Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Grief Observed

This post is part of the C.S. Lewis book club hosted at the Quiet Quill - stop by there to read other discussions on this book. Next month we'll be discussing Out of the Silent Planet.

C.S. Lewis poured out his grief in his journals after the death of his wife, which became this, his last published book (he died three years after his wife). 

Lewis' most popular book (after the Chronicles of Narnia series) is the great defense of the Christian faith, Mere Christianity. But when faced with devastating loss and suffering, Lewis starts to question many of the statements of his own faith.

Here is just a short list of some of the effects of grief Lewis experienced:
  • There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says
  • Then comes a red-hot jab of memory and all this "commonsense" vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace
  • An odd by-product of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet
  • Part of the misery is... the misery's shadow... the fact that you don't merely suffer, but you have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer
  • Grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything...
  • Up till this I always had too little time Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.
  • At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall eventually be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.
  • Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable
  • Meanwhile, where is God? ...go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what to do you find? A door slammed in your face.
  • Time after time, when He seemed most gracious, He was really preparing the next torture
  • Aren't all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won't accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?
I have to admit, I have no direct experience with grief. I have not yet lost a close loved one. But after reading this and seeing others struggle through it, I would almost rather be the one to die, than the loved one left behind. But that is a selfish statement, and one of poor faith. Just as no path to salvation is the same, no path to love is same, nor path through love is the same, so I am sure no single path through grief is the same, either. My pastor and his wife, who lost a son, describe grace upon grace that carried them through their grief as if in the very arms of God.

Another hard statement that Lewis made:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.
I can understand where he's coming from here. Though I have not struggled with grief, I have suffered with depression, (a much more selfish relative of grief). It does no good when people try to comfort or encourage me in this state. There is no consolation in religion when facing grief or other forms of suffering, except the fact that God is in control and he sees the bigger picture we cannot yet see. And that is a hard fact to cling to. Sometimes you grasp it; other times the best you can do is cry, "I believe - help my unbelief." In the worst of times, like Lewis, you loathe God as a sadist, or in my case, berate myself for ever believing in Him and his very out-of-date Word in the first place.

Lewis refers to the notion of the hope of future family reunions on "the furthest shore" as foolishness:
There's not a word of it in the Bible. We know it rings false. We know it couldn't be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back.
On the other hand, there is Biblical assurance that there will be no more tears when God creates the new heaven and earth. But Lewis is right on one thing: it won't be the same. We know, for instance, that there is no marriage in heaven, as there is on earth.  I am now curious to read what Lewis writes in his book "The Business of Heaven." I find it interesting, and a bit odd, that Lewis never mentions any of his previous work, either to defend it or refute it.  He says simply this:
Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked down from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.
I also struggled to understand what Lewis meant by this statement:
I begin to see. My love for H. was of much the same quality as my faith in God... But neither was the thing I thought it was.
 Then a whole chapter later, almost near the end, this:
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins... All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her.
(I had to look up the meaning of iconoclast: a breaker or destroyer of images, esp. those set up for religious veneration; a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions).

This idea of God using various means - suffering, including death - to shatter our conceptions of Him in order to know Him better (and likewise with our loved ones) is also expressed here:

Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not  a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are "taken out of ourselves" by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves, though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or relief from sorrow, or our own love.
In other words, I think, we don't know how full, how deep our faith in God can go, or the same for our love for a beloved, until we reach the point where we have to go on without their presence. Even Jesus knew a moment where he cried, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I that didn't.


  1. I really appreciate your discussion here of the word "iconoclast" that Lewis uses. (I had to look it up too!) I think this is so true. We have a notion of who God is, but then a situation smashes that notion to pieces. Then we reconstruct another idea about God, but then another circumstance will crush that one too. On and on. God will not be formed into our image of Him. He is the great I AM.

    I love all the quotes you pulled from the book. They were my favorites too!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to pen all of that. It was such a sad but very vulnerable and honest book that Lewis has written - and I am yet to read it.

    My husband and I have suffered a huge lose that we still grieve over to this day - we had to walk away from a church that we pastored, and to us it was devastating and has had some long lasting effects (that still need to be healed.) But I can relate to some of the words Lewis has penned - it has caused us to re-see and not understand who the Lord is. We (or should I say 'I") think I had Him figured out - I thought I knew how He should work - how His Word works - and then everything I thought I knew is whipped away - and in those dark and lonely places you learn again - but not in the way you expected (humm does that make sense?)

    Two things that I remember Lewis writing out of the the Narnia series that have been anchors for me to hold on to have been:

    1) Peter to his siblings "He must know what He is doing"


    2) "He never does the same thing twice"

    And I'm learning that because He never does the same thing twice does not mean that He is not trust worthy. And I am learning that grief is one of His most powerful tools in our lives - if we will fight it through 'with' Him.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. LW21,
    I read A Grief Observed many years ago, and I am planning to read it again this week. But I am also dealing with a grievious situation with my nephew's illness, and observing and participating in grief are two very different things, as Lewis so poignantly states. Looking forward to further discussion on the book. Marsha

  4. LW21 -
    I did manage to re-read A Grief Observed while at my hotel over the past few weeks. Your comments are insightful. I wrote on it in a post entitled A Grief Unobserved.

    I have always thought that the fact that Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, which was an analytical look at an abstract issue, but later wrote such a different book in A Grief Observed, once it had become personal was representative of our walk with God.

    We can talk about good and evil as abstract concepts, until we become Christians, and then the daily battle is as real as our fook and air.

    Have a good week. ...Marsha

    Hope you are having a good week. ...Marsha