“Steeped in Romanity” — Fr. Victor-Alain Berto

Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

The guiding star of this site is fidelity to Rome.

From torrid south to frozen north,
The wave harmonious stretches forth,
Yet strikes no chord more true to Rome’s,
Than rings within our hearts and homes.
Cardinal Wiseman

The Priests, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Last month’s The Four Marks carried a thoughtful article by Fr. Rainer Maria Becher of the SSPX in which the writer contrasted four works: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

I wish to object that Fr. Becher’s comments on one of these works—Lewis’s—shows that he has failed to understand the literary genre to which it belongs and has hence mis-assessed it.

Curiously, another priest (sedevacantist Fr. Eugene Berry) just a couple of years ago made a similar mistake about the same subject. In considering the comments of both of these priests (to whom I intend no disrespect), I hope to shed some light not only on a single book, but also on a much wider range of subjects.

Fr. Becher’s summary of Lewis’s book (centrepiece of the Narnia series) is as follows:

“Lewis makes the attempt to offer the story of the Redemption wrapped in a fairy-tale, which, evidently, cannot possibly do justice to the importance and sincerity of the subject.”

And Fr. Berry had observed:

“Some argue that in these cinematic fantasies one can see Christian symbolism. It is far better to nourish the mind with the reality of the doctrines of our God-given Faith rather than to distort His creation with the fabrications of man (often akin to Gnosticism.)... Films like Narnia, with their thin veneer of religious ideas, are genuine attempts to wean children from real religion…”

Fr. Berry also applied to Narnia the advice that “the Mistresses should not allow the pupils to read novels, or other works of pure fiction, which are much more likely to harm than to be instructive, for young people,” attributed to Blessed Julie Billiart in a 1922 book: The Educational Ideas of Blessed Julie Billiart.

Both critics have entirely failed to appreciate that Lewis’s work is an allegory and to assess it as such.

The nature of allegory

So let us try to set the record straight: everyone is familiar with metaphor, the use of one word to represent another, as when we say that a dying man has “one foot in the grave” whereas he may be in fact in his bed, or when we say that the dollar has “nosedived” as though the American currency were an aircraft plummeting towards the ground, or when we refer to the “Ayatollahs” of liberalism because, though not Muslim leaders, these demagogues are violently intolerant, or when we say that a man is a “good Samaritan” though he does not come from Samaria.

Now an allegory is a form of sustained metaphor. It is not just one word which stands for something other than what it literally means; it is a whole story in which the events can be read both literally and symbolically.

If we are to comment intelligently on any allegory, we must first understand that whatever other criticisms may be made of it, it cannot be condemned, in Blessed Julie Billiart’s words, as “pure fiction”, for it is nothing of the kind. The literal sense may be true (for instance the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for forty years really happened, but also—in the intention of the divine Author—symbolizes the progress of the Christian soul in the spiritual life) or it may be imaginary, but the meaning hidden behind the symbolism is intended to be true.

Secondly we must appreciate that allegory cannot be objectionable in itself, for it is repeatedly used throughout the Bible, by Our Lord Himself (the parables are stories, some literally true, but most, as far as we know, fictitious in the literal sense, though all communicating symbolically some important truth), as well as by holy men; indeed the whole of the Old Testament is one great allegory of the Christian religion: “Now all these things happened to them in figure; and they are written for our correction upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (1 Cor. x,11)

Thirdly we must recognize that in every allegory, the superficial meaning is the less important, while the hidden meaning is central and is the real reason why the work was written and why, ideally, it should be read. Hence Fr. Berry’s words are the exact opposite of the truth when he writes that Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has but a “thin veneer of religious ideas”.

Could it be that Fr. Berry is unimaginative? If so, this might explain both his failure to understand allegory and his choice, when he needs a metaphor himself, of such an inappropriate word as “veneer”. Everyone knows that a veneer is a thin sheet of attractive material stuck onto the outside of some less prized substance to give the impression that the whole article is solidly made of what is in fact only present in a superficial and misleading appearance. But Lewis’s work offers no “veneer of religious ideas” whatsoever. There is no mention or hint of Christianity from one end to the other of Narnia! It is the other way round: to the external, superficial reader, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would appear to have no religious meaning or value. But in reality the work is as packed with Christianity as a banana-skin is packed with banana. Only you must take the peel off first to reach the fruit. Fr. Berry seems not to have done this at all, and Fr. Becher confesses to finding it very difficult: “…during the whole story one can hardly realize any relation to the alleged subject.”

There is nothing surprising about this reaction, but nothing particularly edifying either, for it is the result of inactivity. Any reflective reader will see that the real story behind Lewis’s myth is that of man’s salvation. And renewed reflection on the book will be repaid by almost indefinite discoveries of Christian symbolism, all so clear that there can be no doubt that they were intended, and all of which may give the reader light of an apologetical, a doctrinal or even a spiritual nature.

Of course many will read the book for its superficial, fictional story, which will do them little harm and little good, just as generations of children have read Gulliver’s Travels without realising that, hidden behind Swift’s imaginative fiction, lies the most bitter, cynical satire on the whole of mankind that has ever been conceived.

The utility of metaphor and allegory

Having cleared aside the more blatant misunderstandings, we come to the question, Why? What advantage has allegory over the straightforward recital of fact? Why not spell things out clearly, if one is to say them at all?

The answer to this question is fundamental, for those who cannot see the answer to it must always incline to extreme realism. To illustrate and bring home the bluntness of the catechism definitions, they will call for the violent audio-visual realism of a film such as Mr. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Those who can see the purpose of allegory have quite different requirements. They understand why God and His Church make such extensive use of symbolism. They have at their disposal an abundant treasury of riches unsuspected by literalists.

The truth is that there are many good reasons why allegory is used and is in many circumstances much more effective than either blunt factual narration or graphic realistic representation. Here are a few of these reasons:

1. Too much truth at once can dazzle.

The sun is too bright to be looked at directly without dazzling our bodily eyes; we can look at other things in its light, but the sun itself we can only see at all if it is artificially dimmed or obscured, for instance when we look at its reflection in a pool. Similarly many truths are made practically clearer for not being directly spelt out.

2. Allegory gently cures the blindness due to sin.

Our direct vision is sometimes distorted by vicious habit or by self-interest. The veiled presentation of a truth enables us to perceive a reality that direct contemplation had in fact concealed from us. The second book of Kings, chapter 12, furnishes a famous example of allegory used for this purpose with stunning effect by the prophet Nathan. King David had fallen into adultery and murder but he had closed his eyes to the real nature of his sins. Nathan’s parable of the rich man who stole the poor man’s single, much-loved ewe-lamb for his own table opened the sinner’s eyes. David’s reaction to the tale was undistorted by self-interest because he had not yet penetrated beneath the level of the superficial, and in fact fictitious, account. After telling his tale, Nathan needed only to reveal its allegorical nature by adding, “Thou art the man,” for David to understand his fault and do penance. It would make little sense, though it would be perfectly true, to comment on Nathan’s tale that “…during the whole story one can hardly realize any relation to the alleged subject.” That was the whole point! Nor was Nathan teetering on the brink of Gnosticism!

3. Allegory restores sensation to minds numbed by habit.

Allegory also helps to deliver us of the deadening effect of habit. Christians and non-Christians alike have heard hundreds of times the fundamental narration of the Incarnation and the Redemption. Our reactions are now conditioned reflexes. We cannot look at Christianity as something new. We cannot react to its dogmas, its morals, its history as to something fresh. The late Dorothy L. Sayers wrote,

“The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity, and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.”

And as Chesterton points out in The Everlasting Man, as soon as, by a change of perspective, we recover the ability to see Christianity as it must have appeared to Christ’s contemporaries, the sacred truths strike home: the unbeliever at once sees that the Faith is credible, the believer is stirred up to act on what he has lethargically credited but not practically assimilated.

Millions of men are incapable of hearing even a mention of the Name of Our Lord without finding themselves prey to a whole range of instinctive negative reactions. They have no such distaste for Aslan. It is therefore possible for Aslan to lead them to Christ in a way that explicitly Christian apologetics never could have. This is why I suspect that Professor Lewis’s Lion may have wrought more conversions than Mr. James Caviezel has. If so, he has contributed to Fr. Berry’s wish that we should, “nourish the mind with the reality of the doctrines of our God-given Faith,” by enabling unbelievers to come to the faith who might not otherwise have believed, and by enabling believers to be more effectively nourished than might otherwise have been the case, by truths of which they had only a partial apprehension. Of course, as Lewis (unlike many of those he influenced) never completed the journey towards Catholicism, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may well be liable to detailed theological criticism as some of his other works are, but fair criticism cannot be founded on misunderstanding. For my part I find Narnia quite as Catholic as Chesterton’s pre-conversion works.

4. Allegory, like symbols and ceremonies, takes account of man’s needs.

The indirect, symbolic presentation of truth is particularly appropriate when those truths are mysterious in themselves and call for reverence or awe. The Council of Trent has explained the need for mystic ceremonies in the liturgy:

“Since the nature of man is such that he cannot without external means be raised easily to meditation on divine things, holy mother Church has instituted certain rites, namely, that some things in the Mass be pronounced in a low tone and others in a louder tone. She has likewise, in accordance with apostolic discipline and tradition, made use of ceremonies, such as mystical blessings, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be emphasized and the minds of the faithful excited by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.”

These same considerations also apply, in literature, to the use of allegory and symbolism—the aim is to excite the minds of the faithful to the contemplation of hidden realities, rather than to satisfy directly their curiosity by unveiling all, leaving them a purely passive rôle.

5. “Noli me tangere!”

A human being present before our eyes can easily be the object of a too sensual, too natural affection. The divine love which Christ came to inspire in us is of the will, not of the emotions. There is no danger of sentimentality when the reality is veiled as Christ’s presence was withdrawn at the Ascension (see Catechism of the Council of Trent: “Other Advantages Conferred by the Ascension”), or veiled in the Eucharist, or presented symbolically as in many of our liturgical rituals.

Among those who witnessed Christ’s Passion in its gory reality, He found it necessary to rebuke the women of Jerusalem for their misdirected tears of mere natural pity. That may in part explain why Christians have for twenty centuries been shy of the direct representation of Christ without symbol or veil. It may seem astonishing from our present perspective, but Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1941 radio play The Man Born to be King was found revolutionary, even blasphemous, in that the voice of a human actor spoke the words of Christ. By 1959, the film Ben-Hur, featuring Charlton Heston, allowed viewers to catch one or two glimpses of Christ without ever seeing an identifiable face. Anything else was unacceptable to devout Christians of all denominations and in particular to Catholics whose influence on the Hays Office standards at the time was paramount. Only in 1961, with Vatican II in the air and the Church’s monolithic influence beginning to diminish, did the film King Of Kings allow an actor to be clearly seen and heard as Our Divine Lord. If you take it for granted that the objections made by Catholics of a generation or two ago were unfounded, it may be that you are suffering from ideological parochialism. The voice and face of the Word Incarnate, object of our reverent love, certainly cannot be adequately imitated by any human actor and it is doubtful whether unqualified applause is due to even the best of inadequate attempts.

6. Nothing can enter the mind save through the senses — “nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu”.

Abstract thought is never easy for men, for all our knowledge must pass through our senses and it is only by analogy that we can acquire any knowledge of what our senses cannot perceive. That is why for most men allegory and symbolism are the only doors through which to gain access to philosophy. The modern religious writer professes to be scandalized at traditional metaphorical expressions such as that which states that Our Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father. But his attempts to strip religious language of metaphor succeed only in replacing useful metaphors with useless ones; his attempts to deliver readers from allegedly misleading imagery leaves them both image-less and idea-less whereupon he congratulates them on their impoverishment as though it were a gain.

7. The more we see the less we think.

All will agree that a vivid, entirely un-symbolic representation of Christ’s Passion, such as that realised by Mr. Mel Gibson, gives rich fare to the senses. The viewer sees all. But it may be doubted whether this is as desirable as it might at first sight seem. Pope Pius XII observed, “When man sees everything (‘l’uomo onniveggente’), he becomes almost entirely absorbed in the exercise of the senses and is led, unwittingly, to reduce the application of the wholly spiritual faculty of reading within things (i.e. the intelligence) and hence becomes ever less able to mature the true ideas by which life is sustained.” (Christmas Radio Message, 1957) In other words, the more we see, the less we think. By contrast, allegory and symbolism nourish the senses and imagination in a way which instead of stifling the intellect stimulates it to more vigorous activity. That is why the ultimate representation of Christ’s Passion is not the one realised on the screen, but the one realised on the altar where the self-immolation of the God-Man is not only made present in mystic, sacramental reality, but is also symbolised by what falls under the senses. By a similar confusion, Vatican II, with its call for popular liturgical participation, led to a liturgy in which the only participation worth having (that of the heart and will, moved by the action of the reflective mind) is rendered impossible. The Church knows what effects are to be produced in man’s heart, and she knows better than Hollywood how to produce them.

8. Man is not an angel.

Forgive me if I seem to have wandered. I undertook to defend the literary use of allegory on religious matters, and I find myself contrasting the liturgy (which is even more remote and symbolic than allegory) with the cinema (which is even more graphic than the most realistic literary narration). Extreme examples can help to clarify principles, and the chief principle I want to bring out is that what is presented only indirectly to our intelligence often exercises a more powerful and more wholesome effect than more immediate presentations. If we have to co-operate by personal effort in order to benefit from allegory and symbolism, this is not an evil: nothing worth having comes without effort.

There are other reasons also why it is of great importance not to see allegory as “distorting [God’s] creation with the fabrications of man”. By misunderstanding allegory, not only do we deprive ourselves needlessly of the nourishment it offers, but we also create for ourselves a false conscience. God made man in a state of absolute dependence upon metaphor. We must imperatively, for our salvation, know abstract truths, but our language is unable to express any abstraction by any single word which was not originally a metaphor. Trying to emancipate ourselves from metaphors, including their extended form, the allegory, is one more variation on the wish to become angels. But history bears witness that men who try to become angels turn into devils.

And since, like it or not, we are surrounded by metaphor and allegory—and use them ourselves even without realizing it—we must learn to see them as they really are. Just as a literal word stands for a thing, a metaphor is a word that stands for a thing which in turn stands for another thing. If you take a literal truth as metaphorical, you will become a Modernist, and if you take a metaphor as literal truth, you will become a fanatic. The appreciation and good use of metaphor and allegory are thus a necessary part of the education which produces the balanced and cultivated individual.

© John S. Daly 2007 (First published in The Four Marks)