A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis)

Several years ago I picked up an old copy of A Grief Observed at a book sale. C.S. Lewis wrote the book as a journal following the death of Joy Davidman, his wife [1]. It is interesting to read words that are not written from comfort, amusement, or ease. Lewis writes raw reflections. The pain he is facing is very evident. He acknowledges truth, yet claims to feel broken.

Early in the book Lewis writes of this brokenness. In the midst of loss he talks of losing motivation, and then, the loneliness:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

Lewis does not conclude that God does not exist, instead he concludes that he (Lewis) hurts and is grappling with things that he is trying to understand. That vein continues:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

One of the things I admire about Lewis is his refusal to believe things solely for comfort. He rejects the notion that he will experience a reunion with Joy ‘on the further shore’ and regain the happiness and fulfillment he had for a time on earth. He insists that the future is more than a repeat of a happy past–there must be more.

Some of the strongest words are found in Lewis responding to people telling him Joy was “in God’s hands.” The rawness of his responses are felt. He points out that she was in his hands before she died and terrible things happened to her–why should God be any gentler after she departed this world? He also mentions that this same God sentenced his only Son to death. In another part of the book he questions people who do not fear God because He is good. Lewis asks: “Have they never even been to a dentist?” His point is that terrible pain may be inflicted to bring about good.

Lewis talks about his faith as a house of cards. He speaks of his intellectual knowledge of pain, suffering, and the temporal nature of earthly happiness. As he compares what he knows and what he feels Lewis acknowledges a disconnect. He should not feel so shattered. Is knowing of the suffering of others and living out suffering different? He states:

 Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. 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. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. 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 playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness’, ‘Pain’, ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’. 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.

And a very challenging point follows shortly after:

Indeed it’s likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a ‘restoration of faith’ will turn out to be only one more house of cards. And I shan’t know whether it is or not until the next blow comes . . .

One of the things that seems to be haunting Lewis is his future interaction with Joy. He seems to intellectually know he will never get the past back again, yet struggle with being at peace with the issue. His conclusion is that he does not understand. He points out that humans are good at asking questions God finds unanswerable. Things like” “How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round?” So with unanswered question plaguing him, Lewis concludes:

  And now that I think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.

I’d like to have a beer with C.S. Lewis and talk about life.

[1] The story of Lewis and Davidman intrigued me. Based upon the book I thought they must have had a long marriage and full life together. When I investigated I was surprised to find out they met late in life and were only married four years (from the time Lewis was 56-60). Davidman was diagnosed with cancer before their wedding.

 

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