On the Feast of St. Stephen, 1951, from St. Mary Magdalen College at Oxford, C. S. Lewis wrote a Latin letter to Don Giovanni Calabria in Verona (letters published with a translation by St. Augustine’s Press).
The day after Christmas, Lewis prays for Calabria “all spiritual and temporal blessings in the Lord.” Lewis adds: “It is astonishing that sometimes we believe that we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe.” At first, I thought that Lewis was telling us that he had some doubt about his faith.
Lewis’s point, however, was something else. We do not always grasp the depth of what it is we already believe. “For a long time,” Lewis writes, “I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins. But suddenly (on St. Mark’s day) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.” We distinguish between intellectual understanding and the overwhelming reality that our sins are actually forgiven. We can go on acting as if they were not — a spirit, in fact, contrary to the meaning of faith.
Lewis then gives some adviser to Calabria. “You write much about your own sins,” he tells him. “Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness.” I expected Lewis to say pass over into “pride,” not into “anxiety or sadness.”
Lewis had something else in mind. Some, on once being forgiven, think they will never sin again. But why are we not to be overly anxious or sad about even our forgiven sins? He cites Paul: “It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice.’ Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us. Lift up our hearts!” Never before had I seen that expression: “Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us.” The imagery is graphic, the list of our sins on the Book of Life. Even if this cancellation is true, however, we still can be anxious that we might not really be forgiven.
We doubt what is forgiven us; this power of forgiveness is what is new in the world. The ancients knew about sin and even about forgiveness. They just did not know who could really forgive. They did not know the depth of sin. They did not know its forgiveness took God Himself.
Christ came into the world to forgive sins. This power scandalized the Pharisees of all ages; or, rather, it scandalized them because a man, Jesus, claimed it: a divine claim. This same claim often scandalizes us. We refuse to believe that our sins are so bad that they need a divine redeemer to deal with them properly. We think that we are insignificant. Thus, we can do what we want.
In 1947, Lewis wrote to Calabria: “Is it not a frightening truth that the free will of a bad man can resist the will of God? For He has, after a fashion, restricted His own Omnipotence by the very fact of creating free creatures; and we read that the Lord was not able to do miracles in some place because people’s faith was wanting.” To sin requires free will. To accept repentance as a fact likewise requires free will.
How is our world different from the pagan world? In a letter to Calabria on St. Patrick’s Day 1953, Lewis remarked that “they err who say ‘the world is turning pagan again.’ Would that it were!” It is becoming much worse: “‘Post-Christian man’ is not the same as ‘pre-Christian man.'”
On September 15 of the same year, Lewis wrote that a good part of Europe had lost the Faith. It was then in “a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state . . . . Faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature. Therefore, many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.”
If we want, at Christmastide, to understand Western culture, no one has said it better than Lewis in this passage.
Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. On dying, he asked that his killers be forgiven. The Scribers and Pharisees responsible for Stephen’s death freely rejected the revelation offered them. Stephen asked that their act be not held against them.
“Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.” Jesus cancelled the handwriting that is against us. Let us accept it. Let us not be worrisome. Let us rejoice and be glad!