The following is a report I just wrote for the New York CS Lewis Society. I have been a member since 1980 and, as far as I know, the only member in Iraq.
One of my big goals when I knew I was getting deployed to Iraq was to start a CS Lewis book group and, if possible a Dante group. We arrived here in early May 2009 after two weeks in Kuwait and two months at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I thought about starting the groups right away, but I went on leave five weeks after I arrived, so the book groups started in late July. The CSL group, Beyond Narnia, met on Monday nights at 8pm. Our first book was The Weight of Glory. The Dead Poets Society started meeting on Tuesday nights at 8pm reading Inferno--it would be hard to find a more appropriate book. We read five cantos a week for six weeks. During each of those six weeks, the mid-day tempo topped 130 degrees.
The first night of the Beyond Narnia Group, I talked about CSL's life and works. Then we read "Why I am Not a Pacifist." I thought it would be good to start with an essay that describes CSL's clear-eyed view of pacifism and his service. On the following night, the Dante group had a long discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins and their order in Hell. From the first week the two groups had a surprising (to me) difference in
participation that has carried on right to the end (as I write there will be just two more weekly meetings before I go to Kuwait and back to America).
The Beyond Narnia Group was older, almost all officers, and was very steady in attendance except when on missions. The Dead Poets Society was almost all enlisted soldiers and airmen under 30. When I say old I mean 40s. At 56, I am beyond Methuselah in Army years. I was surprised because I had the idea that the Narnia movies (which I have not seen) would inspire someone to read more of Lewis. The Captains and Colonels in my group all had wanted to read CSL long before the movies ever came out and for one reason or another had not got around to it. After The
Weight of Glory we read The Four Loves and are finishing with The Screwtape Letters. Over time the group became more and more animated.
One of the Chaplains in the group disagreed with CSL on something every week, but was very happy to discuss more. The meetings were set for an hour, but The Four Loves discussions went almost two hours.
After Inferno, the Dead Poets Society voted to read Aeneid. We are now reading Purgatorio and should finish it by the time I leave Iraq. This group was very taken with Virgil and upset that Dante kept him in Hell, especially when they found out Cato was going to go to Heaven.
These groups allowed me to meet and talk with soldiers who really care about books and ideas and the Faith--at least in the case of the CSL group. The Dead Poets Society included non-believers. Despite everything and anything I had to do, I never missed these meetings. And I am sure I will miss them when I return to America where weekly
meetings to discuss books is simply impossible. But I am also very ready to go home.