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From the Spring-Summer, 1989 issue of Touchstone


The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis by James L. Sauer

The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis

The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis
by Martin Moynihan
Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1985
64 pages, $4.95

Letters: C. S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship
Martin Moynihan, editor
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1988
125 pages, $5.95

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:

“Might we not hope that this unity of love and action over many years would precede—not to say foster—an eventual re-unification of doctrines.” (Letter 2)

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.

“Common perils, common burdens, an almost universal hatred and contempt for the Flock of Christ can, by God’s Grace, contribute much to the healing of our divisions. For those who suffer the same things from the same people for the same Person can scarcely not love each other.” (Letter 3)

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.

“Disputations do more to aggravate schisms than to heal them: united action, prayer, fortitude and (should God so will) united deaths for Christ—these will make us one” (Letter 5)

“The unity of the whole human race exists: would that there existed that nobler union of which you write.” (Letter 24)

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.

“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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