C. S. Lewis and the Total Plan

Thirty years ago premiered on television in Britain and the United States Shadowlands, a drama about C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.  It starred Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, and it surpasses the 1993 theatrical film version, in which Anthony Hopkins as Lewis essentially reprised his role of Stevens, the butler in 1993’s The Remains of the Day.  Ackland went on to expand his Lewis repertoire by recording for Harper Audio Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and Ackland’s vast, rumbling bass added layers to the letters’ seductively sinister tone.

Lewis (1898-1963) has also been the subject of a sterling radio drama, C. S. Lewis at War, produced in 2013 by Focus of the Family’s Radio Theatre.  In it Jeremy Northam portrayed Lewis, his domestic and academic routine at Oxford disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.  Also challenged by the war were the executives in charge of religious programming at the BBC, who needed to find new inspirational radio broadcasts.  One result was recruiting Lewis to give a series of talks between 1941 and 1944, the scripts eventually becoming the book Mere Christianity (1952).

When C. S. Lewis at War became commercially available on compact disc, packaged with it were six CDs of actor Philip Bird reading the entire text of Mere Christianity.  Thus, people who otherwise might not read the book or buy another audio version of it (such as that recorded by Michael York) had incentive to encounter one of Lewis’s most famous works.

Frequently comment on Mere Christianity turns to Lewis’s presentation of natural law, while another common theme when commenting about the book is to remind people that there is no Mere Christianity Church:  one must find a specific place to worship.  An aspect that sometimes gets overlooked is Lewis’s description of an ideal Christian society.

In Book Three, Chapter Three, of Mere Christianity, Lewis addressed Christian society under the heading Social Morality.  He spoke of Christianity as “the total plan for the human machine,” and as such it contains elements of varying appeal.  Those elements range from everyone doing practical, manual work to everyone being obedient to legitimate authority.  All the while, a Christian society would be cheerful, marked by singing and courtesy.

A visit to a hypothetical perfect Christian society, Lewis said, would leave us with a mixed impression.  “We should feel,” he explained, “that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced’.”  (Here one must recall that state socialism was once regarded as wonderfully scientific and modern; it took a few decades for the fact to sink in that the compulsory fairness and planned equality of socialism reached their logical, Orwellian conclusion with German and Russian regimes of the 1930s and ’40s.)  On the other hand, “its family life and its code of manners” would strike us as “rather old-fashioned—perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic.”

Practical work, obedience, courtly ritual:  It sounds like a description of a model monastery.  Lewis rarely wrote about monasticism, although a Narnia story, The Horse and His Boy (1954), features a hermit.  Nevertheless, from before his conversion to Christianity one finds an amusing observation about the cloistered nature of a theological college.  In a letter dated 10 May, 1921, to his brother, Lewis described meeting an Anglican seminarian and concluded, “Ye gods; a lot of young men shut up together, all thinking about their souls!  Isn’t it awful?”

In 1932 one of Lewis’s students, Alan Griffiths (1906-1993), converted to Catholicism and soon thereafter became a Benedictine monk at Prinknash Abbey.  At Prinknash (the k is silent) he received the name Bede, and in 1954 he wrote an autobiography, The Golden String.  As a monk Griffiths was attracted to what used to be called Oriental mysticism, and in 1955 he moved to southern India, founded an ashram for Christian and Hindu dialogue, grew a beard, wore saffron robes, and became a yogi with the name Swami Dayananda.

Even before Griffiths’ long sojourn in India, he and Lewis had kept in touch by letter.  When Lewis was working on the radio talks that became Mere Christianity, he consulted with Griffiths, who in 1940 was ordained a priest, for a Catholic perspective.  As happens when Anglicans and Catholics talk together about the Christian faith, they agreed on certain points but often found it best avoid areas where they could never agree.  To commemorate their spiritual conversation, Lewis dedicated his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), to Griffiths.

According to Shirley du Boulay’s biography of Griffiths, Beyond the Darkness (1998), Lewis visited Prinknash during Griffith’s novitiate.  If Lewis saw in the liturgy, handicrafts, and hierarchical structure of the monastery an attempt at an ideal Christian society, he left no record of it.  Lewis’s letters fleetingly refer to this visit, and his biographers omit it, as does Griffiths himself.  However, in Chapter Eight of The Golden String Griffiths associated monasticism with the ideal Christian society.

All the same, Lewis had known about the Christian ideal for community life from his theological and historical reading.  For instance, in September, 1945, Lewis published an essay, “The Sermon and the Lunch,” in which he observed that despite their flaws, both family life and monastic life can be romantically portrayed and thus distorted.  “It should be noticed,” he wrote, “that the serious defenders of both are well aware of the dangers and free of the sentimental illusion.”

As one example, Lewis noted that in the early fifteenth century Thomas à Kempis, when writing The Imitation of Christ, knew full well “how easily monastic life goes wrong.”  Some medieval people, Lewis explained, “thought that if only they entered a religious order, they would find themselves automatically becoming holy and happy.”  However, as a student of medieval culture, Lewis understood that “the whole native literature of the period echoes with the exposure of that fatal error.”

As the human machine’s total plan, Christianity is concerned with every human’s growth in holiness.  Happiness can come as a bonus, an unexpected oasis in a relentless desert.  Whether for monks, married couples, or some other state of life, the path to Christian holiness has tough stretches, sometimes lasting decades, that try to the extreme one’s love of God and neighbor.  For C. S. Lewis, consolation came from his belief that here we meet only with shadows, for real life has not yet begun.


Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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