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C.S. Lewis’ pain teaches Christians true love

C.S. Lewis’ mourning teaches Christians what we should love in friendship.  |  Thecla Li / THE CHIMES

 

After his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis stumbled through grief and sorrow. Why is God so present in our joys, yet so absent in our pain? When we run to God with gratitude and praise, we are received with open arms. But run to him in desperation and we are met with a door to the face—the sound of locking and double locking, and then silence. Peering through the window, we wonder why the lights are out. Lewis did not fear he would lose faith in God, but feared he would come to believe something terrible—that God is truly a cosmic sadist.

But through Lewis’ journey, he realized his mistake—his idea of God was not God. It was not God that slammed the door closed but his own frantic need. When nothing was left in his soul but his own anguish, God could not help. It is like a drowning man who clutches and grabs and, without knowing it, would try to drown even a friend. Our own desperation drowns out the voice we hope to hear.

Through death and sorrow, Lewis learned to seek God on God’s terms, but he also dropped a pearl in the rough. Lewis did not miss the idea of his wife, it is precisely the opposite. Lewis missed everything the idea of his wife could not capture—his wife, herself. In the same way, Christians must remember that our love for another, a love that is truely love, is not a sort of incest of the mind—falling in love with our own ideas of a person—but love for the person themself.

The Dissolution of Memories

Like fickle friends, memories remind us of our experiences but are easily embellished. Lewis writes:

“Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.”

When Lewis’ wife died, she would continue to live in his memories like the embalmed dead in Egypt continue to live. She would be a mere image, a relic of former times. She would become all mockeries and horrors, she would live in his memories as an image of his own creation. Slowly, with each passing second, his memories of her would be draped in the form of his own imagination, becoming thinner and thinner disguises of his own likings. Death meant not only the passing of his wife, but also the slow passing away of his ideas of his wife—death meant complete separation.

Love can only be sustained by a person

Near her end, Lewis asked his wife, “If you can—if it is allowed—come to me when I too am on my death bed.” Soon after, she said to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, and, as Dante Alighieri once wrote, “Pois si tornó all’ eterna fontana—Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.”

Lewis said if he could be assured of his wife’s presence, he would not believe it. But one night after her death, Lewis described the sensation as if a mind momentarily faced his own—unemotional, insubstantial, almost like a telephone call about a practical arrangement. Whether or not it was her, it was an intimacy like a spring cleaning in his mind. He would not go on as usual, but perhaps he could now go on with a limp.

In the midst of Lewis’ sorrow and his later quick return, we are reminded that our loves, friendships and joys are rooted not in our own ideas but in the things themselves. As Lewis concludes:

“And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead… Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of [my wife], but [my wife]. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbor.”

In the depths of Lewis’ pain, we can catch a glimpse of his foundation for love

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