The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the Christian apologist and beloved author C.S. Lewis, exactly one week before what would have been his 65th birthday, in 1963. At the time, the news of his death was completed overshadowed by the assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy, which took place less than an hour later; the same befell the writer Aldous Huxley, author of the famous dystopian novel Brave New World, who several hours after Kennedy.

(The Kilns, the house in which Lewis died; he had lived there with his brother since 1930. Image from Wikimedia Commons by jschroe, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1947, an Italian priest named Giovanni Calabria (who was canonized as a Saint in 1999) read an Italian translation of Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and was inspired to write to him. Knowing no English, and assuming correctly that Lewis, an Oxford don who specialized in early English literature, would not know Italian, Don Calabria wrote his letter in Latin. Over the next seven years, they exchanged quite a number of letters in Latin; Lewis’ last to Don Calabria was posted on December 5, 1954, one day after the latter’s death. He continued the correspond with one of the priest’s confreres, Fr Luigi Pedrollo, until January of 1961, when it seems to have broken off because of his badly declining health, worsened by his grief over the death of his wife the previous July.

Unfortunately for posterity, Lewis was in the habit of destroying most of his voluminous correspondence, and therefore, much more of his side of the exchange has been preserved. In the specific case of Fr Giovanni, he did this because, as he himself wrote in a letter to Don Pedrollo, “curiosi scrutatores omnia nostra effodiunt et veneno publicitatis (ut rem barbaram verbo barbaro nominem) aspergunt. Quod fieri minime vellem de Patris Joannis epistolis. – curious researchers dig through all our affairs and sprinkle them with the poison of ‘publicity’ (to name a barbarous thing with a barbarous name), and I would hardly want this to happen to Fr Giovanni’s letters.”

The surviving letters are mostly preserved in the archive of the religious congregation which Don Calabria had founded in his native Verona. They were published, together with an English translation, by Martin Moynihan (Servant Books, Ann Arbor, 1988.) This aspect of Lewis’ long and varied career as a writer demonstrates how recently Latin was still a living means of communication between men of extremely disparate cultural backgrounds, just as St John XXIII said it should be and remain in the encyclical Veterum Sapientia.

Here is an except from one of the letters of Don Calabria, written on Easter Sunday of 1949.

“Tempora bona veniant! Vox quidem Dei continuo ad nos clamat; ad mundum clamat, ut remotis peccatis regnum Dei quaeramus sincere. Utinam omnes audiamus hanc Patris vocem, et tandem aliquando ad Dominum convertamur! Det nobis Dominus Jesus ut his diebus suae Resurrectionis – post Passionem et Mortem pro nobis – adlaborare possimus ut familia humana resurgat in novitate vitae Christi et Domini.

May good times come. Indeed, the voice of God calls to us without delay; it cries out to the world, that we might put aside our sins and sincerely seek the kingdom of God. Would that we might all hear this voice of the Father, and be at last converted to the Lord. May the Lord Jesus Christ grant that in these days of His resurrection, after His death and passion for us, we may be able to work for the rising of the human family in the newness of the life of Christ the Lord. ”

And here is Lewis’ letter to Fr Pedrollo sent on Dec. 16, 1954, after learning of Don Calabria’s death.

“Doleo et vobis condoleo de obitu dilectissimi amici. Ille quidem ex aerumnis hujus saeculi, quas gravissime sentire solebat in patriam feliciter migravit; vobis procul dubio acerbus luctus. Gratias ago pro photographia quam mittendo bene fecisti. Aspectus viri talis est qualem auguratus sum; senilis gravitas bene mixta et composita cum quadum juvenili alacritate. Semper et ipsius et congregationis vestrae memoriam in orationes habebo; et vos idem pro me facturos spero.

I grieve and share your grief at the death of a most beloved friend. He has indeed happily passed from the troubles of this world, which he was wont to feel most gravely, to his fatherland; for you, this is without doubt a bitter grief. I thank you for the photograph which you did well to send. His appearance is that of a man just as I imagined: an elderly gravity well mixed and combined with a youthful liveliness. I will always remember him and your congregation in my prayers, and I hope that you will do the same for me.”

Finally, I believe our friends and readers will find this comment from Lewis in his second letter to Don Calabria (Sept. 20, 1947) particularly interesting. “Utinam pestifera illa Renascentia quam Humanistae effecerunt non destruxerit (dum erigere eam se jactabant) Latinam: adhuc possemus toti Europae scribere. – Would that that pestilential Renaissance which the Humanists brought about had not destroyed Latin (even as they boasted that they were raising it up); we could still write to the whole of Europe.”

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