I’ve always had mixed feelings on CS Lewis.
His Chronicles of Narnia has long sat on my bookshelves even though I’m well aware of its shortcomings both as literature and Christian apology, a thread I may take up again one day.
But I’m not here to talk about Narnia – instead, I want to take a quick look at A Grief Observed, one of the final works Lewis produced, published in 1961 a year after his wife’s death from cancer.
A confirmed bachelor for most of his life, he married the American poet Joy Davidman in 1956 only to lose her four years later.
Lewis of course, is well-known now as he was in his lifetime, as one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists and had already dealt with the so-called ‘Problem of Pain’ in a book of the same title some 20 years earlier. But a Grief Observed is a much rawer read.
At its simplest, the book (a very short one) is a collection of four brief essays which tackle one man’s intellectual and emotional response to bereavement – and more specifically, of watching a loved one suffer terribly and attempting to reconcile that with the existence (or otherwise) of a supposedly benevolent god.
I read this brief work in one sitting, having recently experienced a bout of severe depression which saw me unable to function very much at all for several days.
The question I had was this – would the book speak to a non-believer like me, just as it had supposedly brought comfort to millions of believers before me? Could it offer any solace in a time of pain, when I felt wretched, dejected and miserable?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes – but not perhaps for the reasons you would imagine. I have not converted or seen the proverbial light but my view of Lewis has softened a little.
Unlike The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series which presents the author’s Christianity in its least likeable guise, A Grief Observed thankfully paints Lewis at his most endearing and honest, if not his most coherent.
A Grief Observed is definitely not an academic work – it’s far too raw, honest and painful to be anything of the kind. Instead it is a masterful bit of writing, reflecting upon all-too human themes of mortality, death, regret and of course bereavement.
A lesser man would I’m sure, have resisted throwing open the mental trapdoor as Lewis does, letting the demons of loneliness, pain and despair come rampaging around the room – much less have them published for others to read.
But Lewis rises to the challenge far better than most (if not any) of us could, tackling the problem head-on with unrelenting and often excoriating insight.
It’s certainly very quotable, albeit in a bleak sort of way. Right from the start, Lewis says: “No-one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” He proceeds to liken the loss to amputation, a sense that when the thing you loved is gone, life is never the same again. And while the amputee can learn to use crutches, the missing limb will never return and he will have to begin a new life, learning to adapt and to continue as best he can.
He is equally unmerciful in examining his previous faith in a benevolent almighty which he finds lacking.
“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.”
(Lewis, A Grief Observed, 1961)
Even as an atheist, I can admire the courage it would take a convert like Lewis to state these views so frankly. There is a kind of existential dread lurking in the words, the fear that even if the theist is correct and a deity does exist, there is no telling what its motivations or intentions may be.
After all, we’re back to the problem of evil. Why would a supposedly loving and all-powerful god allow suffering in the world? Does he lack the power to prevent it? Does he simply not exist? Lewis wastes little time on either of these. Instead he goes straight to another possibility – yes, God exists and is all-powerful. Therefore, if he chooses to allow people to suffer there must be some purpose in it. But what?
A convert to Christianity (Anglicanism) in 1929, you can feel the rocks of Lewis’ fortress of faith assailed by the forces of doubt:
“When you are happy, so happy 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.”
(Lewis, A Grief Observed, 1961)
Again, there’s the existential cry at work. Just where the hell are you when I need you? Open the door, let me in. But the grieving person just gets silence followed by still more silence.
Lewis in short, is very good at sketching out the emotional dynamic of pain, of feeling, acutely, every agonising moment when the person or thing you once had is no longer there in your life.
It is edifying to hear a believer admit so boldly that faith is hard, that his Christian God can seem horribly cruel and in fact, the temptation is to ask what’s the point of all of this?
Here, Lewis fails to provide a coherent answer and for that I cannot really blame him. I have asked similar questions myself of believers and while some struggle gamely, quoting scriptures more often than not, they often just fall back on vague rubbish about ‘mystery’ or ‘the bigger plan’ or similar.
Lewis to his credit, seems to realise the hollowness of such proclamations. It’s not much use telling someone in chronic pain that it’s all for the greater good if all they can think of is their pain. Likewise, it’s hard to know what kind of greater good could possibly be served by afflicting babies with cancer or killing children through war, plague, famine and disease. Surely if there’s a lesson for humanity, it could be taught in a less horrifying way? And if not, who decides that in the first place?
The nearest we get to understanding this predicament, if indeed it can be understood, is via Lewis’ notion that his faith was somehow lacking or at fault. Like a house of cards, it had to be knocked down by God so that it might be rebuilt and be made stronger through the practice. Lewis even admits that this may be done repeatedly, perhaps an indefinite number of times before the intended outcome, whatever that may be. But as he notes, did the price really have to be so high?
Lewis may be one of the last century’s great Christian apologists but here his academic gown is stripped away to reveal a very sad and sympathetic human figure at the twilight of his life, seeking answers and finding none which are wholly satisfying.
Reading this book has convinced me that while Lewis the polemicist repels me, Lewis the human being I have a lot of time for. And while I do not accept the notion of the great almighty I can certainly respect the honesty and courage of one brave man who clearly did.