C.S. Lewis: In Torturing Yourself About the Fate of the World, Don’t Forget Your Neighbor

By Jim Tonkowich Published on June 17, 2016

The terrorist shootings in Orlando and the gleeful praise with which ISIS is proclaiming Omar Mateen a great martyr make it clear as never before — at least in my lifetime — that we live in an unstable and increasingly unsafe world. If someone can walk in and shoot up a dance club in Orlando or an office in San Bernardino or a school in Newtown, where can you go to be safe?

As a CIA friend told me some years ago, “We live in a very, very dangerous world.” The world, in fact, appears to be falling apart all around. Most of us feel hopeless to do anything about it.

That feeling is hardly new. And it is wrong. Each of us can make a huge difference in healing and changing this sad world.

Continents or Communities

Consider the world in early 1948. World War II was over, but most of Europe was still a pile of rubble. Aggressive Soviet expansion kicked off the Cold War as the Communists invaded Czechoslovakia. In June the Berlin Blockade began and people wondered if another world war was just around the corner.

March 27, 1948 was Easter Saturday; and as all creation stared at the sealed tomb waiting, Oxford professor C. S. Lewis picked up his pen and wrote to his friend Don Giovanni Calabria, an Italian Catholic priest.

Fr. Calabria was born in Verona where, after he was ordained, he ministered to orphaned and destitute boys. Fr. Calabria had written to Lewis after reading an Italian translation of The Screwtape Letters. Not knowing English and unsure as to whether Lewis knew Italian, he wrote in Latin and thus began a long friendship.

“Everywhere things are troubling and uneasy,” Lewis wrote on March 27, “wars and rumors of war: perhaps not the final hour but certainly times most evil.” We say the same thing about our day.

In light of those threats, Lewis wrote, “I believe that the men of this age (and among them you Father, and myself) think too much about the state of nations and the situation of the world…. We are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe, we neglect either Verona or Oxford.”

“The Poor Man Who Knocks At My Door”

After seventeen years in Washington, DC, I’ve spent a great deal of time torturing myself about the fate of the world, often to the neglect of the City of Falls Church where I actually live. It’s not that politics, bioethics, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, war, terrorism, economics, environmentalism and the assortment of other issues I’ve studied and written about are unimportant. They are vitally important. Yet as Lewis wrote, “In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks my advice, the Lord himself is present: therefore let us wash His feet.”

Lewis, whose writings had an enormous influence even during his lifetime, understood the outsized influence of the small, the local and the seemingly insignificant. He perceived the power of everyday acts of love to put the world right.

In The Great Divorce, he described a huge parade in Heaven honoring Sarah Smith. “She is one of the great ones,” he is told. No one on Earth knew that. Rather than being celebrated in the public square, the press or elite social circles, Sarah Smith was a simple Christian woman who lived quietly in a minor village and transformed the lives of all with whom she came into contact.

“Every young man or boy that met her became her son…. Every girl that met her was her daughter…. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives…. Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love.”

Her small acts of faithfulness and love done in Jesus name made her “one of the great ones.”

Great Changes Through Small Acts

Our house is a shamble of boxes as we prepare to move to Lander, Wyoming, the home of Wyoming Catholic College and our grandchildren. Thanks to the internet, in addition to directing distance learning at the college, I can still torture myself over the fate of the world, making what difference I can. But I plan to give more time and energy, more thought and effort to “the poor man who knocks at my door,” my ailing neighbor, “the young man who seeks my advice,” and all the various and sundry folks in whom the Lord Himself is present.

We can all do the same, knowing that God uses small acts to make great changes.

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