On 23 April 1956, CS Lewis married Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet, who had two sons from her previous marriage in tow. He treated his stepsons like his very own and loved them like a father would. But most of all, he loved Joy deeply. At 58, CS Lewis knew intimately that Joy was the one for him. She was his intellectual soul mate and his muse and she had inspired three of his late books. Joy completed CS Lewis and they were inseparable until death struck at the heart of their marital union. Their marriage lasted only 4 years when cancer (a malignant tumor in her left breast) took her away from the great apologist. Joy was only forty five and he was shattered, devastated by the loss.
If there were ever a Christian defender for God who had the highest credentials (he had triple firsts) and intellectual persuasion, it had to be CS Lewis. I believe the consensus is near unanimous here. His many books alone had influenced many great apologists of our time and this was the same man who penned The Problem of Pain in 1940 which dealt directly with a loving, all-powerful God in a cruel world. He had many convinced first in the mind and then the heart of his sterling defence of how a good God could co-exist in a world of endless suffering and pain.
But when Joy died, he was almost inconsolable. He in fact broke down. The problem of pain now became a problem of faith for the author. CS Lewis was all alone in the cosmic struggle to reconcile the God he had dedicated his whole life to defend and the death of the love of his life his God had so abruptly taken away.
The world would not have known of this struggle if a man by the name of “N.W. Clerk” did not hand a book he wrote entitled A Grief Observed to the publisher on 27 September 1960. No one knew at that time the true identity of N.W. Clerk. But there was no doubt that the book was written by a master wordsmith, a highly learned man. It was only after CS Lewis’ death in November 1963 that his literary agent disclosed that N.W. Clerk was in fact CS Lewis.
The author who wrote The Problem of Pain was the same author who wrote A Grief Observed and the main difference between the two books is that the former was about defending a personal God and the latter was about defending a personal faith under the severest of test. You can say that when he wrote The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis was like a court reporter following the proceedings and studiously taking down notes. He was an impartial observer. But when he wrote A Grief Observed, he was in the accusation dock, fighting for his belief, struggling to defend his faith, and keeping overwhelming doubts at bay. He was being observed, tested and even tormented.
And CS Lewis was hitting back at God for taking his one and only love from him. He wrote that “we are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable.” Grief was the great unraveller for him, as his hope, faith and belief all came undone. Nothing was spared the sorrow that was consuming him. In his struggles, he unraveled prayer: “What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H (Joy) and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking; hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were “led up the garden path.” Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” The seething disillusionment did not end there.
He conceived God as a clown and questioned whether he is one who “whips away your bowl of soup one moment in order, next moment, to replace it with another bowl of the same soup? Even nature isn’t such a clown as that. She never plays exactly the same tune twice.” He likened God to a trap-setter who sets trap and tries to bait them and the divine teaser of human life seemed to be milking every moment of the torture. This is also where the idea of a cosmic sadist came to mind, that is, someone who takes pleasure in the pain of others. He even toyed with the idea that God was a spiteful imbecile whose main preoccupation was to break happy couples up like “the Hostess at the sherry party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation.”
Most detested of all, CS Lewis pictured God as an eternal vivisector who took joy in experimenting on and dissecting lives at the expense of those in pain. Unlike his atheist days where he struggled with the existence of God, CS Lewis instead struggled with the goodness of God. He wrote, “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.” He fought hard against the notion of an aloof God whose arbitrariness was ironically insidious when he cried out, “…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…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.” This was where he threw the gauntlet down and posed a question many who are going through their own trials can intimately identify with, “Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
His anguish appeared to have no end as he railed against the many empty platitudes offered by people of the faith. He wrote, “It is hard to have patience with people who say, “There is no death” or “Death doesn’t matter”. There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible.” And undeniably, his prose got even more soul biting – not to mention more poetic and flourished - whenever he had to wrestle with the anguish of unbearable meaninglessness. In one disquieting moment, he wrote, “What pitiable cant to say, “She will live forever in my memory! Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them. Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What’s left? A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost. All mockeries or horrors. Three more ways of spelling the word dead. It was H I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest.”
As if his imagination was not tormented enough, CS Lewis went further to contemplate a God who tortures both in life and in death: “”Because she is in God’s hands.” But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God; for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.”
Seemingly inconsolable, he struggled to understand a God of purpose and a meaningless existence. No answers offered by religion could salve his doubts and no efforts made, however well-intended, were enough to close the gap for him. He expressed it most effortlessly when he wrote, “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 consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” In fact, his morbid ruminations led him up the garden path to a point of exhaustion the more he tried to reconcile his embattled faith with the idea of a compassionate God. The more he penetrated the grand mystery of the omnipotence, the more remote this mystery became, and the more he tried to seek for an answer he could cling on to with his dear life, the more he found himself holding on to nothing but the straw of theodicy.
Many times, the great apologist was himself an unwitting and tormented victim of his own once sterling defence of it. He was literally preaching to himself, in desperation, trying to convert or save himself from the alluring idea of either a godless universe or a godless god. But each time he tried to embrace the unembraceable and comprehend the incomprehensible, he faced a bolted door, a dead alley, a stone wall, a mocking silence. In his mindless frustration, he crossed the line between the sacred and the blasphemy many times as he ventured in circles in his own shadowland of doubts. This culminated to the conjuring of these dark divine imageries that saw his faith stretched to breaking point: “If His ideas of good are so very different from ours, what He calls “Heaven” might well be what we should call Hell, and vice versa. Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us – or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles – what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? This knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight.”
For the first time in his life, CS Lewis understood the difference between writing about grief and living through it. The death of his beloved Joy took everything he treasured - beyond what this world has to offer - with her. His life was transformed from living victorious one day to living dead the other. This is how he lamented about the mental torture and the social awkwardness in his usual visceral prose: “I once read the sentence “I lay awake all night with toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.” That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief…At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll “say something about it” or not. I hate it if they do, and If they don’t…Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlement like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head.”
Personally, when I read the first and the second parts of the book A Grief Observed, and half of part three, I dread to think of how CS Lewis would recover from the loss. He seemed to have gone to places even his deeply penetrating apologetic mind had not gone before. In fact, most ironically, his writings about faith to me was not as revealing and soul-searching as his lamentations about grief. I dare say that I learn more about his faith and God in this one book than the other books he had written with such aplomb and assurance.
As you read and soldier on with the broken man in the book, you will gradually see how he fought back to regain his faith and pick up the pieces, one tiny shard at a time. Of course, he was a different man after that, and he died a few years later, but he had surely left a reaffirming battle-scarred note behind about how he found his way through the narrow and dark trenches of the faith.
In his map of sorrow, CS Lewis undertook the painful journey and wrote about it with this illumed revelation, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. As I’ve already noted, not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t circular trench. But it isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.”
You would also recall that he called God many ugly names in the beginning of the book like a clown, a cosmic sadist, an eternal vivisector, but towards the end of the book, it dawned upon him that God was in fact the great iconoclast. This image is new to me. I can imagine God as the creator, the heavenly father, or the crucified Christ, but an iconoclast? - that is, one who “challenges cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious?”
I guess Jesus was anything but conventional by the standards of his days. Some may even say that his ideas and proclamations were truly revolutionary. He came to shake the foundation of this world with love and an ultimate sacrifice but not without first revolutionizing our idea of God and his love for us. In the same way, CS Lewis experienced this soul-breaking-soul-restoring side of the omnipotence when he wrote, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are “offended” by the iconoclasm; and the blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers.”
Many who had held on to their faith in the most tiring of times can personally relate to God as an iconoclast who deliberately shatters all their romantic and sentimental notions about him before the storm hit. It is one thing to proclaim that you love God when all is well but it is truly another to love him when he makes himself unlovable by our dreamy standards and understanding of what a loving God should be and do. In other words, if our idea of God is not tested or put through the furnace, we will never intimately know what all that Sunday praises and worship really mean in times when our once-blissful life takes an unexpected and unearthly plunge into the abyss of pain and suffering.
In his own words, and in his path to the restoration of faith, the CS Lewis puts it this way: “Your bid – for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity – will not be serious if nothing is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high; until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself…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.”
The beauty of it all for CS Lewis was when he finally came to terms with his loss, and in the process, how he finally understood the slow but deep restoring power of grief. Here is how he explained it with his felicitous wit: “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.”
Gradually CS Lewis distanced himself from the pain and as he mourned less for Joy, his remembrance of her became sweeter, more real and reassuring. And this was how he made sense of it all with a paroxysm of his characteristic analogies and examples: “You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. “Now! Let’s have a real good talk” reduces everyone to silence. “I must get a good sleep tonight” ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead?”
From the intensity of the longing, almost a desperation unmitigated, CS Lewis transformed his mourning and initial misgivings into understanding and acceptance. As he retreated from his belligerence and atheistic leanings, and received clarity of purpose, he wrote one of the most enchanting paragraphs in the book about love, marriage and death: “And then one or other dies. And we think of this as a love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off – something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are “taken out of ourselves” by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.”
Now that’s what I would call coming back full circle and seeing everything in a whole new warm glow. From seeing Joy as being in the cruel hands of God, an eternal vivisector, a cosmic sadist, he wrote with serenity unsurpassed that “she is in God’s hand.” And he chose to believe by faith that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Although one cannot say that CS Lewis had gotten the answer he wanted from God, he was nevertheless at peace with himself, his faith and God. He in fact took a friend’s advice (Arthur Greeves) and wrote himself out of his own grief: “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.” He once said that although A Grief Observed ended with faith, it nevertheless raised “all the blackest doubts en route.” And indeed it has. This is one book that for me debunked all myths about a Christian prince sitting grandly in his ivory tower of faith, dispensing with well-intended verses, and immune from life’s trials and temptations.
The image I got was more of a frail man, naked and guilty, hanging by Jesus’ side like one of the thieves, and crying for help, hope and redemption. CS Lewis walked through the shadowland and valley of death and saw his faith tested, torn and rarefied by the refiner’s fire. He came out of it stronger no doubt, but no less awakened, somber and more authentic.
Let me end here with the words of the master apologist whom I have learned so much: “Still, there are the two enormous gains – I know myself too well now to call them “lasting”. Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to H, it no longer meets that vacuum.” I guess in the end, our faith is not about wish fulfillment but about a purpose truly lived and deeply realized. Cheerz.