Monday, November 29, 2010


Read C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed or The Problem of Pain, and you realize that here is a man intimate with profound suffering. But read almost any other Lewis work - fiction or nonfiction - and you will be impressed instead by the tremendous sense of joy, delight, and wonder which saturates his writing. You might think that Lewis was a man not very well-acquainted with grief. But you would be badly mistaken.

I love reading Lewis because his joy for life and his love for Christ are infectious. Lewis is a blue sky and a bright sun, chasing shadows from the dark paths I sometimes find myself traveling. And perhaps it is because I know he also walked dark paths that I find him so truly encouraging.

C. S. Lewis met grief at an early age. When he was ten years old, his mother died of cancer. The same year, Lewis's father also lost his father and a brother. Devastated, Albert Lewis felt incompetent to care for two young boys and sent Lewis and his brother Warren off to a boarding school.

Like something from a Charles Dickens novel, Wynard was a hellish, unsanitary place run by a cruel, mentally-unstable headmaster. The boys begged for months to be removed from Wynard, but their father was slow to heed their pleading. When he did, he simply transferred them to another miserable boarding school, and another.

Lewis was eventually sent to live with William Kirkpatrick, his father's old tutor, and it seemed life was at last taking a turn for the better. Lewis thrived under the care of "Old Knock," and it was here that he developed a love for learning, for logic and argument, and for languages. After three idyllic years with Kirkpatrick, Lewis was ready to begin university.

He arrived on the campus of Oxford University in the fall of 1917, eager to pour himself into his studies. But, only eight weeks into fall term, Lewis was called up for military service. After a brief training camp, he was shipped to France to fight in the trenches of WWI. His military service ended abruptly when, in April of 1918, he was knocked out of commission by an exploding shell. Recovery from multiple wounds was a slow, painful process, overshadowed by the grief of losing many friends - very few from his battalion survived the war.

Back home in England, Lewis completed his university studies and eventually received a professorship at Oxford. It was during his time at Oxford that Lewis became a Christian and began writing about his faith. Physically unable to serve in the military during WWII, he instead contributed to the national war effort by agreeing to produce a series of radio broadcasts for BBC. A BBC official had been greatly encouraged by Lewis's recent book, The Problem of Pain, and he felt Lewis's insights would be encouraging to others suffering hardship and loss. Lewis's honesty, compassion, humor, and conversational style struck a chord with the English people, and he became somewhat of a celebrity.

Peers at the university envied Lewis this new-found celebrity. They felt that by addressing issues of doctrine and theology, he had stepped out of his area of expertise (he was an English professor) and violated the principles of respectable scholarship. From this point on, Lewis's career as a professor was pretty much squashed. He was passed over for desirable appointments and promotions, which were handed instead to less qualified candidates.

This unfair treatment at work didn't stop him from writing, and his years at Oxford proved very productive. Yet while he was writing works as delightful and uplifting as the Narnia stories, Lewis was also caring for the aging, emotionally-demanding mother of a fellow-soldier who had died in combat. And he was often caring for his brother Warren, whose life-long struggle with alcoholism deeply grieved Lewis.

At the age of 56, Lewis accepted an appointment at Cambridge University, glad to be free of the jealousies and prejudices which had haunted him at Oxford. Two years later, he married Joy Gresham, an American woman he had met through an overseas correspondence. During a trip to England, Joy contacted Lewis and arranged a lunch meeting. They became close friends and, when Joy's soon-to-expire visa required that she leave the country, Lewis agreed to marry her so that she could extend her stay. It was a strictly civil marriage - no romance or intimacy - and the two continued their separate lives.

However, Joy was soon after diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Lewis visited her frequently at the hospital, and, on one visit, decided that he did indeed love Joy as more than a friend. He called in a priest, and he and Joy were married. He bundled Joy (at this point an invalid) off to his own home where he could care for her until she died, and he also assumed care of her two young sons.

Then, once again, Lewis's life seemed to take a turn for the better. Joy's cancer went into remission. Lewis, until just recently a confirmed bachelor, found himself giddy with love. He and Joy enjoyed two incredible years together before her cancer relapsed. It was in dealing with the devastation he felt at Joy's death that Lewis wrote the painfully honest, heart-breaking book, A Grief Observed. Lewis's own health declined rapidly after losing Joy, and he died three years later at the age of 65.

When friends and peers acquainted with C. S. Lewis described him to others, they didn't use words like "melancholy" or "resigned" - he wasn't a man who faced one heart-breaking hardship after another with a grudging determination to do his best to live out his faith, despite misery and suffering. No, when others talked or wrote of Lewis, they commented on his irrepressible sense of humor, his delight in even very small things, his keen awareness of beauty in the world around him, his appreciation for the dignity of humanity. You are left with the impression that this frumpy professor had a pair of brightly twinkling eyes, that he was quick to smile and ready to laugh. His attitude toward life was not defined by the trials he endured, but by his knowledge of the God who ordained the trials. Perhaps that is why he was able to give his autobiography the title, Surprised by Joy.

(A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about C. S. Lewis for our local newspaper. The above blog post comes out of research done for that article, and is posted in honor of the 112th anniversary of Lewis's birthday - November 29, 1898.)

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