C.S. Lewis on the Christian Life

1] The Christian life hurts. God hurts. That theme is firmly embedded in Lewis’ writings, and it is, I think, the deepest reason for the power of his writing. “The Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is,” Orual reflects in Till We Have Faces. This theme — that God hurts — is perhaps most pronounced in some of Lewis’ last works — especially Till We Have Faces, A Grief Observed, and The Four Loves. And it may not be insignificant that each of these, in different ways, was influenced by Lewis’ acquaintance with and eventual marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham. Yet, this theme had been present in Lewis’ writing almost from the very beginning.
C.S. Lewis on the Christian life by Gilbert Meilaender

[2] Near the end of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’ first autobiographical account of his own journey to faith, John, the pilgrim who has finally made his way back to Mother Church, sings a song about “the tether and pang of the particular.” It may not be great poetry. Despite Lewis’ aspirations to be known as an epic poet, it turned out that his talent was for prose. Nevertheless, this early poem makes clear how the turn (or re-turn) to God wounds our nature.

Passing to-day by a cottage, I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had dwelled there
With my mortal friends who are dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.

Out, little spear that stabs, I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted away (I was deceived)
Into love universal the lov’d thing.

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan
When the angelic indifferences with no bar
Universally loved but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular.

Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water to astringent soul.

That we, though small, may quiver with fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou — not reflect merely,
As lunar angel, back to thee, cold flame.
Gods we are, Thou hast said: and we pay dearly.

[3] The poem recognizes both our finitude and our freedom, the duality of our created nature. We are not angels who love only universally, simply reflecting back the divine love. We also love particularly, with the tether and pang of the particular. We never outgrow “the local, unique sting,” nor transmute it into universal love alone. Yet, we are also free, made for God. We must therefore learn how to love more universally — and, ultimately, how to love God, who is by no means ours alone. We live with this duality of our being, with our hearts tied to what is local and unique but also drawn toward the universal. Living within that tension, as the poem puts it, “we pay dearly.”

[4] The movie “Shadowlands” gets it right, therefore, in a conversation it imagines between Lewis and Joy. During the period when her illness is in remission, Joy and Jack are on a trip and, taking shelter from the rain, they suddenly find themselves talking about what lies ahead. Jack expresses his fear — fear of the pain he will feel when he loses her. To which Joy responds: “The pain then is a part of the pleasure now. That’s the deal.” The pleasure now is grounded in a particular commitment of the heart, and such a commitment makes us vulnerable. It sets us up to be hurt. But we can avoid that pain only by refusing now to give our heart to anyone whom we might one day lose. We can, that is, avoid future pain, only by retreating entirely into the self, by caring about nothing outside the self. But that, of course, would be hell — a retreat into the “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self” that Lewis calls “the mark of Hell.”

[5] Even in his stories for children, Lewis does not hesitate to emphasize the appropriateness and necessity of suffering. When, in The Last Battle, “night falls on Narnia” and Aslan pulls down the curtain on Narnian history, the children who are friends of Narnia find themselves in Aslan’s world — an even more wonderful place to be. But Lucy begins to cry at the thought of what they have left behind. “What Lucy!” Peter says. “You’re not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?” To which Tirian, last of the kings of Narnia, who has come into Aslan’s world with the children, replies. “Sirs, the ladies do well to weep. See I do so myself. I have seen my mother’s death. What world but Narnia have I ever known? It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn.” Likewise, in The Magician’s Nephew, sixth of the Chronicles, the young boy Digory is forced to choose between obedience to Aslan’s command and an action that may save the life of his dying mother. Trusting in Aslan hurts.

[6] We could try to avoid this pain by holding on to the beloved as if he or she were ours, our possession. That would, of course, be futile, but, still more important, it would be to miss the call of God that comes to us in and through the loved one. It would be to mistake the gift for the Giver. Or we could try to avoid this pain by telling ourselves that there has been no real loss. God’s will has been done, and the loved one is now better off. True though this is from one angle, it does less than justice to that “local, unique sting” that should and does characterize our loves. Lewis puts the point very directly in A Grief Observed:

If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created…. A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.

He never forgets that ‘the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is.’

[7] This theme — of the tension or rivalry between our natural loves and love for God — is given its most systematic treatment by Lewis in The Four Loves, a book that deserves to be considered a minor classic in Christian ethics. Lewis’ first move is to evoke the beauty and the splendor of the natural loves, the ways in which they give pleasure. But he never stops there. He never forgets that “the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is.” And so, with each of the loves he notes also its insufficiency — the way in which, even and especially at its very best, it may go wrong. Affection is prone to jealousy and wants to possess the loved one. Still more, it needs to be needed. In affection we desire only the good we can give, which is not always the good the loved one needs. The love of friendship is always tempted to exclusivity, and we may easily come to take pride in our circle of friends and come to value exclusivity for its own sake. Eros, left to itself, is likely to be fickle and unfaithful, to work harm and havoc in human life.

[8] Therefore, each of the natural loves, beautiful and splendid as they are in themselves, must be transformed by charity, by love of God. They must be taken up into a life directed toward God and be reborn — transformed and perfected as “modes of charity.” Lewis’ concluding chapter on charity, among the most powerful pieces of his generally powerful prose, is a haunting depiction of the way in which this needed transformation is likely to be painful. We say that the natural loves are transformed and perfected, but that language does not quite capture the truth of our experience. It may sometimes feel more like death — that the natural loves must be put to death so that a new life marked by charity can arise. With just such an idea in mind — namely, that the needed transformation of our natural loves may seem akin to dying — Josef Pieper once recalled that charity has been pictured by Christians as a consuming fire, and that it is therefore “much more than an innocuous piety when Christendom prays, ‘Kindle in us the fire of Thy love.'”

[9] At their best, therefore, the natural loves fall short. In themselves they are good, but they were never meant to be simply “in themselves” — to be isolated from God or to be anything other than modes of charity. But in our sin we do isolate them, refusing to recognize that they are and must remain creaturely loves. Because we do so, we can only experience the transformation of those loves as painful. When God redirects them to himself, it hurts. We can, of course, say, with perfect justification, that this redirection is a restoration of them to what they are meant to be. It is a liberation of their true beauty and is in the service of their genuine flourishing. In the Augustinian language that underlies Lewis’ treatment in The Four Loves, it is the restoring of inordinate love to right order. All true — and truly said. But we cannot always — perhaps not even often —experience this restoration as liberation and fulfillment. That is “far away in ‘the land of the Trinity’,” and we remain pilgrims on the way.

[10] Lewis’ most haunting depiction of nature wounded by grace must certainly be one of his least read books, Till We Have Faces. Before the story is over, Orual comes to see the harsh truth about her love for Psyche and others. It had been a “gnawing greed.” She comes to see that the kingdom of “Glome was a web ­— I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men’s stolen lives.” Sin builds its throne at the heart of what is best in our nature, and, then, when God draws us toward himself, it may feel the way it felt to Orual when the Divine surgeons went to work on her. What she experienced was loss and suffering — so great, indeed, that she finally cries out: “That there should be gods at all, there’s our misery and bitter wrong. There’s no room for you and us in the same world.” Striving for independence, striving to isolate her natural loves from the only context in which they could ultimately flourish, Orual had been making war on the reality principle of the universe. How can the gods meet us face to face, she finally asks, till we have faces? She had to be broken to be transformed.

[11] No theme is more central to Lewis’ vision of human life in relation to God, and few Christian thinkers have managed as well as he to evoke simultaneously in readers both an appreciation for and delight in our created life, and a sense of the pain and anguish that come when that life is fully redirected to the One from whom it comes. “To love at all,” Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “is to be vulnerable…. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” The whole of life, therefore, every ordinary and everyday moment of it, every choice that we make, is embedded within the journey — under grace, but often painful ­— by which the pure in heart are enabled to see God.

[12] Here, I think, we find the truth behind the remarkable staying power of Lewis’ writings. He gives us the feel, the quality, of a life truly lived before God. He gives us the everyday — in all its splendor, terror, pain, and possibility. And through what is ordinary and everyday he invites us to enter into that “mystical death which is the secret of life.”

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.