According to English writer G.K. Chesterton, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This statement rings true especially in relation to another great English author—Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis! No another writer, accept maybe J.R.R. Tolkien, has influenced me and provided me as much inspiration for my writing over the course of the past couple years as Lewis.
C.S. Lewis once declared, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” While that statement is true for all good books and excellent authors, his pithy saying certainly foreshadowed how all his writings would be received by his fans [and any literature enthusiast!] in the decades after his death. Below are five reasons why the premiere Christian apologist of the 20th century inspires me [and others] in the 21st century and beyond.
Up until a few years ago, I only knew C.S. Lewis through The Chronicles of Narnia series. His character of Aslan, the symbolic figure of the Holy Trinity is among the greatest fictional characters ever created. Both the power and gentle nature of Aslan makes him relatable and mysterious figure at the same time.
Along with creating the history, characters, and landscapes of a world accessed through a mere wardrobe, reading Lewis’ Space Trilogy truly proved to me his imaginative genius. His science fiction novels take readers on an interplanetary peregrination. Out of the Silent Planet depicts unfallen alien species unstained by Original Sin. Lewis’ creates a vivid experience that continually draws you into the mysterious rational alien and their eventually interaction with humans. The second novel Perelandra retells the traditional story of the Fall of humanity but occurring on the planet Venus. Lewis’ prompts interesting questions about man’s ability to evangelize beyond Earth—assuming extraterrestrial life exists!
Engaging Your Intellect
In addition to stirring the imagination of readers, C.S. Lewis also wrote with the ability to whet your intellectual pallet. His ability to write about deep theological truths with ease of understanding and depth is second to none. Even though I earned a master’s degree in Theology, I still learned a lot from Lewis’ introductory primer on Christianity—Mere Christianity. While the entire book is a gem, for conciseness’s sake I will only point out a couple key passages that made the human condition of sin easy to understand the relay:
“Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
Gateway to Tolkien
The great friendship between C.S. Lewis and contemporary professor of literature J.R.R. Tolkien is legendary. Concerned about the state of literature both writers pledged to do something proactive instead of simply lamenting. During the 1930s, Lewis and Tolkien truly came to the scene with the former penning his Space Trilogy and the latter publishing the classic work The Hobbit.
Both men challenged each other to be a better writer and grow their writing abilities by exploring different genres. Below is a link which details Tolkien’s friendly challenge to Lewis to delve into the realm of science fiction!
Tolkien stated of his bond with Lewis, “Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual–a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher–and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.” I am indebted to C.S. Lewis for introducing me to the joy of reading Tolkien.
Lewis’ dexterous prose and subject matter enlighten my mind and infuse a youthfulness to my life like no another author—save possibly Tolkien himself! Tackling the age-old dilemma of evil in The Problem of Pain to enchantingly depicting eschatology in dream-like sequences in The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis provides a panoply of subject matter for theologians—lay and professional—to discuss and re-read many times over.
Schools through Suffering
St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of the purpose of trials in this way, “If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint.” While C.S. Lewis did not formally convert to Catholicism he definitely endured suffering and helped lead countless to a deeper relationship with Christ. Suffering immensely from the death of his wife, Lewis channeled this pain and it bore the fruit of his work A Grief Observed.
The rawness of his prose struck me as both honest and real. Lewis lamented in A Grief Observed, “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” I certain relate to this. From a cerebral level I certainly understand the promise of suffering Christ guarantees in John 15:20. Not until we encounter suffering do, we truly get tested. Only after the storm do we realize the lessons given.
C.S. Lewis declared, “We read to know we are not alone.” Through reading the masterful works of the great English writer I grown both as a Christian and as a writer. His ability to move my mind to ponder higher realities with simple examples allows me to understand the good, true, and beauty in the world much better.
Christianity in the 21st seems to get more difficult as each day passes. Unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, hostile media reporting, and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church on the sexual abuse scandal makes the desire to follow the teachings of Christ quite tough. Jesus even promised that the way to Heaven would not be easy. In Matthew 19:24 he declared, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” On average, camels grow to the shoulder height of 6 feet high and the length of about 9-10 feet. Typically, the khaki-colored creatures weigh well over 1,000 pounds. The eye of a needle is quite small, just slightly greater than the width of the thread that goes through it. Certainly, Jesus’ example was only hyperbolic when it comes to entering Heaven! Right?!
The late Catholic nun Mother Angelica quipped, “Holiness of life is not the privilege of a chosen few – it is the obligation, the call, and the will of God for every Christian.” Holy individuals make it appear easy to live the holy life. However, when we try it ourselves it is quite different. Not to downplay that difficult road toward Heaven, because it truly is difficult, I have learned that in some ways holiness need not be as cumbersome as we may make it to be. I wish to share three tried and true steps to grow in holiness.
1. Pray Daily: You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!” you can be sure you have already begun.’ 10
St. Josemaria Escriva. Praying is plainly described as talking with God. Relationship involves dialogue: speaking and listening. Prayer involves a two-way conversation. If you are unsure what to say to God, maybe begin your prayer simply in silence–waiting for God start. Some people feel more comfortable petitioning God for help. That is also a great way to start prayer. Just be sure to allow time and be open to God’s reply as well.
2. Learn from Scriptures and Saintly Writings: Another easy step to increase holiness is to open up a Bible or read a spiritual work by a saint. The key to this step is not the length of time, but instead the frequency and consistency by which you acquaint yourself with spiritual writings. Schedules are busy with work and family obligations taking up a large chunk of the day.
Begin with small and reasonable goals with how much time to spend on spiritual reading. Maybe your daily routine allows for an hour, maybe it only allows for a few minutes. Start will just reading for 5 minutes a day. You will be surprised how much your week will improve with insight from those holy men and women!
3. Small Sacrifices: The third thing to incorporate into a daily routine is sacrifice. True love involves giving yourself for the other. It involves sacrifice and reduction of selfish tendencies. Authentic change and orienting your life towards holiness will not happen overnight. In fact, it will take time and likely a lot of time. Be prepared to grow in holiness for the rest of your life!
Because of the long term commitment, I say let’s start small with manageable tiny sacrifices. It may simply involve refraining from a sarcastic comment when your spouse, friend, or neighbor annoy you. St. Josemaria Escriva, “Don’t say, ‘That person bothers me.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.'” That would be a small, but still sacrificial moment. Once you have the daily routine of sacrifice for your loved ones day pat then you may focus on larger sacrifices.
Starting, or perhaps restarting, your spiritual journey need not be impossible. Developing a daily habit of prayer, frequent spiritual reading, and looking for the good of the other [and the Ultimate Other] through small sacrifices will help your increase your virtue and transform your life.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” –Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus teaches us in the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life– loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
The Son of God’s words contain a message that is in keeping with his entire teaching throughout his three-year earthly ministry—sacrificial love and obedience to God brings true and lasting joy, peace, and purpose to one’s life. He also prepares us for the possibility of Heavenly joy with God in the next life. Before heading to Mass, I had few spare minutes as my children were dressed and ready for Sunday worship—that alone I thanked God as a miracle!—I perused social media and came across a meme with a quote by the acclaimed Catholic theological and biblical scholar Scott Hahn. He intrepidly declared, “A joyless Catholic is the devil’s best tool. A joyful Catholic is God’s greatest instrument.”
Since this morning I have contemplated his words no less than a dozen times. I cannot help to feel that God is speaking directly to me through Scott Hahn. Many things in daily living suction off joy. Tiredness, both physically and spiritual lethargy, is a key ingredient to creating a barren environment for joy to thrive. A great tactic against physical laziness is going to sound incredibly simple and obvious—mostly because a good night’s rest is the best thing to treat your body to after a long day’s work! Supplementing an increase in sleep with a better nutritional habit will combat physical weakness. Re-committing myself to a healthier lifestyle last week already proved to show gains. Increased amounts of fruits, water, and a decrease in unhealthy sugars provided me more energy throughout the day.
Along with improving the physical aspects of living, I sought out to better my spiritual well-being as well. During an afternoon jog, I had time to reflect on my spiritual progress—both for that day and how I did throughout the week. I realized that only when I put others before myself is joy even possible. First of all, I have to ask God to grant me the gift of joy. Secondly, I reminded myself to count my blessings and thank God for everything in this life: good, bad, and neutral events.
Joy is not a merely feeling of happiness—sorry Joy even though I loved your movie. Instead it is first and foremost a gift from God that is sustained through an attitude of gratitude. We freely receive joy as a blessing by the will of God. Our Heavenly Father God desires to bestow this gift to us as much as possible, however, he will only nurture it if we freely choose to embrace joy. The seed of Christian joy is planted when we become adopted sons and daughter through the sacrament of Baptism.
Thanksgiving is the best way to foster and grow the gift of Christian joy. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the source and summit of the Christian life is the Eucharist (CCC 1324). In fact the Latin word eucharista actually means ‘thanksgiving’. While attending Sunday Mass and weekly receiving the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar is the fullest way to develop the gift of joy it is not the sole means. The power of Christian joy is strengthened via a regular watering of thanksgiving. Thank God for waking up, thank your family members for all the things [great and small] they do for you, thank your co-workers for helping you throughout the day, write a list of the top things/people/events that you are grateful for, or simply say “Thank you Lord!” at least once a day. All the above opportunities are ways for you to increase the joy in your life.
St. Mother Teresa spoke of Christian joy in the following way, “Joy is a net of love by which we catch souls.” Let us ask for God’s grace to receive this gift to transform ourselves into a beacon of his love. I continue to thank God for the opportunity to write and share my faith. Thank you for continuing to support me in my pilgrim journey toward a joyous life.
American author Melody Beattie once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Her words certainly seemed quite relevant this icy and confusing Saturday. Working my first official Saturday shift at my new work position involved frenzied co-workers, negativity, and confusion due to the unveiling of the new payment system.
As with any new technology release, glitches are guaranteed to appear during the initial days of the life of any change/update in a computer system. Beginning with murmurings that eventually led to loud vocal outbursts, several co-workers expressed severe dissatisfaction with the new system release. Surprisingly, I handled the change well. During points of transition where major changes occur in the workplace I get nervous—I allow fear to take over. However, calmness of mind and heart hovered over me.
Such tranquility did not originate from me. A power greater than I provided me the gift of peace and calmness of heart. My Catholic faith allows me to give a name to this power—the Holy Spirit. At Baptism I become an adopted child of God and the Holy Spirit indwelt within me.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church numbers 1227-1228, “Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.31 Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the “imperishable seed” of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect.32 St. Augustine says of Baptism: ‘The word is brought to the material element, and it becomes a sacrament.'” Over time I have learned that the seed of the Catholic faith needs to be watered and fed by asking for God’s graces. According to the great doctor of the Church St. Ephraim, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul of the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven!”
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” I have probably made reference to this quote more recently than anything else the God-man taught us. The Holy Spirit provides clarity in confusing and stressful situations, but showering us with an array of luminous virtues. Peace dispels agitation, generosity quells greed, and charity uproots anger from my life. Confusion is a guarantee in this life, however, the power we receive from the Holy Spirit to withstand the storm of doubt and uncertainty is a gift!
Below is a letter I dedicate to our Lord Jesus Christ in celebration of his birth, December 25, 2017 Anno Domini.
Dear Baby Jesus,
In a stable, 2000 years ago, a seemingly ordinary infant was born. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, shepherds and kings from afar learned about His incredible presence. God uses the most common of circumstances to work the greatest of all miracles–the Incarnation. God so loved the world He sent you–His only Son– to bridge the great gulf, the separation caused by sin.
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, you my king took the form of mankind. I have heard the Nativity story dozens of times. This Advent I feared I would took your origin story for granted. Instead, I am grateful for the opportunity to gaze on the Nativity scene through new eyes–not merely of a follower, but also as a father.
My children performed in our parish’s Nativity Play. They donned the roles of a shepherd and an angel. The joy that gleamed from all the faces of my children–and the rest of the children in the play– warmed my soul. People are born everyday on this earth, but only once a year do we remember the greatest birth of all.
Jesus my servant king, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, God-hero, I adore you and celebrate with my family and friends the anniversary of your birth. I pray that my heart is enlarged to make room within the inn of my soul for you, my family, friends, and people I meet daily! Praise we to God in the Highest and Alleluia for our Savior’s arrival.
With great love and gratitude,
Your adopted son, Matt
***For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.***
As a Middle-earth aficionado, I have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Currently, I am navigating the land of Beleriand as I am reading The Children of Húrin. While these books are creative and profound, my personal favorite Tolkien work [so far this may be subject to change!] does not take place in a mythic land or through the medium of an epic adventure tale. Instead, a short story published in 1945 wins my personal Pulitzer. Leaf by Niggle does not follow hobbits, elves, dwarves, or contain any sinister evil such as Sauron or Morgoth. Instead, the plots details of a simple painter’s journey in the afterlife.
The short story begins by depicting Niggle, an artist, living in a society with little esteem for art. Niggle’s neighbor Parish, who is lame and has an ill wife, continually interrupts his work. Although Niggle views such disruptions as annoying, he still helps his neighbor due to his politeness.
Niggle is forced to take a trip that he is not ready for and spends time at a hospital. Daily work as a gardener is the task that he is entrusted with during his time at the health institution. Throughout this process, the reader hears two unseen voices discuss the progress of Niggle.
It is determined that the artist made advancements and is sent to a new country—the Land of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. Niggle becomes re-united with Parish and together they work the land. Their work brings beauty to the Tree and the Forest. Finally, Niggle bids farewell to Parish as he continues his journey with the shepherd to learn more about the sheep and journey toward the high pastures in the Mountains.
The main reason I enjoy Leaf by Niggle is due to the clear catholicity contained within the characters, plot, and symbols. Niggle represents everyman—humanity as an individual and as a collective. When I looked up the word niggle in the thesaurus, I learned that the name has synonyms which included: annoy, bother, discomfort, and anxiety. According to Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution of the Church] 7, “On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified.” Niggle also suffered various disturbances of his artwork while he was on a pilgrim journey.
Another example of how Tolkien clearly infused Catholic thought into his short story is the hospital being an allegory for the cleansing process of purgatory. Next, the Voices represent the judgment and mercy of God. The English writer conveys the balanced Catholic approach to Divine Mercy and Judgment through the dialogue between the voices on Niggle’s progress:
“Now the Niggle case,” said a Voice, a severe voice, more severe than the doctor’s.
“What was the matter with him?” said a Second Voice, a voice that you might have called gentle, though it was not soft-it was a voice of authority, and sounded at once hopeful and sad. “What was the matter with Niggle? His heart was in the right place.”
“Yes, but it did not function properly,” said the First Voice. “And his head was not screwed on tight enough: he hardly ever thought at all. Look at the time he wasted, not even amusing himself! He never got ready for his journey. He was moderately well-off, and yet he arrived here almost destitute, and had to be put in the paupers’ wing. A bad case, I am afraid. I think he should stay some time yet.”
“It would not do him any harm, perhaps,” said the Second Voice. “But, of course, he is only a little man. He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong. Let us look at the Records. Yes. There are some favourable points, you know.”
“Perhaps,” said the First Voice; “but very few that will really bear examination.”
“Well,” said the Second Voice, “there are these. He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake. But he never thought that that made him important. There is no note in the Records of his pretending, even to himself, that it excused his neglect of things ordered by the law.”
“Then he should not have neglected so many,” said the First Voice.
“All the same, he did answer a good many Calls.”
I am Niggle
Probably the biggest takeaway I received from Leaf by Niggle this that the titular character mirrors traits found within myself. While Niggle engrossed himself in artwork, I often find myself absorbed in my hobbies of reading and writing. Daily disturbances—such as assisting neighbors in need—annoy Niggle, but he ultimately does the right thing, just not always out of love. In a similar fashion, I struggle to carry out my familial and employee duties without ever lamenting or finding these tasks bothersome. At the end of the day, I will complete my duty because it is right and moral. What I sometimes lack is serving my family and co-workers with love all the time!
Tolkien’s ability to depict the rawness and realness of Niggle urged me to re-read this short story almost immediately upon completing it the first time. As an idealist, I am often color-blind to the real-life situations and toils of daily living. Leaf by Niggle provides clarity into how God judges a person’s life. I am hopeful, yet realistic about God’s mercy and realize I have a purgative road ahead of me in this life [and likely the next life!].
Purgatory is a Real Process
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church number 1030, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Niggle’s trip to the hospital and the Land of the Tree and Forest represent the Christian doctrine of purgatory—a state of existence whereby souls are purified. Purgatory is an ephemeral existence, it is not permanent. It is a stage toward Heaven. However, the process of purgation is not ethereal, it involves a REAL PROCESS of perfection.
Tolkien utilizes allegory to capture this truth. He details concrete examples to describe the purgative experience. Death is the doorway that leads mankind toward purgation [this is assuming they led an imperfect life, but ultimately choose to follow God!]. In Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien represents Death via two character’s the Inspector of Homes and the Driver—brings Niggle to the hospital [i.e. Purgatory]. Listen to the conversation between Death and Niggle:
“Next day he felt a good deal better. He climbed the ladder, and began to paint. He had just begun to get into it again, when there came a knock on the door.
“Damn!” said Niggle. But he might just as well have said “Come in!” politely, for the door opened all the same. This time a very tall man came in, a total stranger.
“This is a private studio,” said Niggle. “I am busy. Go away!”
“I am an Inspector of Houses,” said the man, holding up his appointment-card, so that Niggle on his ladder could see it. “Oh!” he said.
“Your neighbour’s house is not satisfactory at all,” said the Inspector.
“I know,” said Niggle. “I took a note to the builders a long time ago, but they have never come. Then I have been ill.”
“I see,” said the Inspector. “But you are not ill now.”
“But I’m not a builder. Parish ought to make a complaint to the Town Council, and get help from the Emergency Service.”
“They are busy with worse damage than any up here,” said the Inspector. “There has been a flood in the valley, and many families are homeless. You should have helped your neighbour to make temporary repairs and prevent the damage from getting more costly to mend than necessary. That is the law. There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint.”
“Where?” asked Niggle indignantly.
“There!” said the Inspector, pointing to the picture.
“My picture!” exclaimed Niggle.
“I dare say it is,” said the Inspector. “But houses come first. That is the law.”
St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” We do not know the hour of our death. Just how Niggle failed to be fully prepared to meet death, we might be surprised at the end of this earthly existence. Thankfully, due to the mercy of God, a process/period of purgation exists. Any lover of Tolkien and Christian allegory will find enjoyment while reading Leaf by Niggle.