Literary Witness 4

Horrors and Holiness

By David Mills

We are creatures, C. S. Lewis wrote, “whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves. This I believe to be a fact: and I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact.” When asked to write an essay on what is wrong with the world, G. K. Chesterton famously responded: “I am.”

The writers we are looking at were all unblinkingly realistic about how bad we are. They were so realistic about it that reading them sometimes shocks the rest of us, who tend to go through life feeling that we’re not so bad. We’d give ourselves at least a B in Holiness 101. The prophet Isaiah might describe our claim to righteousness as “filthy rags” (64:5), but we insist that it’s only a little frayed and a little stained and good enough for the heavenly banquet.

But Lewis says that we are “a horror” and that we ought to know it, and that if we were closer to God we would know it.  As Chesterton noted, religion is “the realistic thing, the brutal thing, the thing that calls names.”

Perhaps we can stand to see how sinful we are because we know that our sins can be forgiven, while the secularist without such hope has to ignore the evidence, as a man in 1509 could only hope a sharp pain would go away while a man suffering the same pain in 2009 would rush to the doctor. Moral realism doesn’t frighten us the way it must frighten the secularist.

In fact the pain we suffer when we see that we “must be, in some respects, a horror to God” is a blessing because it alerts to our need for Him. God made us for a certain place and to be a certain kind of creature, Lewis wrote. But “When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. . . . Those Divine demands that sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted.”

As Dorothy Sayers put it, “If you insist on having your own way, you will get it. Hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever,” because in this world, our will “has been thwarted and hampered and terrified and tyrannized over by the disorderly lusts to which it enslaved itself.” The “very essence of Hell,” she argued, “is the deliberate choosing to remain in illusion and to see God and the universe as hostile to one’s ego.”

No one really wants to live like this, and so when men find the place God intended for them, Lewis wrote, “their nature is fulfilled and their happiness attained: a broken bone in the universe has been set, the anguish is over.” The Catholic life, wrote Evelyn Waugh, is “the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves.”

This explains even the disciplines, like fasting. Chesterton responded to the common attack on the Early Church, and us their descendents, as a movement of people who hated the world. “The early Church was ascetic, but she proved that she was not pessimistic, simply by condemning the pessimists,” he wrote. The creedal affirmation of the goodness of creation “was in truth very proof that the Church meant to be broad and brotherly.”

But being moral realists, they knew there was something to be done. The early Christians “were ascetic because asceticism was the only possible purge of the sins of the world; but in the very thunder of their anathemas they affirmed for ever that their asceticism was not to be anti-human or anti-nature; that they did wash to purge the world and not destroy it.”

And unexpectedly, perhaps, realism makes you happier. Lewis asked us to imagine people living in a building, which some think a hotel and the others think a prison. “Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is the one that comforts and strengthens you in the end.” If, he writes, “you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”

Not only is it not so bad, it is surprisingly good, because God is with us here and will someday bring us home.

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. “Horrors and Holiness” appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Lay Witness.