Ancient tongues like Latin tend to enter our daily lives in small ways. There is the quick phrase sitting like an italicized island lending polish and age, if not pretension, to what we write. In art galleries there is the occasional tapestry with Latin embroidered in the top and bottom margins or in the spaces between figures. And upon aged churchside graves there is often a name carved, usually in wing-tipped Latin letters — proof, it would seem, that the language is at rest. And yet, every so often, like a crocus in winter, the so-called dead tongue displays her original, brilliant force. This is, I think, a gentle species of what the Greeks identified as epiphany.
Recently I came across such a wonder between the navy covers of a book published 10 years ago and now being reprinted by St. Augustine Press. The book collects and translates the letters — all of them written in clear, cogent Latin — between a Catholic saint in Verona, Don Giovanni Calabria, and one of the greatest Protestant writers, C. S. Lewis, in Oxford. As far as I know, this is the one instance in the 20th century when, beyond the Vatican and the classroom, Latin was used out of such merry necessity — and the one instance when Latin was ferried through Europe’s clouds via Air Mail.
Calabria started the correspondence on September 1, 1947, after reading Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in Italian. Wishing to thank the author for his work but not knowing English, he decided to write him in Latin. After all, he recalled, Lewis was a classicist. Lewis responded five days later in Latin, and they exchanged prayers and words on paper until Calabria died. At that time another priest took up his post and wrote Lewis until Lewis died in 1963. The bulk of the surviving correspondence is by the Oxford man, who tended to burn letters he received two days upon receipt to better protect his senders’ privacy.
The Lewis/Calabria letters aren’t the stuff of literature, but each writer voices the same great wish, and often: that the two churches of which they are part, Catholic and Reformed, might one day be reunified after Christ’s imperative, as expressed in the Vulgate, ut omnes unum sint (“that they may all be made one”). That message is refined by casting it in Latin, a language native to neither man and becoming here a silent lingua franca for two.
After reading the 35 letters in this afternoon-length book, which prints the Latin on facing pages, I opened a few other books by Lewis to scan for what he’d written about the old language he commanded so well. In so doing, I came across a passage about another old language he commanded, Attic Greek, that I’d copied out longhand in my first year of learning Latin when I was weary of its starched grammar and wanted to quit. My father, whose first published piece, incidentally, was in these very pages in 1974 and concerned Lewis, urged me to keep on, because after the study of grammar there would come the study of literature.
In the passage about Greek, Lewis says that beginning to think in another language is the “great Rubicon to cross” in learning it. He continues:
Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.
What rigorous study of language teaches — or rather, teaches us to remember — is that words of any time and place are deliciously and, Lewis elsewhere wrote, “incurably metaphorical,” pointing to the raw image behind the noun, the raw action behind the verb. No longer steeped in Latin, I tend to forget this small wonder. As Elizabeth Bishop says in the plain refrain of “One Art,” “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.”