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|From the Winter 2001 issue of Knowing & Doing:|
C.S. Lewis on Grief
by Arthur W. Lindsley, Ph.D.
psychiatrist friend maintains that, “All change involves loss, and loss involves grief, and grief involves pain.” Since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been much change, loss, grief, and pain. There is a changed perception of our lives, a loss of a sense of safety and security, grief over those lost or grieving with families who lost loved ones, and all of this leads to pain from these and other sources. Although the events of Lewis’s life differ from ours, perhaps his struggle with grief can be helpful for us.
Lewis Loses Joy
C.S. Lewis had a number of particularly painful events in his life. His mother died of cancer when he was a young boy, he was sent away to a boarding school with an abusive headmaster later declared insane, he was wounded in World War I, and his father failed to visit him in the hospital despite his pleadings. However, clearly the most painful event was the loss of his wife Joy. They had only been married for a few years. The rather strange circumstances surrounding their marriage are powerfully portrayed in the BBC or Hollywood movie versions of Shadowlands. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1956 and later, after Joy was diagnosed with cancer, married by an Anglican priest in 1957. Shortly after this second ceremony, a remission in Joy’s cancer occurred. Joy was then able to progress from bed to wheelchair to almost normal walking. The next couple years were filled with remarkable happiness. Joy wrote in mid-1957: “Jack and I are managing to be surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances; you’d think we were a honeymoon couple in our early twenties, rather than our middle-aged selves.”
A Grief Observed
The loss of Joy plunged Lewis into the depths of grief and pain. Following Joy’s death, Lewis kept a journal and wrote down his thoughts because he was personally helped by doing so—with no intent of publication. Later, he published his journaled thoughts under a pseudonym, N.W. Clerk (a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar”). A Grief Observed was published two years before his own death in 1963. Interestingly, when the book first came out, many people thought it would be helpful to C.S. Lewis, and he received many gift copies.
The Problem of Pain
Back in 1940, Lewis had published a book titled The Problem of Pain, which was a theoretical discussion of the problem of evil and pain. It is a book that still repays reading. He was aware then of the difference between theory and practice. In his introduction to The Problem of Pain, he says:
Charles Williams, Lewis’s close friend and fellow “Inkling” once told Lewis that the weight of God’s displeasure was reserved for Job’s comforters who tried to show that all was well: “The sort of people,” he said, measurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing Lewis with his eyes, “who wrote books on the problem of pain.”
During World War II, the bombings of London and the prospect of Nazi invasion was more shattering to him than expected. It was difficult to be detached from this world with the threat of loss being so real. The ups and downs of our changing emotions present a problem. Once Lewis was asked about how he dealt with sorrow. He responded:
A Grief Observed shows the process through which Lewis dealt with and began to emerge from his grief. But, the process was not pretty or easy. The path was much clouded by fear, doubt, and anger before the gradual lifting of the darkness and breaking through of the sun.
Grief and Fear
Lewis once wrote:
Lewis was afraid of going to places that he and Joy had enjoyed, “our favorite pub, our favorite wood.” He was afraid of his thoughts about God, afraid of what the future would bring:
Darkness and Doubt
Above all, there was a sense of distance from God, what the sixteenth century Spanish monk John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul” or the sense that the “heavens were like brass” bouncing back any prayer sent heavenward. Lewis says,
Worse than that, there were doubts about the goodness of God. It wasn’t that Lewis was in any danger of becoming an atheist: “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.’”
Anger at God
Later, Lewis came to realize that the perverse delight in such thoughts revealed an anger at God and a desire to get back at Him:
Even though it is by no means necessary to experience anger at God in the same way Lewis did, it is certainly not unusual. Even a cursory look at the Psalms will confirm this.
Clouds Begin to Lift
Gradually, ever so gradually, some of the clouds of grief started to lift. One of the stages in the process was a consideration of whether Joy’s “coming back” to him would be good for her:
Unexpectedly, his heart started to feel lighter. “It came this morning, early … my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks.” Some of the lifting he attributed to a recovery from physical exhaustion due to a few good nights’ sleep. Gradually, he began to feel in his relationship with God that the door was no longer shut and bolted.
Lewis had the striking thought that God had not been experimenting with Lewis’s faith; He knew it already. It was Lewis who didn’t. In some ways, his faith was a “house of cards” that needed to be knocked down in order to be rebuilt with stronger material.
God the Iconoclast
Sometimes we need to have our categories smashed, to think outside our self-imposed boxes. J.B. Phillips once wrote a book titled Your God is Too Small. Periodically, we need to have our inadequate ideas about God enlarged. God Himself is the great idol smasher, destroying inadequate ideas of Himself so that we might grasp a more true vision. Lewis wrote: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”
Later, Lewis writes:
Lewis’s faith was gradually restored to its robust quality, as we can see in his final book, Letters to Malcolm. He had suffered his worst pain and come out on the other side.
When we all experience pain, a little courage helps more (Lewis observes) than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.
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Dr. Arthur W. Lindsley Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute – Art Lindsley has served at the C.S. Lewis Institute since 1987. Formerly, he was Director of Educational Ministries at the Ligonier Valley Study Center, and Staff Specialist with the Coalition for Christian Outreach. He is the author of C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ, True Truth, Love: The Ultimate Apologetic, and co-author with R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner of Classical Apologetics, and has written numerous articles on theology, apologetics, C.S. Lewis, and the lives and works of many other authors and teachers. Art earned his M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently the Vice President of Theological Initiatives for the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics.
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