C. S. Lewis stands as an unofficial saint among English-speaking Christians. That’s especially true in the “Evangelical” tribes in the United States. I think he would find that odd, given his Anglican commitments, but he’s not the only unofficial saint to get the shaft through misappropriation and misinterpretation. The mythological hatchet job Eric Metaxas did on Bonhoeffer comes to mind as an example (but that’s a conversation for another time).
I have read Lewis since my sophomore year in college. I was never taken by the dogmatic, philosophical, and hardcore apologetic elements of his work. That’s the place that seems to grab many, but I went elsewhere. I was most attracted simply by his conversion story as he recorded it in Surprised by Joy.
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen,” he wrote, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (p. 266).
I read those words not too long after I found myself the most dejected and reluctant (re)convert in all of Pella, Iowa. That’s not such a big pond for such a small fish, but it was the pond in which I found myself at the time. I identified strongly (and still do) with his description of “a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape…” That captured my position precisely.
No, it wasn’t the argument and apologetics. It was the philosophy or theology. It was his fiction. I loved The Screwtape Letters. I read annually The Great Divorce. I devoured the Narnia chronicles. I savored the Perelandra trilogy. I even enjoyed his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In later years, I read and meditated on Till We Have Faces. I was captured not by argument but rather by art. I was somewhat repelled by what seemed to be a brand of smug certainty that had no place in my paradoxical Lutheran heart (by the way – even when I was an atheist, I was a “Lutheran” sort of atheist).
One piece of Lewis prose cuts against the grain here. The Four Loves has been a touchstone for me for most of the last four decades. I will proceed to the paragraphs which riveted me in the beginning and continue to pin me down to this moment. Lewis discusses the fourth of the four loves – agape, charity, self-giving rather than self-seeking love. He meditates on the cost of that love for the lover and why such love must be costly.
“If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that His [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preferences for safe investments and limited liabilities.” That was precisely my approach to love and to life. I treated love as a scarce commodity which could hardly ever be secured, and which was sure to flit away at the least breeze of adversity or disagreement. If self-giving love was such a rare and unstable thing, why should I put any stock in it?
“I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less,” Lewis continues. I must always still pause at this statement and take it in. Precisely that which makes the most sense to me about Love makes the least sense to the author of that Love. “And who,” Lewis asks, “could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground – because the security (so to speak) is better?” (page 120). Yet, that is precisely my default position in loving. No wonder it works so poorly for me on my own.
Our Lord’s love, Lewis notes, must be of a quite different quality. “Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom,” he writes, “does God Himself [sic] offer them?’ Does God guard against the cost of loving in the face of possible abandonment? “Apparently not,” Lewis responds to his own question. “Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” (page 121).
Shit. I know, not the most eloquent response. But it is precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.
Then comes the big finish. If I thought this was terrifying before, just wait. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” he writes. “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,” he suggests, “you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken,” he concludes, “it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy,” Lewis declares, “or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (page 121).
Double shit. Still precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.
Lewis knew all about wrapping and protecting his heart from hurt. He had spent a lifetime doing just that. Then he met and ultimately married Joy Gresham. Three years later he buried her, dead from cancer. They were certainly the three best years of his life. Then he plunged into the depths of despair as he recorded in A Grief Observed. Grief is the price we pay for loving. And Lewis paid the bill in full.
Once written, books do not change. But we are readers certainly do. I collided with the words of The Four Loves at a more superficial level many times over the years. Lewis examines and describes our love for pets as a genuine love and real loss when they die. I was grateful for his perspective. The loss of parents, grandparents, relationships of all kinds, jobs, communities, hopes and dreams – Lewis knew and described it well.
Then Anne died ten years ago, and I started the conversation all over again. That was the moment I came to an infinitely deeper appreciation of both the wounds and the wisdom Lewis shared. I know many live and die by Mere Christianity, for example. But I prefer my Lewis wounded and uncertain, human and humble. That’s when I feel like I can talk to him as a friend.
Friendship was a love of great value to Lewis. This love is worth mentioning here as well. Most are familiar with his deep and generative friendships with the “Inklings” – that astonishing little literary guild which included Owen Barfield, Jack A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, J. H. Grant III, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The spiritual wisdom and literary power of that group is quite astonishing. Lewis describes friendship as sharing a desire and care for “the same truth.”
“Hence,” he writes, “we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” (page 66). It is not surprising that in a week and a half we shall hear Jesus describing his disciples as his “friends” in John 15. Lewis puts it this way. “The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out,” he writes. “It is the instrument by which God reveals to each,” he says, “the beauties of all the others” (page 89).
I won’t rehearse his arguments on erotic love, the third of the four. He has some legitimate cautions about the contemporary tendency to divinize and then idolize human erotic love. He is also a bit more jaundiced in his views than I think the evidence warrants. But it’s worth reading and drawing your own conclusions in that regard.
One of the great side benefits of reading The Four Loves is that it makes Till We Have Faces much more accessible and understandable. Lewis rewrites and reinterprets the Eros and Psyche myth in a complex, subtle and mature fashion. Faces is his most mature and ambiguous work. Thus, I find it his most compelling. But without his reflections on the promise, power, and peril of love (especially erotic love), it can be hard to follow.
I’m grateful for Lewis’ leading in my own return to the Christian faith. I am even more grateful for his challenge to the simplicities of that faith as he went deeper into live and love and loss. He’s not a saint in my personal pantheon. But I’d like to think that we might have been friends.