, the martyrdom of missionaries in China, and the like; it is to the central theme of their friendship which we return:
Lewis’s suggestion that a conscious love and labor together, as we witness in the contemporary pro-life movement, might set the foundation for doctrinal discussion. Our present tendency is to begin with doctrines which we know we disagree about, and never move on to loving labors.
Certainly this is the case in Communist countries. You don’t ask a person’s view of the sacraments when his beaten body is thrust into your cell.
The union of the Christian church also exists; what we are struggling about is how we relate to each other, and to the head.
It is apropos that he ends his last letter to Don Giovanni Calabria with this line: “Let us rejoice together, my Father: though divided in space, yet in spirit and charity we are united: and may you ever pray for. . . [signature]” (Letter 28)
Throughout the letters one is struck by the united pietas of Lewis and Calabria. Their friendship did not solve the problem of the schism of Christendom; but it did reflect, in a living full-fleshed way, the charity which can be the only basis of reunion.
James L. Sauer is the Director of Library, Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
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“The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis” first appeared in the Spring-Summer 1989 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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