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If you've ever seen either of the fine, though not strictly accurate, film versions of Shadowlands, you know the rough story of C.S. Lewis's tragic latelife marriage to the American poetess Joy Davidman Gresham.  Lewis was in his early fifties, a donnish confirmed bachelor, when they first met in 1952, after having corresponded for several years.  She returned to the States to get a divorce and then moved to England with her two sons in 1954.  Within a couple of years her health began to falter, her condition initially diagnosed as rheumatism, and in 1956 her residence permit was not renewed, at which point--April 23, 1956--Lewis married her, apparently in large part so that she could stay in Britain.  The couple did not live together at first, Lewis apparently genuinely troubled by her divorcee status and the scandal it might cause.  But by 1957, it was apparent that she had cancer and Lewis moved her and the boys into his home.  She died on July 13, 1960.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, who had long established himself as one of the leading Christian apologists of the century, confronts the crisis of faith which her death provoked.  There is apparently some controversy as to whether the book is intended to be non-fiction or whether Lewis was using his own experiences as merely a starting point for a fictional consideration of grief, but it hardly seems to matter which is the case.  Even if fiction, it must contain much of his true emotions, doubts and reactions, and, even if largely true, there must be exaggerations and omissions for effect.  What matters is that he offers a compelling look at a man in the grip of despair, who comes to doubt his God, but then emerges from the experience with a richer understanding of himself, of his love for his wife and of God.

In light of the horrible death his wife had suffered, Lewis frames the fundamental question as follows:

    What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we
    can conceive, "good"?  Doesn't all theprima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?  What
    have we to set against it?

He expresses his doubt with a force that is genuinely surprising from a figure so closely identified with the defense of Christian belief:

    We set Christ against it.  But how if He was mistaken?  Almost His last words may have a perfectly
   clear meaning.  He had found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different
    from what He had supposed.  The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited. was at
    last sprung, the cross.  The vile practical joke had succeeded.

And, if this is not enough to demonstrate how shaken his faith is, he follows with an even more devastating expression.  Folks suggest that he should take comfort:

    '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.

    Sometimes it is hard not to say, "God forgive God."  Sometimes it is hard to say so much.  But if
    our faith is true, He didn't.  He crucified Him.

This strikes right to the core of Christianity, that God crucifies God/Christ.  We understand this (I understand it) to reflect the moment when God finally came to understand the dilemma of Man's existence, when as a man, he too experienced despair.  When Lewis describes this moment, he does so in the thoughts and words of a man who is not merely distraught, but who is truly questioning his belief in God or at least in the goodness of God.

The first step in his recovery is to begin to get a handle on why a good God would allow Man to suffer so.  He adopts a clever simile to explain why these tests of faith beset us:

    Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game, 'or else people won't take it
    seriously.' Apparently it's like that.  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 much 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.

Many will find this repellent, it's suggestion that life is a serious business which is preparing us for some higher purpose, and that God uses "torture" to convey that to us, is awfully strong stuff.

But once he starts to work his way through his initial period of rage, Lewis has a breakthrough:

    Something quite unexpected has happened.  It came this morning early.  For various reasons, not in
    themselves mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks.  For one thing, I
    suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion.  And I'd had a very tiring
    but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder sleep; and after ten days of low-hung
    gray skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze.  And
    suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best.  Indeed it
    was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression.  To say it
    was like a meeting would be going too far.  Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use the
    words.  It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.

Of course, even this breakthrough carries an emotional baggage of its own.  How can one start to deal with grief without betraying the departed?:

    [T]here's no denying that in some sense I 'feel better,' and with that comes at once a sort of
    shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one's
    unhappiness.  I've read about that in books, but I never dreamed I should feel it myself.  I am sure
    H. (his term for his wife) wouldn't approve of it.  She'd tell me not to be a fool.  So I'm pretty
    certain, would God.  What is behind it?

    Partly, no doubt, vanity.  We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic
    heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the
    best of a bad job.  But that's not the whole of the explanation.

    I think there is also a confusion.  We don't really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged:
    nobody could.  But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we
    confuse the symptom with the thing itself.  I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the
    truncation of married love but one of its regular phases--like the honeymoon.  What we want is to
    live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.  If it hurts (and it certainly will) we
    accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase.  We don't want to escape them at the price of
    desertion or divorce.  Killing the dead a second time.  We were one flesh.  Now that it has been cut
    in two, we don't want to pretend that it is whole and complete.  We will be still married, still in
    love.  Therefore we shall still ache.  But we are not at all--if we understand ourselves--seeking the
    aches for their own sake.  The less of them the better, so long as the marriage is preserved.  And the
    more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better.

    The better in every way.  For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead
    but cuts us off from them.  This becomes clearer and clearer.  It is just at those moments when I feel
    least sorrow--getting into my morning bath is usually one of them--that H. rushes upon my mind in
    her full reality, her otherness.  Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and
    solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right.  This is good and tonic.

This is really one of the key insights of the book, how fundamentally selfish this kind of grief can be.

Later he begins to understand how to get past this phase of self-centered mourning:

    The notes have been about myself, and about H., and about God.  In that order.  The order and the
    proportions exactly what they ought not to have been.  And I see that I have nowhere fallen into that
    mode of thinking about either which we call praising them.  Yet that would have been best for me.
    Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it.  Praise in due order; of Him
    as the giver, of her as the gift.  Don't we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we
    are from it?  I must do more of this.  I have lost the fruition I once had with H.  And I am far, far
    away in the valley of my unlikeness, from the fruition which, if His mercies are infinite, I may some
    time have of God..  But by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some
    degree, enjoy Him.  Better than nothing.

At the same time, his reconciliation with God and with the meaning of Death, leads him to greater insights about God and about Joy and their marriage:

    'It was too perfect to last,' so I am tempted to say of our marriage.  But it can be meant in two
    ways.  It may be grimly pessimistic--as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He
    stopped it ('None of that Here!').  As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates
    two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation.  But it could also
    mean.  'This had reached its proper perfection.  This had become what it had in it to be.  Therefore
    of course it could not be prolonged.'   As if God said, 'Good; you have mastered that exercise.  I
    am very pleased with it.  And now you are ready to go on to the next.'  When you have learned to
    do quadratics and enjoy doing them you will not be set them much longer.  The teacher moves you

    For we did learn and achieve something.  There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes
    till an entire marriage reconciles them.  It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry
    'masculine' when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them, to describe a man's
    sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as 'feminine.'  But also what poor, warped fragments of
    humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance
    plausible.  Marriage heals this.  Jointly the two become fully human.  'In the image of God created
    He them.'  Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.

Now the stories of Lewis's male chauvinism were legendary--probably too legendary to be wholly true--but this recognition, that it is through love and marriage that men and women become wholly human, is quite remarkable coming from him and is a beautiful image regardless of who it came from.

And, finally, almost grudgingly, through this kind of personal growth, Lewis is able to renew his own understanding of why a good God would put Man through such trials:

    Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field
    you might have given us an organization more like theirs.  But that, I suppose, is just your grand
    experiment.  Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out.  Rather your grand
    enterprise.  To make an organism which is also spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a 'spiritual
    animal.'  To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach
    that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, 'Now get on with it.  Become
    a god.'

I admit that I particularly like this passage because it so closely conforms with my own theological understanding, that God's purpose for Man is that we become God ourselves.  And I find it totally plausible that our mortality is a necessary prerequisite to this becoming, that it is the harsh but instructive crucible through which we must pass in order that by the time we have acquired the physical power that will make us God, we will have also developed the moral understanding that will make us worthy to wield such power.

I understand that for many people this is all just a lot of mumbo jumbo.  For them, Man crawled out of the muck and will return to it.  We are naught but a cluster of atoms and nothing has any lasting meaning.  For anyone else, anyone who believes that we do serve a higher purpose, that life has meaning and that death must have meaning to, Lewis is an engaging and instructive guide through the morass of grief.  I can't imagine anyone who is trying to deal with the loss of a loved one not being helped by this book.  Nor is it a book that can only help the grief stricken.  C.S. Lewis is simply one of the great observers and explicators of the human condition.  You can't help but learn something valuable about Man and about yourself every time you open one of his books


Grade: (A)


See also:

C.S. Lewis (5 books reviewed)
General Literature
C.S. Lewis Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: C. S. Lewis
    -POEM: Death in Battle (C.S. Lewis)
    -REVIEW: of The Hobbit (C. S. Lewis, The Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1937)
-PODCAST: What is That Hideous Strength? (Michael Dauphinais and Joseph Pearce, 6//07/24, (The Catholic Theology Show)
    -PODCAST: Prince Caspian "Old Narnia" and "Old England" with Joseph Pearce (Plotlines, 5/31/23)
    -PODCAST: 60: That Hideous Strength Is Nonfiction: Pain and Passion, Part 11 (Marianne Wright, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts, Plough)
    -PODCAST: 50: C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Pain: The great Christian apologist is an imaginary guests as the hosts consider the problem of suffering. (Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts MARCH 15, 2023, PloughCast)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis & Maksym Kryvtsov: The Experience of War and Godforsakenness (Yuliia Vintoniv, May 20, 2024, Church Life Journal)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis and “Mere Politics”: Some Shrewdly Hellish Political Advice from The Screwtape Letters: In an election year, can an over-focus upon the all-encompassing reach of modern politics pose a danger to a voter’s soul? C.S. Lewis’ Senior Devil Screwtape knew the answer to that one. (Steven Tucker, 5/23/24, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: ‘Loud-mouthed bully’: CS Lewis satirised Oxford peer in secret poems (dalya Alberge, 5/19/24, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis and His Critics (Michael Nelson, Winter 1988, Virginia Quarterly Review)
    -ESSAY: ‘This idle prig’: the truth about CS Lewis and John Betjeman’s long-lasting feud: At Oxford, Lewis complained repeatedly in his diary about his student Betjeman’s attitude to work. A newly discovered letter throws light on their mutual antipathy (Dalya Alberge, 14 Apr 2024, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Things Worth Remembering: C.S. Lewis on Keeping Calm in Chaos: In his 1939 sermon at Oxford, ‘Learning in Wartime,’ C.S. Lewis reminded his audience that by forging ahead in the worst of times, we can touch the divine. (Douglas Murray, March 10, 2024, Free Press)
    -ESSAY: Men Without Chests: Succinct and timeless in its message, C.S. Lewis's "The Abolition of Man" is a required read for anyone looking to diagnose modernity’s problems. (SCOTT HOWARD, FEB 13, 2024, The Freemen News-Letter)
    -ESSAY: Space Operas and Human Folly—Pandora, Perelandra, and the Fall of Man (Tyler Hummel, 5/05/23, Voegelin View)
-REVIEW ESSAY: What Does C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Abolition of Man’ Have to Say After 80 Years?: Review: ‘The Abolition of Man’ by C. S. Lewis (JOSEPH A. KOHM JR., 8/24/23, Gospel Coalition)
    -ESSAY: Men With Chests (Dwight Longenecker, April 3rd, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: The Mere Genius of C.S. Lewis (Joseph Pearce, March 24th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Weekend Short: Out of the Silent Planet (LUTHER RAY ABEL, December 10, 2022, National Review)
    -ESSAY: The Christian Cosmology of C.S. Lewis (Stratford Caldecott, November 28th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis’ Seven Categories of Science Fiction (Bradley J. Birzer, May 11th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
   -ESSAY: "That Hideous Strength" Is Evangelicalism's Text for the Future: The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne's or it will not exist. (Jake Meador, July 22, 2015, Patheos)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: When the naked green lady sings: CS Lewis noted how operatic the climax of his novel Perelandra was, writes Christopher Howse. (Christopher Howse, 27 Jun 2009, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis: The making of a reluctant Christian superstar: Rev. Steve Morris identifies Lewis’s experience at a remote World War Two airbase as defining the way of talking to regular people about the spiritual life (Steve Morris, 3/06/21, The Critic)>-ESSAY: C. S. Lewis vs. Sigmund Freud on good and evil (Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., March 2002, American Enterprise)
   -ESSAY: A Mind That Grasped Both Heaven and Hell (JOSEPH LOCONTE, 11/23/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Why There Are Seven Chronicles of Narnia: A British scholar discovers the hidden design of C.S. Lewis' perennially popular series. (John Wilson, Christianity Today)
   -ESSAY: To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly: C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, and the Corruption of Language (David Mills, July/August 1998, Touchstone) -REVIEW: of After Humanity by Michael Ward (Samuel Gregg, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. by Michael Ward. (Chris Butynskyi, University Bookman)
-REVIEW: of The Lion's Country: C. S. Lewis's Theory of the Real by Charlie W. Starr (Louis Markos, Christianmity Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind by Jason M. Baxter (Louis Markos, Christianity Today)
-REVIEW: of C. S. Lewis’s Oxford by Simon Horobin (Armand D’Angour, The Critic)

    -FILM REVIEW: Freud’s Last Session (JC Scharl, Religion & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
-C(live) S(taples) Lewis (1898-1963)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: " c. s. lewis"
    -C.S. Lewis Foundation
    -C. S. Lewis Classics (Harper Collins) (Harper Collins)
    -Into the Wardrobe: The C. S. Lewis Web Site.
    -EXCERPT: A Selection from The Abolition of Man
    -C.S. Lewis and the Inklings
    -C. S. Lewis: 20th-Century Christian Knight
    -C.S. Lewis and Related Authors (Taylor University)
    -Virtual Narnia
    -Literary Research Guide: C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963 )
    -CS Lewis and Public Life (Discovery Institute)
    -The Socratic Page (C. S. Lewis)
    -C.S. Lewis Course Web Page
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Pastor's Helper Presents: The C.S. Lewis Collection (linked to Amazon)
    -BIBLIO: Bibliography of Books & Articles By or About C. S. Lewis
    -PROFILE: Apostle to the Sceptics (Andrew Walker, Ship of Fools: The Magazine of Christian Unrest)
    -LINKS: C. S. Lewis Mega-Links Page
    -LINKS: Clive Staples Lewis: Resources on the Web.
    -LINKS: HU303: Modern Masters:  C. S. Lewis,  Instructor: Dale Sullivan
    -FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions Alt.books.cs-lewis
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis: His Enduring Legacy (Todd Kappelman)
    -ESSAY: Exercising Faith:   C. S. Lewis, the Bible and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (John C. Hathaway, Religious Studies, University of South Carolina)
    -C.S. Lewis  The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis  (PHR 320-Religious Figures, Elie J. Soueidi)
    -ESSAY:  C. S. Lewis' Images of the Character of God :  According to his Writings on Grief and Pain (Brenda Erikson, Don W. King)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis in the Public Square (Richard John Neuhaus, First Things)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis and the Materialist Menace: The following is edited from an address delivered on July 15, 1996 as part of the annual C. S. Lewis Institute at Seattle Pacific University (Discovery institute)
    -LECTURE: Restoration of Man: A Lecture given in Durham on Thursday October 22nd, 1992 by  J. R. LUCAS to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man
    -ESSAY: CHAPTER 4:  WHAT ARE THE THREATS TO FREEDOM IN MODERN SOCIETY? (EDWARD LARSON, Professor of History and Law, University of Georgia and Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute,  STEVEN HAYWARD, Heritage Foundation)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis and Materialism (John G. West, Jr., Acton Institute for Study of Religion and Freedom)
    -ESSAY: Finding the Permanent in the Political: C. S. Lewis as a Political Thinker (John G. West, Jr., Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute)
    -ESSAY:  THE ABOLITION OF MAN  Sample entry from The C.S. Lewis Reader's Encyclopedia (Zondervan, 1998)(JOHN G. WEST, JR.)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis: The Man and His Myths (Biblical Discernment Ministries)
    -ESSAY: "Morality, the Tao and Men Without Chests" (Oct 1998, Michael Cassidy, Theologically Speaking)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis on Mere Science  (M. D. Aeschliman, First Things 86 (October, 1998)
    -ESSAY:  The Wardrobe as Christian Metaphor [in The Chronicles of Narnia (Don W. King, This essay first appeared in Mythlore 14 (Autumn 1987)
    -ESSAY: C.S. Lewis Comes to American Politics (Elias Crim, Intellectual Capital)
    -ESSAY:  On Ethics:  A World is Not Made to Last Forever: The Bioethics of C. S. Lewis (Martin LeBar,  Visiting Professor Bryan College)
    -ESSAY: Transcendental Argument: Contours of C.S. Lewis' Apologetic (Tommy Allen, Premise)
    -ESSAY: Lewis, Lucifer, and Luminous Beings (Ashley Eckler)
    -ESSAY : When Worldviews Collide : C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud: a comparison of their thoughts and viewpoints on life, pain and death (Armand Nicholi, Jr., M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School)
    -ESSAY : Marketing 'Narnia' Without a Christian Lion (DOREEN CARVAJAL, June 3, 2001 , NY Times)
    -SERMON: A Service Commemorating the Centenary of the Baptism of C.S. Lewis in St Mark's Church, Dundela, Belfast on the 29th January 1899 (Address given by The Rt. Rev. D.A.R. Caird M.A., D.D.,L.L.D.,H.Dip.Ed.)
    -DISCUSSION NOTES: For discussion - The Abolition of Man (Dale J. Nelson, Mayville (ND) State University)
    -DISCUSSION: the abolition of man:   CS Lewis Campfire
    -REVIEWS: C.S. Lewis: (Christian Book Review by Carson Weitnauer)
    -REVIEW: of  C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time Scott R. Burson and Jerry L. Walls Comparing Two Giants of Apologetics (Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: Lewis, C. S. (Clives Staples)   A Grief Observed (Annotated by McNair, Lindsay A. and Willms, Janice L., Medical Humanities)
    -BOOK LISTS: The Fifty BEST Books of the Century (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)
    -BOOK LIST : BOOKS OF THE CENTURY: Leaders and thinkers weigh in on classics that have shaped contemporary religious thought (, April 24, 2000)

    -REVIEW: of Shadowlands (The Socratic Page)
    -ESSAY: How Hollywood Reinvented C. S. Lewis in the Film "Shadowlands" (Senior Fellow John G. West, Jr.)