By Andrew Petiprin
On the evening of September 16, a crowd of 200 or so gathered at St. George’s Church in Nashville for a double-header on Dante and C.S. Lewis with British scholars Malcolm Guite and Michael Ward. Their split duty began with Guite’s reading of his poetry and a whirlwind tour of The Divine Comedy. Then Ward, author of the highly acclaimed Planet Narnia, gave a précis of his groundbreaking analysis of Lewis’s best-known books, which are laced with the same medieval cosmology at the heart of Dante’s work. Together their talks were called “Above Us Only Sky? Reimagining the Cosmos with Dante and C.S. Lewis” (also given at Duke Divinity School).
Guite is a Cambridge don, priest, and poet, and Ward is perhaps the most prominent Lewis scholar active today, as well as a deacon in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. They cast on the room the same celestial wonder that the works of Dante and Lewis do, and invited us along on a spiritual ascent. We contemplated the model of the seven heavens, which may not be scientifically useful today, but still has going for it an insistence on the biblical vision of God’s sovereignty and activity throughout the created order. As Joseph Addison writes in his paraphrase of Psalm 19: “The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky, and spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great Original proclaim.” Likewise, we sing each Sunday: “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
Dante’s descent into hell and ascent through the top of the world and beyond is one image of this fullness from an earlier age of the Church. Part of Lewis’s mission was to replant the seed of that vision so it might blossom for the Church of the future. (He did not tell the world that each Narnia book represented a heavenly body. See Ward’s book for much more.) Lewis knew that what appeared to the modern person to be emptiness, space, was actually a universe overflowing with grace that invited our participation. For Lewis, to imagine there’s no heaven is to live on an extremely boring Earth.
Lewis, like Dante, believed in the power of symbols, and the abundant heavens were full of them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, referring specifically to the Creeds, reminds us: “The Greek word symbolon meant half of a broken object, for example, a seal presented as a token of recognition. The broken parts were placed together to verify the bearer’s identity. The symbol of faith, then, is a sign of recognition and communion between believers” (CCC 188). Symbols are at least as real as the reality they are paired with. To Christians, every moon rock may serve just as holy a purpose as the star that guided the Magi to Bethlehem. It is all fitting.
Seek him that made the Pleiades and Orion, that turneth deep darkness into the morning, and darkeneth the day into night; that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is his Name. (Amos 5:8, see also Job 9:8-10)
Listening to Guite and Ward was timely for me. I had just finished reading Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, the so-called Space Trilogy, for the first time. “So-called,” Ward noted in his talk, because Lewis never gave the trilogy that title, but argued against thinking in terms of space rather than heavens in the first of the three novels. As Professor Ransom, kidnapped by the wannabe Übermenschen Weston and Devine, nears the end of his journey from Earth to Mars, we are told that “he wondered how he could ever have thought of planets, even of the Earth, as islands of life and reality floating in a deadly void.”
In real life, some of you were alive when, at the very end of the tumultuous year 1968, Time’s “Men of the Year” were the Apollo 8 astronauts, who became the first human beings to celebrate the Incarnation outside of Earth. On the Eve of December 24 in North America, William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman looked down from their spacecraft, not on the world where Christ was born, died, and rose again, but on the cold, dark moon, and they read Genesis 1:1-10 from the KJV to untold millions of listeners worldwide: “And God saw that it was good.”
I wonder, however, if God sees a recent exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as good. I mostly did not. On October 3 I darted up the East Side on a break from a conference in midtown to take a look at Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which features many pieces of ecclesiastical art and vestments from the Vatican, albeit displayed in deliberately provocative ways. It also prominently features more recent fashion designers’ avant-garde versions of medieval clerical wear and piety. It seemed to me very this-worldly — an ephemeral space-filler that will soon be occupied by something else.
The giant rood and statues of Our Lady from the permanent collection remain. Indeed, this part of the Met has always been one of my favorites because it tends to attract fewer people. It normally exudes a heavenly quiet. But this time the place was packed with tourists taking photos and shuffling on.
I found myself torn, hoping that the exhibition would turn people’s attention to what is above, but I resigned myself instead to thinking it might be best when the world stops caring about such things. Just a few rooms over, you can see ancient Greek and Roman statues, whose cultic significance (if they had any) is utterly unimportant to anyone. And yet they stand unmolested, open to true imagination, which Christians have often shown (“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious”). In contrast, it reflects a very limited imagination simply to provoke reactions by putting miters and cassocks on female mannequins or dressing up a 1980s runway doll like Mother Mary at a medieval crowning festival.
My reaction to Heavenly Bodies was to find in the subject of gender and sexuality a very predictably un-Catholic, narrow-minded, and anything but transcendent worldview. It was a far cry from the vast cosmology of Dante shared by Guite on a hot, late-summer night in Nashville. It was a far cry from the copia of Lewis too.
The Chronicles of Narnia, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, are books about spiritual growth and maturity. Gender and sexuality matter a lot to Lewis, and he is more sophisticated in his presentation of these things than many assume. He, like Dante, outshines the liberated postmodern sensibility of Heavenly Bodies by far. In the Narnia stories, the seven heavens represent different phases or stages in one’s journey to life in Christ: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about acknowledging and belonging to the king (Jupiter is the ruling planet here) and Prince Caspian is about fighting for the Good News (Mars is the ruling planet in this one). The only one of the Pevensie children who does not desire in the end to grow into the full stature destined for her is Susan, who is not present in The Last Battle (Saturn). Everyone else is invited “further up and further in,” but she has failed in her quest to be grown up, rejecting the fullness of her heavenly home to stay lost in space. Lewis couches this choice for Susan against her true self in terms of gender, in a passage often misinterpreted as casual sexism (although curiously, Jill Pole, a young woman, delivers the line): “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”
As Ward pointed out in answer to a question after his talk at St. George’s Church, the heavenly dimension of sex, gender, marriage, and sexuality present in the Space Trilogy places an even greater emphasis on these themes that later appear in the Narnia books. Out of the Silent Planet is a book about the nature of being a man (hence the trip to Mars). Perelandra is about being a woman (this time we’re on Venus). And That Hideous Strength, an underrated dystopian masterpiece, is set entirely on Earth and focuses on marriage — the heavenly fittingness of men and women together for the purposes established by God in creation.
Lewis’s view of gender, marriage, and sexuality is at once theologically sophisticated and entirely practical — heaven and earth at home together. As in his depiction of Susan Pevensie’s final choice in the Narnia books, he is not being a mildly offensive man of his time. Lewis is interested in heaven, not space. These things belong to the realm of fullness and abundance, not the cold, lonely world of my self-definition and self-possession of my body. Sadly, Susan Pevensie never gets to the heavenly stage of the journey to be the woman she was destined to be. But Jane Studdock, Lewis’s protagonist in That Hideous Strength, surely does.
Jane comes alive to her God-given vocation as a woman and a wife even as she gains understanding that there is a fullness of expressing her identity (a sort of Platonic form) that no earthly woman will ever know this side of eternity. Biology tells part of the story and is part of a greater gift. But there is much more.
Toward the end of That Hideous Strength, Professor Ransom declares that the progressive diabolists of the N.I.C.E. “have pulled down deep heaven on their heads.” But it is also the previously very modern couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, who are surprised by the unwelcome joy of heaven, coming to understand that their marriage is a part of the greatest and most important mystery of all. They do not simply share living quarters (without offspring) and fulfill each other’s needs, but they have been given a role together in the salvation of the world. Their relationship is designed for their ascent to God, and that of those around them.
Ransom, who now speaks in the tongues of men and of angels, declares as Jane comes to this realization: “There are thousands of things within this square mile that I don’t know about yet.” We then enter Jane’s mind:
The suspicion dawned upon her that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent. How if this invasion of her own being in marriage from which she had recoiled, often in the very teeth of instinct, were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but rather the lowest, the first, and the easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated — but in ever larger and more disturbing modes — on the highest levels of all.
Against everything she has been taught, Jane realizes she is the uncivilized and narrow-minded one. Those who have given their lives to their Creator know that his angels and demons are all around them. Those who believe in an ultimate ascent to true living with him have much to teach her. The boring old world of husbands and wives, consecrated singleness, families, communities, and faith turns out to be the greatest adventure of all:
The vision of the universe which she had begun to see in the last few minutes had a curiously stormy quality about it. It was bright, darting, and overpowering. Old Testament imagery of eyes and wheels for the first time in her life took on some possibility of meaning. And mixed with this was the sense that she had been maneuvered into a false position. It ought to have been she who was saying these things to Christians. Hers ought to have been the vivid, perilous world brought against their grey formalised one; hers the quick, vital movements and theirs the stained glass attitudes. That was the antithesis she was used to. This time, in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.