Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Exemplary Life

The coming of fall--and it has come in the most delicious way to us: deep blue skies, cool temperatures, brilliant sunlight etching deep shadows, and a fresh breeze--the coming of fall always puts one in a wistful mood. In addition to bringing harvest, it brings longer nights and therefore, if one turns off the television, it brings reflection, in part on times past and people we have known.

One of the best I have known is now gone--he passed away last year at 89 after a long life, full for the most part of adventure and more recently of a quiet retirement. His name was Arthur Lewis, an Englishman born in Cheshire and raised near Solihull. I do not know where he attended school, but he made his way to Oxford, where he eventually earned his M.A. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England and went almost immediately to Africa, where he served happily as a missionary. In his first decade, he worked in Zanzibar and Tanganyika, then German colonies, but he lived in the great period of decolonization, as one nation after another another all over Africa declared independence and, sometimes bloodily, less often peacefully, established existence by severing ties to the European powers that had carved up the continent a hundred years before in what historians call the scramble for Africa.

As the countries in which he served declared independence and then more often than not established Marxist regimes generally hostile to European settlers, he moved south, eventually landing in Rhodesia, where he worked happily for many years. He was devoted to the people he evangelized and spoke in enchanted terms of their goodness of heart and of the beauty of the countryside near his mission of St Peter in the Honde Valley and later Inyanga, where he served from the late 1960s. He never took the condescending attitude of some of the white settlers in Rhodesia--he respected the natives, particularly those who dealt honestly with the white farmers, who, it must be admitted, brought a great deal of stability and prosperity to south-central Africa in the years following the Second World War. In the years after UDI--the Unilateral Declaration of Independence pronounced by Rhodesia in order to dissolve its ties with an England that looked too eager to decolonize Rhodesia and therefore withdraw any protection for the white settlers--Fr Lewis eventually became a senator in the Rhodesian parliament. It would be easy to criticize him as a racist who took part in the government of Ian Smith, but if others were, he was not. His was a moderate position: he worked for justice and equality for the black Africans while trying to ensure security for the white Africans who had farmed that fertile land so well.

In the end, there was no place for his moderate views in Sub-Saharan Africa of the 1970s and '80s. Caught between the left--which consisted of power-hungry natives who played upon Western white guilt in order to establish their own personal kleptocracies and Westerners who burnished their progressive credentials by supporting such regimes because they were run by black Africans--and a right that feared dispossession and used violence to preserve its status, people like Fr Lewis were prophets who went laregely unheeded by those they came to warn. As the 70s became the 80s and Rhodesia became first Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe, "conditions on the ground," as they say, began to deteriorate--first for the whites, as Mugabe gained power, and then finally for everyone, as it became clear that he was consolidating his power far beyond the mandate of the Constitution. It saddened Fr Lewis to leave in such circumstances, but after an adult life working in Africa, he returned to England by way of South Africa, where he and Gladys, his beloved wife of many years, retired. They eventually came to stay at a retirement home for Anglican clergy, St Barnabas' near Solihull, not very far from the home of their son Anthony, who regularly visited them.

I came to know him in the mid-70s, when, because of his friendship with my father, he would visit our home in South Carolina, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of other Rhodesians, always engaged in traveling the United States in order to spread news of what was actually happening in his part of the world. He was convinced that if only Americans could learn the truth of the situation--that the civil war in Rhodesia was in fact not a struggle of white against black, as claimed by the liberal Western media, but an integral part of the Cold War struggle of freedom against Communism--then America would end the crippling sanctions and allow Rhodesia to survive and evolve into a model nation in which white and black could share power and live peacefully together.

But he was an idealist, though an idealist of the best kind--a large-hearted, good-natured man of God, who genuinely loved Africa and those who lived there. He had thought that good work would be rewarded, and that the Rhodesia he imagined and worked for could come to exist because it would have been such a good and peaceful place, but he did not reckon on the heart of darkness--on the ambitions of such as Robert Mugabe, who, like all tyrants, was willing to destroy his nation and the lives of countless people who lived there in order to fulfill his will to power. Indeed, Fr Lewis must have come late in life to realize the limitations of his idealistic view, for he wrote a book, privately published, in which he recounts his adventures in Africa and the sadness he felt over the violent loss of the world in which he worked. He called the book Too Bright the Vision? a title that seems to capture both his optimism and his disillusion at its passing. It is a wonderful book, good natured and, in places, lyrical, as it bears witness both to a life of adventure and of idealistic integrity. Indeed, he was a fine writer, who produced a newsletter that he wrote single-handedly trying to spread the news of his organization, the Rhodesia Christian Group. Alas, the final number came last year; it was written not by Fr Lewis but by his children, and it recounted how he himself had died, not long after his heart was broken by the death of his wife.

I will forever remember a man who came to have a large influence on my life. He was the first liturgical Christian whom I knew; I remember being fascinated by his regular practice of saying morning and evening prayer by himself in his room when he stayed with us. On his last trip, I occasionally joined him. We also would take long walks together, on which he would challenge my thinking: it perhaps meant little enough to him, but for a young person cutting his intellectual teeth, his mild correction of my assertion that a particular dog we encountered was mean came as something of a revelation. It forced me to think about the differences of humans and animals and set me on the long road to the traditional idea of the differences between animalia and the Aristotelian animalis rationale (to say nothing of Swift's animalis capax rationis suggested by the attitude of the West to Fr Lewis' adopted homeland of Rhodesia). He regaled me with stories of his undergraduate days at Oxford, where he had as professors in the English course both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He was in the small group of students to whom Lewis read the draft of The Problem of Pain, and he recounted to me an anecdote of C.S. Lewis on the platform at Oxford awaiting a train to London that has been collected in none of the biographies, since he was the only witness of the event.

More than such insights and more than any sense he imparted to me of having a privileged childhood because it contained first-hand contact with people of such caliber, knowing Fr Lewis taught me that my own father was not the only person in this world with unsullied integrity. There are any number of people who walk among us as examples. They have high ideals, and unlike too many, they live by them, even if it costs them--socially, professionally, financially. Those who as the cliche puts it go along to get along have their reward of a dull life lived in security. But they will always seem rather shabby by contrast to those who genuinely live the high ideals they profess. Such a one was Fr Arthur Lewis, who was something of a latter-day Quixote. He did not indeed go about the world like Cervantes's knight with a Rueful Countenance, but he preached and taught with joy, and his life well lived points to a spirit that took delight in this world and inspiration from the world beyond.

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