A Year of Reading Lewis: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed was published in 1961, after the death of Lewis’ wife Joy (of cancer) in 1960. Interestingly, Lewis published this under the pseudonym N.W. Clark,, as he did not wish to be identified as the author. It was only published under his real name in 1963, after his own death.

The book is a compilation of his journal entries in which he expresses his journey through grief and the struggles he faced along the way. He did not mean it to be an exploration of the universal experience of grief, rather, it was the honest look at what grief looked like for him, after Joy’s death (called H in the book – her first name, rarely used, was Helen).

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

I used the word “honest” above, and above all, this is how this book struck me. I read this book first as a teenager, and death had not touched me in any significant ways. Re-reading it now, after I have suffered the uncomfortable presence of death more than once, was a much different experience.

Right from the first line, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” you get the sense that Lewis would not be holding anything back in the exploration of his feelings as he walked through grief. And being Lewis, his feelings are not the only thing he examines. He is a Christian, he wrote the Problem of Pain a few years back, and now his own words on the subject are haunting him. How does a Christian really deal with this kind of pain? As he says, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. 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.'” And what Christian who wrestles with the dark times has not faced this fear, too? At one point in the book Lewis explores this further, wonders how we can call God “good” when we are faced with so much pain. How can we trust Him when, as in their case, prayers were seemingly answered for healing (Joy went through an unexpected remission) but then the cancer returned? As he writes, “Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” 

Strong stuff. But the very next sentence is, “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” Lewis’ great strength, his intellectual honesty, comes to the rescue. It would have been easy for him to edit that “yell” out of the final manuscript. But keeps it in, along with the exploration that follows as he wrestles with the question is it rational to believe in a bad God? And in doing so we understand that it is okay to question in the midst of our pain and grief. In this, as in so much of his writings, Lewis offers a hand in friendship to us.

This painful examination of the depth of his faith shows how grief has stripped away his certainty of the goodness of God. “If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith, but imagination….I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.” Lewis doesn’t shy from this examination, he faces it head on and forces himself to think through how his faith fits in with this new reality he finds himself in.

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” The terrible, unrelenting loneliness of grief is also discussed, along with the fear that Lewis felt in the fading of Joy from his life and memory.  “What pitable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!” Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. ….as if I wanted to fall in love with my  memory of her, an image in my own mind!” 

In many ways, although this is certainly a book about one man’s journey through grief, it is so much more. It speaks to all of us who have experienced pain. It is the counterpoint to A Problem With Pain, the working out in reality of the principles expressed in that book. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why Lewis decided to publish this anonymously at first. He probably didn’t want all sorts of comparisons between that work and this, and gleeful pronouncements from his detractors along the line of “In that book he talked all about the goodness of God despite the reality of suffering, well, look at him now! Wallowing in his pain like the rest of us!” Publishing this book anonymously allowed for it, and the ideas it expresses, to stand alone and be contemplated in their own right.

If you have suffered through the death of a loved one, you may find that Lewis’ journey as expressed in this book was not your own. Which is understandable, for all of us are unique. But I can hardly imagine that you won’t get some comfort out of it, all the same. Especially if you are a person of faith, you will find his honesty refreshing and ultimately, reaffirming.

Lewis comes to the conclusion, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. it was I who didn’t.” In other words, this great trial forced him to see just how weak his faith really was, which is not always a bad thing. The Cosmic Sadist (as he calls God in one point of the book) is turned into a wise Vet, who is causing pain to a creature who can’t understand the need for it, in order to bring them healing.

There is much room for contemplation in this book, for although it is hard, emotionally, to read  at times, Lewis’ rigorous examination of himself in the midst of his grief gives us permission to wrestle with the questions he poses as well. Once again I am filled with admiration for his skill in illuminating difficult topics for us. Surely this was one of the worst times in his life, and yet he offers these words he wrote in the midst of it to us as a gift, in order to shine a little light in our own dark times, and above all, to show us we are not alone in feeling doubt, fear, anger, and depression in the midst of them.

And for that, I am grateful.

The inscription on Joy's crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins, https://biblicalstudies.info/cslewis/cslewis.htm

The inscription on Joy’s crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins

A Year of Reading Lewis: “The Silver Chair”

I’ve been doing a few of the Lewis “heavies” – Abolition of Man, The Problem of Pain, That Hideous Strength–so I thought I’d take a break and go for a little trip into Narnia.

I decided to read The Silver Chair, the fourth of the Narnia books, published in 1953. I toyed with starting at the beginning of the series, with The Magician’s Nephew, but in the end I chose the fourth book because this is the next Narnia book that will be released as a movie and I wanted to revisit it before I saw the movie, which is coming out sometime in 2016.

The Silver Chair follows on the heels of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, set a year later according to English time, but decades later in Narnia. The story contains a couple of the characters from The Voyage, notably Prince Caspian (briefly) and Eustace Stubbs, who along with Jill Pole, are the main protagonists of the story. Eustace has changed from his experiences in Narnia, he is no longer the whiny, self-centred brat we encounter at the beginning of Dawn Treader. Instead of being one of the bullying gang at his school (called The Experiment – a sure nod to the warnings found in The Abolition of Man) Eustace is now one of their victims, along with Jill Pole, a girl who at the beginning of the book is hiding from the bullies. Eustace stumbles across her and tells her of his adventures in Narnia, and together they attempt to find a way to cross back there.

My 1972 copy, which included the very delightful illustrations of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the original books. The insert is a picture of Puddleglum, one of my favourite characters.

My 1972 copy, which included the very delightful illustrations of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the original books. The insert is a picture of Puddleglum, one of my favourite characters.

They link hands and chant “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan,” but interrupted by the bullies who give them chase again. They burst through a door in a high stone wall that normally leads to the moor and find that they have arrived, instead, in a wholly different place, Aslan’s high country, but there is no sign of the great Lion.  At the edge of a very high cliff they have a disagreement, which results in Jill inadvertently causing Eustace to fall off, but Aslan quickly appears and uses his breath to blow Eustace to safety down to Narnia.

Aslan explains to Jill that he has called Eustace and her to Narnia in order to complete a task: to find the missing Prince Rilian, who is the son of Prince Caspian. In order to complete this task he gives her four signs she must look out for. He makes her memorize them and warns her to repeat them constantly when she is in Narnia, for, as he says,

“Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” 

Of course, although Jill starts off well, she soon forgets the signs, or misreads them, and things start to go wrong. Due to Eustace not recognizing Prince Caspian, who is now King of Narnia and an old man, the first sign (“Greet the first person you recognize”) is ignored, because Eustace only finds out his identity after the King sails off to find Aslan to ask him who should be king after him, as his son is lost.  Jill and Eustace set off to find the lost prince and fall into the company of a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum. Puddleglum, who can never find a good word to say about anything (you might say he is Narnia’s Eeyore) is, however, a brave companion for the two children and eventually, through many adventures, they find the lost Prince who is under a terrible enchantment from the Lady of the Green Kirtle, one of the witches of the Northland, like the White Witch.

Like all of the Narnia books, this is children’s story, to be sure, but it is so much more than that. There is much for adults to ponder here too. The whole business of the signs, for example. It is quite to easy to extrapolate that into our lives as Christians. God has given us clear “signs” as to how to live our lives (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, for example), but, oh, how often we get them muddled, ignore them, and mess them up. Jesus’ words, “Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear!” comes to mind. We have to constantly remind ourselves of the “signs” or we will forget, just as Jill did as she got involved in her adventures in Narnia.

There is also the value of companions. Jill told both Puddleglum and Eustace about the signs, and so at various times in the book they reminded each other about the signs and worked out together what they might mean in the various situations they found themselves in. It is not easy to walk the narrow road alone, we all need companions along the way to remind us of what we have forgotten!

There is also the comforting reminder of the forgiveness and grace of God. Even though Jill feels she has messed up her task, at the end, when they see Aslan again, and she and Eustace feel miserable because of their errors, Aslan says, “Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.” Which, I suppose, is Lewis’ version of, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23).

This little trip into Narnia was a refreshing jaunt, and an encouraging one. And fun, too, what with the Marshwiggles,  the doleful Earthmen, the giants, and the all-to-real quarrels between Jill and Eustace.

More fun - Jill and Eustace attend a Parliament of Owls, and Jill gets there by riding on Glimfeather's back. Cool....don't we all want to do that?

More fun – Jill and Eustace attend a Parliament of Owls, and Jill gets there by riding on Glimfeather’s back. Cool….don’t we all want to do that?

I’m looking forward to seeing how they translate this into a movie. I don’t believe they have a release date yet, but when they do, I’ll be one of the first in line!

Year of Reading Lewis: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain was written in 1940. According to Lewis’ preface it was written as a result of a request by Ashley Sampson, who was a publisher at the time and who had requested this book as part of a series he was publishing on the Christian Challenge. According to Bruce Edwards, in C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, in 1939 Lewis began to meet with a group of Christian undergraduates, and it was either with this group or some other students that Lewis shared his work in progress on The Problem of Pain, reading a chapter each week and getting their feedback on it, with the aim of making sure it was understandable to college students.  The book is dedicated to the Inklings, his group of writerly friends (including J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams), who, by all account, were generally deep in discussion over one thing or another. I’m certain this “problem” of pain would have surfaced among them a time or two. It was WWII, after all, and there was plenty of suffering being experienced by people all over the world.  And even without the environment of a world war to prompt it,  most people of faith  eventually wrestle with the problem Lewis poses in this book: “If God were good, He would wish to make HIs creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” 

At any rate, in his characteristic style which is both rigorously intellectual and utterly approachable, Lewis gives us his answer in this book.

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then....

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then….

As with all his works on Christian doctrine and living, Lewis insists on making the reader face the “question behind the question.” In other words, to honestly address this problem, one needs to understand what we are actually talking about. So he begins, in the introduction, to show us the problem of pain is really only a problem for the Christian. Obviously, if you don’t believe in the specific God of the Christian faith, who is presented as a God of Love, then you don’t wrestle with this question.

The next couple of chapters help us examine the nature of God, including His omnipotence (power to do all) and goodness, and shows how a true understanding of these can help us understand the existence of pain and suffering. First, omnipotence. Lewis argues that, “not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’Nature.” If you think about this for a moment you realize it must be so. There must be a “field”, as Lewis calls it, where the members of a society meet, or a “world”. If this world varied at the whim of each individual within it, you would be unable to act in it and thus lose your free will. One member might want a soft place to stand and another a hard one, for example. One might want rain and another sunshine So, “if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t have both free will and have everything be exactly as each individual person wants it to be. And if God intervenes so that He turns to dust a beam which we might use to strike another person, well, that would mean that wrong actions would be impossible and therefore our free will would be null and void. As Lewis points out, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” 

Lewis then tackles divine goodness. What is really meant when we say this? Again, this concept needs some deeper understanding. For, as he points out,  “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.'”  Ouch. I’m afraid that is precisely how many would describe their desire when it comes what they want God to do or not do. However, is that really love? What is love if it is not the desire for the ultimate good of the beloved? In what sense can we call “everyone getting what they want” the ultimate good? For surely some of our desires are “bent”, as Lewis puts it in his Space Trilogy. A “good time” by a psychopath would look entirely different to a “good time” by a care-free college student and something entirely different again to a child in a playground. Lewis compares God to an artist who is making the ultimate work of art, the work that will define his life’s work. How much care will he put into that painting, or sculpture, as opposed to how much time he puts into a careless scribble as he talks on the phone which means next to nothing to him? And if that work of art were sentient? Would it like the scraping, the rubbing, the fixing? Ah. “In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” 

I hope you can get a taste from this  short summary of the first few chapters of how many rich insights into the problem of pain Lewis gives us. He is a patient teacher, but an exacting one. He will not let us get away with platitudes or assumptions, he makes us face the hard topics head on and urges us to wrestle with the questions they pose. You can get a hint of this by seeing the topics of the other chapters in the book: human wickedness, the Fall of man, human pain, hell, animal pain, and heaven.

There are so many good quotes and thought-provoking statements in this book. And all of it is an encouragement to those who struggle with this problem of how to reconcile a loving God with suffering. The answer that Lewis gives is not necessarily an easy one, but it is one that makes sense in the context of Christian faith and doctrine. We need not fear that we have no answer to this problem. Indeed we do, and it points to a greater and more loving God than we imagine now. I’ll leave you with a final quote, and an encouragement to read this book and discover the answer to the “problem of pain” for yourself:

“We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little…..God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God – to be like God and to share in His goodness in creaturely response – to be miserable – these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows- the only food that any possible universe ever can grow – then we must starve eternally.” 

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Screwtape Letters

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Martin Luther (the opening quote of The Screwtape Letters). 

The Screwtape Letters was originally written as a weekly series in the Anglican periodical, The Guardian, between May and November of 1941. It was compiled into a book and published in 1942.

As the title suggests, the book is a series of letters, written by a Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his hapless nephew and Junior Tempter, Wormwood. Wormwood has been given charge of a man (known only as “the Patient”) and Screwtape writes Wormwood with advice as how best to tempt the man and ensure his damnation. The book presents only Screwtape’s letters, the reader understands Wormwood’s replies and questions from what Screwtape writes.

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

That is, in a nutshell, what the book is about, but, oh, what a book this is. That short summary does it no justice. Like with so many of Lewis’ books, I finished it with  awe at his skill and with a heart full of things to ponder. This is a satirical book, and is certainly very funny at times. Through Screwtape, we see the devils in all their horrid, austere, and selfish greed. Everything is turned upside down in this world. God is called the Enemy, and Hell is portrayed as a huge bureaucracy, with the devils in descending (ascending) levels of importance, culminating in “Our Father Below.” Screwtape is in turn condescending, imperious, demanding, and servile towards his nephew. In one particularly funny passage, his fury at Wormwood’s bungling causes him to inadvertently turn into a giant centipede, and the rest of that letter is finished as a dictation to another devil-scribe, as Screwtape is no longer able to write himself. Hah.

These articles were originally written during WWII, and that conflict appears tangentially as a background to Wormwood’s work in tempting the Patient. There isn’t much “story” here, although in the letters we see the Patient’s first steps into faith, his participation in some war-time duties, his involvement with a group of friends whom Screwtape calls “thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father’s house”, and his relationship with a deeply spiritual woman (“not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute.”).

But the “story” isn’t really the point. The book is basically a treatise on Christian living, in its upside-down, wryly funny way. In fact, the broad strokes of the Patient’s life allows us to see ourselves in his shoes, as I am sure Lewis intended. The Patient is basically Everyman, and as such we learn a lot from the advice Screwtape gives his nephew on temptation.

Lewis tackles many topics in this book, including:

  • the use of propaganda in turning the Patient from the truth – “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
  • how the Patient’s “idea” of the Church can undermine his faith when he sees the reality of the ordinary people who actually ARE the Church, with all their weaknesses and foibles (“Provided that any of those neighbours [at church] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”)
  • how day-to-day relationships are the real battleground of faith (“Keep in close touch with our colleague Glubnose who is in charge of the mother, and build up between you in that house a good settled habit of mutual annoyance; daily pinpricks.”)
  • prayer (“In avoiding this situation – the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose.”)
  • the up and down nature of faith (“He [God] wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”)
  • how anxiety over the future can undermine faith (“[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”)
  • the different causes of laughter – Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy, and why each should be either avoided or cultivated in the quest to guide the Patient to Hell. Flippancy is the best, for “It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

There is much more, I took those topics from the first quarter of the book. I hope some of the quotes  wet your whistle for reading all of it.

As I finished the book I was struck by a couple of things. One, I was once again amazed by how Lewis can write so perceptively about the Christian faith. This whole area of temptation can be difficult to write about – the  idea of writing some kind of treatise on what a temptation is and what it isn’t, and how to avoid or resist a temptation, makes me cringe.  You risk coming across as some kind of spiritual know-it-all, high up on a mountaintop above all the other ordinary people. What kind of credibility does any of us have in writing about how to successfully resist temptation?  Basically, you would be writing about failure. And who wants to write about that?

But by putting the topic into the mouth of the devil who is doing the tempting, Lewis manages to write about temptation in a deeply meaningful way, providing us with much rich spiritual contemplation as he does so. It’s a brilliant idea, executed with skill.

Secondly, as I thought about it, it seems to me that these essays would have been very hard to write. To write in the point of view of a devil would have been a nasty exercise all in itself, even if it is meant to be satirical. But there’s an even greater difficulty to overcome. The reason why these letters are so startling and thought-provoking is that they strike so very close to home. Lewis is speaking from personal experience here as he describes the various temptations; we know that because we recognize ourself so easily in the Patient. This willingness of Lewis to explore his own nature and bring up to the light what he found is essential for any good work of art – and it’s so hard to do.

Lewis himself swore he would not do another Screwtape letter once he finished, and he kept to that until 1959, when he published an article in The Saturday Evening Post, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is a treatise on trends in public education. Shades of The Abolition of Man, perhaps? I’m not sure, I didn’t get a chance to re-read it this time, but I will do so this year and review that essay in another post.

In the meantime, as much as I would like to ponder the truths found in The Screwtape Letters a little longer, I’m off to begin the next book in my series. This month I am tackling The Problem of Pain, another one of Lewis’ most popular books. I hope to have it done by the end of August, so I can keep to my schedule of posting an installment of this series at the end of each month.

I leave you with a final quote to ponder, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood of the advisability of a long life for his Patient. It comes towards the end of the book, and it is a perfect example of how the book can be chilling, humourous, and thought-provoking, all at once:

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently He wants some–but only a very few–of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.”


 For more reading on Lewis and Screwtape, check out this interesting post on the inspiration for Screwtape, found over at the Pilgrim in Narnia’s blog: