Thursday, April 15, 2010

Staying Alive

Last Call

By from the April 2010 issue of The American Spectator

Ancient tongues like Latin tend to enter our daily lives in small ways. There is the quick phrase sitting like an italicized island lending polish and age, if not pretension, to what we write. In art galleries there is the occasional tapestry with Latin embroidered in the top and bottom margins or in the spaces between figures. And upon aged churchside graves there is often a name carved, usually in wing-tipped Latin letters -- proof, it would seem, that the language is at rest. And yet, every so often, like a crocus in winter, the so-called dead tongue displays her original, brilliant force. This is, I think, a gentle species of what the Greeks identified as epiphany.

Recently I came across such a wonder between the navy covers of a book published 10 years ago and now being reprinted by St. Augustine Press. The book collects and translates the letters -- all of them written in clear, cogent Latin -- between a Catholic saint in Verona, Don Giovanni Calabria, and one of the greatest Protestant writers, C. S. Lewis, in Oxford. As far as I know, this is the one instance in the 20th century when, beyond the Vatican and the classroom, Latin was used out of such merry necessity -- and the one instance when Latin was ferried through Europe's clouds via Air Mail.

Calabria started the correspondence on September 1, 1947, after reading Lewis's The Screwtape Letters in Italian. Wishing to thank the author for his work but not knowing English, he decided to write him in Latin. After all, he recalled, Lewis was a classicist. Lewis responded five days later in Latin, and they exchanged prayers and words on paper until Calabria died. At that time another priest took up his post and wrote Lewis until Lewis died in 1963. The bulk of the surviving correspondence is by the Oxford man, who tended to burn letters he received two days upon receipt to better protect his senders' privacy.

The Lewis/Calabria letters aren't the stuff of literature, but each writer voices the same great wish, and often: that the two churches of which they are part, Catholic and Reformed, might one day be reunified after Christ's imperative, as expressed in the Vulgate, ut omnes unum sint ("that they may all be made one"). That message is refined by casting it in Latin, a language native to neither man and becoming here a silent lingua franca for two.

After reading the 35 letters in this afternoon-length book, which prints the Latin on facing pages, I opened a few other books by Lewis to scan for what he'd written about the old language he commanded so well. In so doing, I came across a passage about another old language he commanded, Attic Greek, that I'd copied out longhand in my first year of learning Latin when I was weary of its starched grammar and wanted to quit. My father, whose first published piece, incidentally, was in these very pages in 1974 and concerned Lewis, urged me to keep on, because after the study of grammar there would come the study of literature.

In the passage about Greek, Lewis says that beginning to think in another language is the "great Rubicon to cross" in learning it. He continues:

Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, "Naus means a ship," is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.

What rigorous study of language teaches -- or rather, teaches us to remember -- is that words of any time and place are deliciously and, Lewis elsewhere wrote, "incurably metaphorical," pointing to the raw image behind the noun, the raw action behind the verb. No longer steeped in Latin, I tend to forget this small wonder. As Elizabeth Bishop says in the plain refrain of "One Art," "the art of losing isn't hard to master."

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard and an illustrator. Her art can be viewed at


The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis

The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis
by Martin Moynihan
Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1985
64 pages, $4.95

Letters: C. S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship
Martin Moynihan, editor
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1988
125 pages, $5.95

reviewed by James L. Sauer

Between 1947 and 1961, C. S. Lewis corresponded in Latin with two members of the Roman Catholic order of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence in Verona, Italy. Don Giovanni Calabria wrote Lewis after reading his Screwtape Letters. Calabria’s ecumenical purpose in contacting Lewis involved the persuasion of “the dissenting brethren whose return to the unity of the body, which is the Church, is most greatly desired,” to resume that ancient cohesion. After Calabria’s death in 1954, the communication was continued with Don Luigi Pedrollo.

Moynihan has done us a service in gathering, translating, and editing these letters. Though one must admit a certain annoyance at his publishing first a prospectus and commentary, and three years later, the letters. Certainly, the texts and commentary could have been brought together in one book; and the multiplicity of texts on Lewis, however lucrative, staunched. But it must also be added that the translation is better for the delay, Moynihan having polished the translations of the earlier excerpts.

If there is any universal theme to these letters it is that of “Christian unity.” This hallmark is set from the onset of their communication by Calabria and followed closely by Lewis. Calabria, a holy and pious man—and now beatified by the Roman Church—writes with a pleasant pastiche of Scripture and the holy fathers somewhat reminiscent of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation.

Lewis, on the other hand, writes with that vim we have come to expect; biblical allusions, classical quotations, high church anglicanisms, humor, and humble wisdom. Though there are discussions of theology proper, the problem of petitionary prayer, the martyrdom of missionaries in China, and the like; it is to the central theme of their friendship which we return:

“Might we not hope that this unity of love and action over many years would precede—not to say foster—an eventual re-unification of doctrines.” (Letter 2)

Lewis’s suggestion that a conscious love and labor together, as we witness in the contemporary pro-life movement, might set the foundation for doctrinal discussion. Our present tendency is to begin with doctrines which we know we disagree about, and never move on to loving labors.

“Common perils, common burdens, an almost universal hatred and contempt for the Flock of Christ can, by God’s Grace, contribute much to the healing of our divisions. For those who suffer the same things from the same people for the same Person can scarcely not love each other.” (Letter 3)

Certainly this is the case in Communist countries. You don’t ask a person’s view of the sacraments when his beaten body is thrust into your cell.

“Disputations do more to aggravate schisms than to heal them: united action, prayer, fortitude and (should God so will) united deaths for Christ—these will make us one” (Letter 5)

“The unity of the whole human race exists: would that there existed that nobler union of which you write.” (Letter 24)

The union of the Christian church also exists; what we are struggling about is how we relate to each other, and to the head.

It is apropos that he ends his last letter to Don Giovanni Calabria with this line: “Let us rejoice together, my Father: though divided in space, yet in spirit and charity we are united: and may you ever pray for. . . [signature]” (Letter 28)

Throughout the letters one is struck by the united pietas of Lewis and Calabria. Their friendship did not solve the problem of the schism of Christendom; but it did reflect, in a living full-fleshed way, the charity which can be the only basis of reunion.

James L. Sauer is the Director of Library, Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

“The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis” first appeared in the Spring-Summer, 1989 issue of Touchstone. Click here for a printer-friendly version.

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