Literary Witness 1

Faith in Dark Days

By David Mills

More than once in my life I have been driving along a country road following a friend’s directions and come to a fork in the road, and had no idea which to take, because my friend didn’t think to tell me. I have guessed right, and I have guessed wrong. Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the wrong one and wound up really, really lost.

Many people can’t give directions, most people can’t give directions, because they do not look carefully. They do not see everything they need to see, and they certainly do not see the route the way you will see it.

Christians have been blessed with a small platoon of great writers from the last century who could write directions we lesser mortals can follow. They had the gift of seeing the world with rare clarity and the much rarer gift of knowing how to help others see it too. And they answered questions that are still live and pressing questions for us today.

This group includes G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, of course, but also writers like Ronald Knox (who ought to be as widely read as Chesterton and Lewis, but isn’t, alas), J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, R. H. Benson, and Evelyn Waugh.

One warning: no one can do their writing justice in a column. You see the full power of their writing only when you read them at length. Here I’ll be passing on small fragments, but partly in the hope that the fragments will move you to read their books.

As I write (in late October), many Catholics fear for the future. They are anxious about the election and the economy. Much that they have worked for, politically and privately, seems unlikely to survive.
These writers have many things to say to us who look at the future with anxiety. Here are a few quotations, selected somewhat randomly, that struck and comforted me, as one of those easily tempted to discouragement or despair, even in the form of simple retreat from the public square.

Eliot offered the reassuring thought that “There are no lost causes, because there are no gained causes.”

Muggeridge, who as a journalist had observed the century’s greatest political disasters, beginning with Soviet Communism, noted that “It is a curious and little noticed fact of history that it is the strong, not the weak, who are most prone to surrender, and that usually before they are even called upon so to do.” This is reassuring also, when so many of the conservative experts are declaring that the defense of marriage and of the unborn are now lost causes.

Tolkien, perhaps the most melancholic of the whole lot, saw that even defeat was a blessing. “We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us),” he wrote his son Christopher during the darkest days of World War Two. “But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water.”

Responding to the worries of some Christians that their society was becoming much too secular, Lewis wrote that this “is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World’.” The loss of England’s vaguely Christian attitudes would remove “all the things that made England a fairly happy country,” like good manners and polite policemen.

“But I am not clear,” he continued, “that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more inescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone.”

Chesterton saw what all this meant for the Church. “The Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days.” But it might also do more, and “make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time; it might make them the very reverse of dark.”

The Church “might present its more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time, as to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history; so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return. We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Lay Witness.

The quotations are taken from oral tradition (Eliot); Chronicles of Wasted Time, volume II (Muggeridge); Letters (Tolkien); “Learning in War-Time” (Lewis); letter to Maurice Baring quoted in Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton.