Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Disagreeable people

TO MARY WILLIS SHELBURNE: On disagreeable, nasty people; and on avoiding obsessing about their bullying.
10 March 1954 - from C S Lewis

I am sorry things are not better. I am very puzzled by people like your Committee Secretary, people who are just nasty. I find it easier to understand the great crimes, for the raw material of them exists in us all; the mere disagreeableness which seems to spring from no recognisable passion is mysterious. (Like the total stranger in a train of whom I once asked ‘Do you know when we get to Liverpool’ and who replied ‘I’m not paid to answer your questions: ask the guard’).

I have found it more among boys than anyone else. That makes me think it really comes from inner insecurity—a dim sense that one is Nobody, a strong determination to be Somebody, and a belief that this can be achieved by arrogance. Probably you, who can’t hit back, come in for a good deal of resentful arrogance aroused by others on whom she doesn’t vent it, because they can. (A bully in an Elizabethan play, having been sat on by a man he dare not fight, says ‘I’ll go home and beat all my servants’). But I mustn’t encourage you to go on thinking about her: that, after all, is almost the greatest evil nasty people can do us—to become an obsession, to haunt our minds. A brief prayer for them, and then away to other subjects, is the thing, if one can only stick to it. I hope the other job will materialise. . . .

I too had mumps after I was grown up. I didn’t mind it as long as I had the temperature: but when one came to convalescence and a convalescent appetite and even thinking of food started the salivation and the pain—ugh! I never realised ‘the disobedience in our members’ so clearly before [Romans 7:23]. Verily ‘He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it, hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart’ (or in his glands) [Matthew 5:28].

I shall wait anxiously for all your news, always praying not only for a happy issue but that you may be supported in all interim anxieties.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III

More noise than holiness

If only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos. To a nation filled with intense religious fervor, the Hebrew prophet Amos said: You are not the holy people you imagine yourselves to be. Though the land is filled with festivals and assemblies, with songs and melodies, and with so much pious talk, these are not sounds and sights that are pleasing to the Lord. "Take away from me the noise of your congregations," Amos says, "you who have turned justice into poison."

Charles Marsh
"God and Country" in The Boston Globe (July 8, 2007)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A mindset of forgiveness

When I develop a mindset of forgiveness, rather than a mindset of grievance, I don't just forgive a particular act; I become a more forgiving person. With a grievance mindset, I look at the world and see all that is wrong. When I have a forgiveness mindset, I start to see the world not through grievance but through gratitude. In other words, I look at the world and start to see what is right. There is a special kind of magic that happens when I become a more forgiving person -- it is something quite remarkable. What was once a grave affront melts into nothing more than a thoughtless or careless act. What was once a reason for rupture and alienation becomes an opportunity for repair and greater intimacy. A life that seemed littered with obstacles and antagonism is suddenly filled with opportunity and love.

Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu

Worshipping the god within

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. . . . (A)ny one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre know how it does work.  That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. . . .   

Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.  The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners. 

G. K. Chesterton, "The Flag of the World,"  Collected Works, Volume I 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

C.S. Lewis

Thursday, March 19, 2015


If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.

You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.

I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self- denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

C S Lewis in The Weight of Glory

Monday, March 16, 2015


His contemporaries most frequently commented on Thomas's humility, a virtue little prized in our times, since we seem unable to distinguish between the humble person's self-evaluation from what we call low self-esteem. In consequence, self-assertion takes on the appearance of a virtue, merely by way of contrast with that mistaken conception of humility. Humility, in sense of that his contemporaries observed its presence in Thomas, had more to do with that peculiarly difficult form of vulnerability, which consists in being entirely open to the discovery of the truth, especially to the truth about oneself. One might say, likewise, that what humility is to the moral life, lucidity is to the intellectual ˗ an openness to contestation, the refusal to hide behind the opacity of the obscure, a vulnerability to refutation to which one is open simply as a result of being clear enough to be seen, if wrong, to be wrong.

We might say, then, that Thomas was fearlessly clear, unafraid to be shown to be wrong, and correspondingly angered by those among his colleagues, especially in the University of Paris, who in his view refused to play the game on a field levelled by lucidity and openness equal in degree of honesty to the requirements of the intellectual life. And yet, even in Thomas’s anger there is nothing personal. His is the anger of a true teacher observing students to have been betrayed by colleagues. It has no more to do with self-assertion than his humility has to do with lack of self-worth. 

From Thomas Aquinas: a portrait, by Denys Turner, pages 39-40

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Throwing the pebble in the pond

What we would like to do is change the world - make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute - the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words - we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbour, to love our enemy as our friend.

Dorothy Day

Friday, March 13, 2015

Not paddling our own canoe

TO ARTHUR GREEVES: On his brother’s admission to an Oxford hospital, for treatment of alcoholism; and on the meaning of vicarious suffering, or what Lewis will call, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the “Deeper Magic.” 

C.S. Lewis

2 July 1949
Thanks for your most kind and comforting letter—like a touch of a friend’s hand in a dark place. For it is much darker than I feared. W’s trouble is to be called ‘nervous insomnia’ in speaking to Janie and others; but in reality (this for your private ear) it is Drink. This bout started about ten days ago. Last Sunday the doctor and I begged him to go into a nursing home (that has always effectively ended previous bouts) and he refused. Yesterday we succeeded in getting him in; but alas, too late. The nursing home has announced this morning that he is out of control and they refuse to keep him. Today a mental specialist is to see him and he will be transferred, I hope for a short stay, to what is called a hospital but is really an asylum. Naturally there is no question of a later Irish jaunt for me this year. A few odd days here and there in England is the best I can hope for.

Don’t imagine I doubt for a moment that what God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have grace to use it so. My mind doesn’t waver on this point; my feelings sometimes do. That’s why it does me good to hear what I believe repeated in your voice—it being the rule of the universe that others can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and one can paddle every canoe except one’s own. That is why Christ’s suffering for us is not a mere theological dodge but the supreme case of the law that governs the whole world; and when they mocked him by saying, ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save,’ they were really uttering, little as they knew it, the ultimate law of the spiritual world.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II

Sunday, March 08, 2015

A humility list

Martin Marty, the prolific Lutheran scholar at the University of Chicago, reported in The Christian Century magazine that readers have asked him when he planned to comment on the media's discovery of 'the New Atheism.' He put together a list of advice, 'to myself and anyone else who cares,' including the following:
  • Keep cool. America has seen cycles like these before and has managed to survive. 
  • Send cards of thanks. These authors bring up differences in an age of indifference. 
  • Don't sneer. Many of these authors sneer. Where does that get us?
  • Don't sound triumphalist. Some say 'we' have 'them' outnumbered 97 to three. If true, that represents a comfort margin for believers, but what does it prove?
  • Don't argue. No one wins arguments - which are determined by one's knowing the answer - about the existence or nonexistence of God, but everyone can profit from a conversation that tries to pose good questions and respond to them.
  • Read better books by these authors, from which you might learn something, as opposed to their sensational polemics on a subject they are not well versed in.
  • Agree with the authors that in the name of religion horrible things have been done and are being done, but point out that that's not the whole story of religion. Criticism of religion from within is more searching and matters more.
  • Hold up the mirror if you are a believer, and ask whether anything anyone is saying or doing gives legitimate grounds for anti-religion to voice itself and creates a market for books like these. 
Martin Marty, in Atheism Redux, published in Christian Century, July 24, 2007, quoted in Philip Yancey's Vanishing Grace, pages 42/43

Truly, seriously lost

While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back. I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have lived through parts of life that no one in her right mind would ever willingly have chosen, finding enough overlooked treasure in them to outweigh my projected wages in the life I had planned. These are just a few of the reasons that I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead. The Bible is a great help to me in this practice, since it reminds me that God does some of God's best work with people who are truly, seriously lost. 

Barbara Brown Taylor quoted on page 51 of Philip Yancey's Vanishing Grace