In Great Britain … in the bookshop of the Russian Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens in London there are basically two types of books on sale: Orthodox books and a huge array of the writings of C.S. Lewis.
- Andrew Walker
There have been, over the last two decades, a variety of articles researched, written and published on C.S. Lewis and the Orthodox Tradition. There are reasons for this, and in the next five essays, I will discuss and describe each of these approaches to Lewis and Orthodoxy, and reflect on paths opened up between Western and Eastern Christendom as a result of Lewis’ spacious and catholic understanding of the faith journey.
Andrew Walker was one of the first to venture into the terrain of Lewis and Orthodoxy. Andrew Walker was the Director of ‘The C.S. Lewis Centre for the Study of Religion and Modernity’, and his article, ‘Under the Russian Cross: A Research Note on C.S. Lewis and the Eastern Orthodox Church’ was, initially, published in A Christian For All Christians: Essays in Honour of C.S. Lewis in 1990. There are plenty of archival nuggets in this short essay, and the missive is worth many a reread as an entrée into the ethos of Lewis and Orthodoxy. It is significant to note that two important Orthodox theologians were involved in ‘The C.S. Centre’: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was the Chairman of the Trustees and Metropolitan John of Pergamum (Professor John Zizioulas) was a member of the Advisory Board. So, Lewis and Orthodoxy had their working affinities. But, let us now turn to the article by Walker.
‘Under the Russian Cross: A Research Note on C. S. Lewis and the Eastern Orthodox Church’ was published, as I mentioned above, in 1990----it is an initial foray into the world of Lewis and Orthodoxy and a must read. The article is only five compact pages, but many a suggestive lead is offered and can be followed further in this pioneering pointer.
Walker, as Director at the time of ‘The C.S. Lewis Centre’, often meet with Orthodox from the Antiochene, Greek and ‘Russified flavour’ of the Orthodox Church of American, and he found most had read and were nourished by the writings of Lewis from bishops to priests to deacons to laity. Lewis has certainly worked his way into the marrow and bones of Orthodoxy. There were even some Orthodox who suggested Lewis was an ‘anonymous Orthodox’.
What then are the points of contact between Lewis and the Orthodox Tradition? We do know, as Walker points out clearly, that Lewis knew Athanasius’ On the Incarnation well, and his article, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’ was published as an Introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Vladimir’s Press. The much loved Narnian series is thick with Lewis’ theology, but in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the ransom theory is held high. Lewis’ view of the ransom theory is hand in glove with the ideas of Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius and Augustine. Walker rightly noted that ‘Lewis was not attached to one particular theory of the atonement’ (much to the annoyance of many within the reformed and evangelical tribes), but his thinking was deeply rooted in the best of the Western and Eastern Patristic Tradition. The ransom theory of the atonement is much different, of course, than the penal-juridical theory of the atonement that many in the Western tradition confessionally and dogmatically assert as the only notion of the atonement. Both Lewis and the Orthodox way, grounded deeply in the classical Patristic heritage, refuse such a one dimensional and reductionistic approach to the atonement---such is the path taken by both classical Anglicans and Orthodox---both dip their buckets deep in the well of the Patristic era.
Lewis was in close touch when in Oxford with the Russian Orthodox diaspora. Many of the leading Russian Orthodox after the Revolution in 1917 fled to Paris and England, and in England many settled at Oxford. The leading lights of the Russian Orthodox way at Oxford were Nicholas and Militza Zernov who formed the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius (that brought Anglicans and Orthodox together) in 1928. Lewis often called Nicholas Zernov ‘an Oxford institution’. My connection to Zernov is through Dr. James Houston. James Houston was the first Principal at Regent College (Vancouver BC) from 1969-1978, and I did my Masters of Christian Studies (MCS) on John Cassian (a Patristic theologian who bridged East and West) with James Houston. I was Dr. Houston’s teaching assistant when at Regent College from 1979-1981. Dr. Houston had lived, when in Oxford, with Nicholas Zernov from 1947-1953, and Houston, Lewis and Zernov had many a meeting both as participants in the Society of St. Albans and St. Sergius and with other Oxford groups. Houston has written about those days in ‘Reminiscences of the Oxford Lewis’. Needless to say, as both a teaching assistant and doing an MCS with Dr, Houston, we had many a fine and memorable conversation: Lewis and Zernov were fondly remembered.
Nicholas Zernov went the extra mile to invite and involve Lewis in many Orthodox activities. Lewis was Anglican and Zernov Orthodox, so the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius was a wonderful way to bring Lewis and Zernov into the larger conversation about the faith journey. Walker was fortunate in August 1987 to do a taped interview with Militza Zernov on Lewis and Orthodoxy. The reason the essay is called ‘Under the Russian Cross’ is that many of the Orthodox that Lewis encountered at Oxford were from Russia. The latter part of the essay covers the comments made about Lewis by Militza Zernov.
Lewis attended the Society of St. Alban-St. Sergius conference at Abingdon, and he read a paper for the Society called ‘Membership’ that was published in Sobornost (the flagship magazine for the Society). ‘Membership’ has been published in a variety of Lewis collections since its initial publication in Sobornost (which means unity from within the deeper and older Patristic way). Zernov was the leading light back of St. Gregory House in Oxford. St. Gregory’s house brought West and East together, and Zernov asked Lewis to give a lecture at St. Gregory’s. Lewis gave a lecture called ‘A Toy, an Icon, and a Work of Art’—sadly so, this lecture-paper seems to have been lost and there is no record of it in the Lewis archives.
The Greek and Russian Orthodox Church in Oxford shared the same building, although they met at different times. Lewis attended the liturgy at one of the services and was quite taken by the way liturgy and participants were both formal and informal as they lived through the Divine Drama.
Lewis died in 1963, and his funeral has a fascinating Orthodox contribution. The funeral was meant to be simple. Militza had put together the traditional cross with white flowers for the grave. Lewis’ brother, Major Lewis, insisted no flowers were to be in the church. So, Militza was quite willing to leave the white flowers outside the church. The day of the funeral Lewis’ brother, Major Lewis, became quite ill, and it was not clear whether he would attend the funeral. Nicholas and Militza arrived at the parish church early, and the Warden suggested the cross and white flowers be brought into the church building, and they were set beside the coffin. When the coffin was taken to the cemetery at the back of the church, the cross and white were put on it. There was a definite Orthodox presence in Lewis’ final parting.
Walker concludes with these apt and telling words: ‘So there we have it. Who would have thought it? Jack Lewis was buried under a Russian cross of white flowers, beneath an English November sky. And in their distinctive ways all of Christendom’s divided churches were represented there when it must have seemed that for a moment there was a synergy of heaven and earth--a suspension of time, an instance of ‘big magic’, when that other country was fleetingly transported to our own’.