Tag Archives: Joy Davidman

“A Grief Observed” (C.S. Lewis on his wife’s death)

GriefObserved001“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” so quotes Lewis (p 65) near the end of his published journal entries that relate to the loss of his wife, Helen.  (Lewis doesn’t give the author of the quote, but it’s from Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of [Divine] Love.)  When I finally got to reading this little book, I found it to be a gem of thought, writing, and emotion.  In it Lewis confronts God, then affirms His love for us—even if it’s like the tough love of a dentist or surgeon.  One of his stepsons (Douglas Gresham) wrote so aptly in the introduction:  “It is true to say that very few men could have written this book, and even truer to say that even fewer men would have written this book even if they could, fewer still would have published it even if they had written it (p xix).

Yes, indeed.  My response after reading entries in which Lewis describes his wife’s character was:  “What a guy!”  Lewis eulogizes, “H. [Helen] was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword” (p 42).  He adds later:  “I see I’ve described H. as being like a sword.  That’s true as far as it goes.  But utterly inadequate by itself, and misleading.  I ought to have balanced it.  I ought to have said, ‘but also like a garden.  Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.’  And then, of her, and every created thing I praise, I should say, ‘In some way, in its unique way, like Him who made it” (p 63).

These laudatory quotes belie the overall tone of A Grief Observed, however.  While the end is a happy one, the heart of this book includes the racking grief over the loss of a lover, the struggle with faith when God seems absent but is most needed, and the questioning of God’s goodness.  Lewis put it this way:  “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly.  Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively.  But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (p 25).

At the beginning, in the first of only four chapters, Lewis asks, “Where is god?”  He likened God’s perceived absence during his desperation as a silence behind a door, which had been slammed in his face, and then bolted.  He struggled with this lack of comfort from God, writing that “the conclusion I dread is not ‘so there’s no God after all,’ but ‘so this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer” (p 7).

Lewis is angry with God and tries to understand “goodness” in His terms.  He concludes that the real problem is his own shallowness of faith.  His faith is like a rope that didn’t bear him when needed, he claims, being just a “house of cards.”  He connects true faith with outwardness:  “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.  It has been an imaginary faith . . .” (p 37).  Amazingly, this response to grief is coming from a man that many consider the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century.

Being a great Christian thinker, Lewis couldn’t help but comment on consolations he received from various people.  He derides the feeble platitude, “She will live forever in [your] memory” (p 20, and negatively considers the ideas we hold of the dead being both joyous and brought immediately into God’s presence.  His commentaries relate to his desperate perplexity over Helen’s continued existence.  His prayers to God meet only silence; his questions to Him about Helen are unanswered.  Lewis felt that there was a “sort of invisible blanket between the world and me” (p 3), but this blanket appears to have enveloped his spiritual life as well.

A little over half-way through his journal, Lewis experienced not only a lifting of the blanket, but a strong sense that Helen was indeed “still a fact” (p 51).  When he stopped worrying about how much he remembered of her, she seemed to be, in a certain sense, everywhere.  His relationship with God began to reopen and he surmised that God had needed to show him what a flimsy house his faith really was.

He realized that he should have been praising God more, knowing that the act of praise brings joy.  He realized more fully that we need to love God, not our own ideas of Him, and to duplicate this in all our relationships.  He accepted that there are mysteries that will be solved only in heaven, and that “our apparently contradictory notions . . . will all be knocked from under our feet.  We shall see that there never was any problem” (p 71).

But Lewis leaves us with something that some people may find hard to accept:  an experience of Helen, her mind meeting his.  He says of it, “I had never in any mood imagined the dead as being so—well, so business-like.  Yet there was an extreme and cheerful intimacy.  An intimacy that had not passed through the senses or the emotions at all” (p 73).  He reports more of the encounter than this quote, of course, and analyzes it in relation to intellect, love, emotions, and the resurrection of the body.  As he himself concludes, “We cannot understand.  The best is perhaps what we understand the least” (p 75).

© Vicki Priest 2014 (this was moved from withchristianeyes.com; posted and revised since 2001)

 

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C.S. Lewis’s Conversions: Atheist to Theist, Theist to Christian

Rare early picture of CS Lewis, on the cover of “All My Road Before Me” — from his early and agnostic or atheistic days.A Christian Conversion Experience:  C.S. Lewis

Contemporary apologetics so often focus on the issues of biblical reliability and understanding in relation to science, and on the question of evil, as these are the currently contested concerns.  One apologetic that points towards the existence of God, however, is one that is generally not “scientific” enough, and that is a changed life.  Not a temporary change, which can indicate a simple excitement of a person’s will, but a permanent change evidenced by the long term.   So let’s look at the conversion experience of a well-known person, C.S. (Jack) Lewis.  Lewis was an Oxford and Cambridge Professor (English and Philosophy) and the well-known author of both fictional works like The Chronicles of Narnia and of highly valued scholarly works.

To anyone who comes in contact with atheistic thought, what Lewis wrote to his best friend in 1916 (below) will seem quite familiar.  What made him come to that conclusion, and what made him change his mind?

“I believe in no religion.  There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention” (Hooper p. 9).

Lewis, or Jack, was brilliant from early age, having been tutored at home until he was nine, when his mother died.  As if this great sorrow was not enough, Lewis’ dad sent him away to school, from their home in Ireland to England.  Lewis’ older brother, Warnie, attended the very small school with him, but Jack hated it, and with good reason.  The headmaster, a Reverend, was abusive and eventually deemed insane.  At his next school, Lewis experienced an occultist head matron.

One can see the progression of Lewis’ road to apostasy from his parents’ Anglican faith:  God did not heal his mother, one school leader was a cruel and crazy believer, and the other was a non-believing occultist.  By the time Lewis attended his third school, he was an atheist.  Hating this school as well, Lewis’ father sent him to learn under a distinguished tutor, who happened to be an atheist also.  Lewis was superb at languages and translating.  As his tutor wrote, Jack had “a sort of genius for translating . . . .  He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met” (Gromley p. 36).

He went on to learn and teach at Oxford, with WWI service (and related injury and recovery) sandwiched in.  After the war he lived with his adopted family, a much older atheist woman and her daughter.

So what would cause Lewis to stray from his atheism?  A couple of strongly held ideas played their parts.  One was the concept and experience of what Lewis termed “joy” – a pang of intense bliss and longing, followed by a strong desire to experience it again.  The other was his concern, from an early age, that if Christianity were true it could be shown that paganism prefigured it, or that Christianity fulfilled paganism.  Indeed, Lewis felt his pangs of “joy” when reading the northern pagan mythologies that he loved so much.

Jack Lewis wanted to be his own man; he did not want to acknowledge a power or diety that demanded loyalty.  Through the years, however, seeking truth and being drawn to authors and friends who helped him with answers to his search for “joy” as well as his concern over God’s communication with the pagan world, Lewis’ heart and mind opened enough to hear God give him a choice.

“. . . a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.  I became aware that I was holding something at bay, of shutting something out. . . .  I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. . . .  I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. . . .  The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional.  I was moved by no desires or fears.  In a sense I was not moved by anything.  I chose to open . . . .  Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level.  I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.  The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle.  I rather disliked the feeling” (Lewis p. 123).

This experience of Lewis’ happened in 1929, and it was “conversion” to belief in God, not in an afterlife or in Jesus Christ.  Lewis still thought that parts of Christianity were a kind of myth, yet he wanted to know the truth and to live truth.  God gave Lewis many nudges, even via an ardent atheist who thought that it really did seem as though God made the pagan myths come true through Jesus Christ.  This atheist’s admission shocked Lewis.  Jack’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien helped him with this issue, too, as did Hugo Dyson, on a pivotal walk in September 1931:

“Tolkien was convinced that myth, such as the Norse myth of the death of Balder, or the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, was not the opposite of fact.  These stories were a way of expressing truths deeper than fact. . . .  [Tolkien declared that] not only did the truth in myths come from God, but a writer of myths could be doing God’s work in the world.1 As Tolkien talked, there was a sudden rush of wind out of nowhere, as if to underline the message.  The three men held their breath, feeling the importance of the moment” (Gormley p. 95).

Later that month Lewis had a second, more subtle, conversion experience.

“As I drew near the conclusion, I felt a resistance almost as strong as my previous resistance to Theism. . . .  Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to ‘Spirit’ and from ‘Spirit’ to ‘God,’ had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive.  At each step one had less chance ‘to call one’s soul one’s own.’ . . .  I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken.  I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo] one sunny morning.  When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.  Nor in great emotion. . . .  It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (Lewis pp. 129-130).

So, finally, Lewis found that myth had become fact (that is, Jesus was “the god that died”) and that the pangs of “joy” had been sign posts to God.

As Lewis had written in Surprised by Joy, “all” is required of a person who acknowledges and worships his maker, and Lewis gave his all.  He is considered to be the greatest apologist of the 20th century, having written Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and more.  In addition, he was a very popular layman preacher in Oxford.  As a “secular” scholar and author, he wrote poetry, the highly regarded “A Preface to Paradise Lost,” The Discarded Image, and others.   Lewis was the president of Oxford’s Socratic Club from 1942-1955; this was a philosophy group that delved into the pros and cons of the Christian faith.

As if the schedule demanded by all that was not enough2 – don’t forget that he taught as well – Lewis was kind enough to answer all his letters (as he became “popular” he had the help of his brother, and then his wife).  He always helped those in need–in a very personal way when the opportunity arose–and in a more general way through significant monetary giving.  His apologetics show a concern and love for the common man, being theological and philosophical explanations open and accessible to all.   Jack’s life was one humanly lived and beautifully lived.

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Notes

  1. Indeed, as probably all of you readers know, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the great “modern myth,” The Lord of the Rings.   It’s likely that many fewer are aware of Lewis’ re-told myth of Psyche and Cupid (or Eros) in Till We Have Faces.
  2. Lewis had a truly unbelievable photographic memory, easily quoting pages from books that someone happened to mention.  This gift was obviously a very great help to his studies, writing, lectures, etc.

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Sources

Gormley, Beatrice. C.S. Lewis: Christian and Storyteller. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1998.

Hooper, Wlater. C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Lewis, C.S. “Surprised by Joy.” In The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, by C.S. Lewis, 1-130. New York: Inspirational Press, 1994 (1955).

© Vicki Priest 2012 (this is an edited version of my article at Examiner.com, published 2011)