The Real Side-Chapels

Michael Metzger

The ongoing debate over Pluto (is it a planet? a small world?) is a sideshow. It deflects our attention from what C. S. Lewis called “the real side-chapels.”

Poor Pluto. In 2006 the International Astronomy Union (IAU) scrubbed the planet only 76 years after its discovery. Nine years ago the IAU redefined it as a small world. The debate continues, but it’s mostly a scientism sideshow, not true science.

Scientism presumes the universe is nothing more than matter. Prior to the Enlightenment, true science (Latin for knowledge) held that the knowledge of reality included the natural and metaphysical world. C. S. Lewis felt the metaphysical—the “higher world”—fills the natural world, making the material world seem “too full,” “too dense” to not point beyond itself.

Lewis felt this way for he was a medieval man, as he told his Cambridge students: “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours.”[1] The old order was the Medieval Model, the “atmosphere” of the “Long Middle Ages” (c. A.D. 100s-1600s). Lewis found it enchanting, ineffable, wondrous. To describe how it “felt,” his mind kept drifting back to the medieval cathedral for it rendered a dreamlike effect for viewers.[2]

Viewers looked up and saw a soaring ceiling stuffed with spiritual beings in the heavens and the earth. So they saw their world stuffed with spiritual beings. In the Medieval Model, there is no such thing as “empty” space. The heavens and the earth are full, pointing beyond themselves. This includes the seven planets (or “heavens”) in the Medieval Model, which is why Michael Ward says C. S. Lewis’ series The Chronicles of Narnia features seven novels.

Ward is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall in the University of Oxford. He’s the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. In it, he describes discovering “the Narnia Code,” explaining why Lewis wrote seven novels for his Narnia series, each one depicting one of the seven planets in the Medieval Model.

[Note to readers: Lewis wasn’t saying the Middle Ages cosmology was correct but that “the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance.”[3] The seven medieval planets—Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Saturn—were “spiritual symbols of permanent value” and “especially worthwhile in our own generation.” Why? Most of us reside in the new Western order. We don’t see the heavens and the earth pointing to anything beyond.]

Ward believes Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line serves to reveal what Lewis called “the kappa element in romance.” The whaaa? Lewis took the first letter—kappa—from the Greek word krypton, meaning hidden element, to describe the secretly hidden atmosphere of a love story, everywhere present but nowhere explicit.

Love story? Yes. Lewis’ writings reveal that he held to the marital gospel, God “marrying” us. The gospel is a romantic story, and “as is proper in romance, the inner meaning is carefully hidden,” Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1916.

Which brings us back to the planets. “It’s fun laying out all my books as a cathedral,” Lewis wrote. “Personally I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar.”[4] In the Middle Ages, cathedrals added side-chapels dedicated to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She embodies the marital gospel as the Bride of Christ. Side-chapels remind us the gospel is a romantic story, a love story.

I bet few of us have read The Chronicles of Narnia as side-chapels. This includes Kathy and I, even though we have been drawn to side-chapels when we’ve visited the many magnificent medieval cathedrals in Italy. We find ourselves drawn to prayer. Lewis would say we were feeling the dreamlike effect of the old Western order, the Medieval Model of love.

Which brings us to Halloween (next Monday). The Medieval Model is thick with devils, witches, warlocks, spirits. Their intentions toward us are not benign, which is why Lewis warned “there are two equal and opposite errors” into which we can fall regarding devils. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” The former sees nothing beyond the fun. The latter has an excessive and unhealthy interest what lies behind the costumes and candy. Both indicate belonging far more to the new Western order than to the old.

We’ll contemplate this next Monday.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” (1954), 13.

[2] Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2022), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded ImageAn Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, (Cambridge University Press 1964, 2013), 303-204.

[4] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963; ed. Walter Hooper, (HarperOne, First Edition, 2007), 304.

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