To embrace the Christmas season in a more meaningful way, I’ve been trying to stay close to the heart of the matter by reading.
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis is one of my selections. Now, of all the wonderful books by the Oxford scholar, why would I choose this title for the Season?
From my reading of Joan Didion’s The year of Magical Thinking, I learned that during her mourning for the loss of her husband, she had read C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. That sparked my curiosity. After finishing Didion, I turned right away to explore Lewis’s book about his own experience of loss.
After 58 years of bachelorhood, Lewis found the love of his life in Helen Joy Gresham, an American author who had come all the way to England in search of a genuine and credible faith. Their love story is poignantly portrayed in the movie Shadowlands (1993). In Helen Joy Gresham (‘H’ in the book), Lewis found his equal in wit, intellect, and a faith that had endured testing and evolved from atheism to agnosticism and ultimately reaching irrevocable belief. Lewis entered into marriage with Joy at her hospital bed as she was fighting bone cancer. She did have a period of remission afterwards, during which the two enjoyed some traveling together. Regretfully, only four years into their marriage, Joy succumbed to her illness.
A Grief Observed is a courageous and honest disclosure of a very private pain. But what’s so different about this personal loss is that this prominent Christian apologist, acclaimed academic and writer, was willing to lay bare his questioning mind and disquiet heart to his readers. As his step-son Douglas Gresham wrote in the Introduction, the book is “a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane”. By crying out in anguish and exposing his torments, he shared his personal journey of painfully seeking the meaning of death, marriage, faith, and the nature of God. Lewis was brave enough to question “Where is God?” during his most desperate moments, when his heart was torn apart by searing pain and his intellect failed him with any rational answers.
Gradually he came out of despair realizing that the loudness of his screams might have drowned out the still, small voice speaking to him.
The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs…
After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.
After the fog of doubt has dispersed and the dust of despair has settled, Lewis saw the dawning of a gentle glimmer. He realized that he had been mourning a faint image or memory of his beloved, but not beholding the reality of her. The fickleness of his senses offered only fading fragments of her image. However, it is in praise that he could enjoy her the best.
I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become 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.
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.
Further, as with God, he knew he should grasp the reality, not just the image. He should treasure God Himself, not just the idea of Him:
I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her.
Upon this revelation, Lewis powerfully points out that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is how God reveals Himself to us in His full reality. Our ideas of God are shattered by Christ Himself.
The Incarnation… leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.
As Christmas draws near, I ponder once again the humbling of the Creator God, born a babe to grow up to experience the full spectrum of being human, showing us by His life and death the reality of God, an iconoclastic act only He can perform.
Lewis has drawn me to the heart of the matter, the crux of the Season:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
— John 1:14
‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:
2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson
2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season
2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season
2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson
2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis
2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw
2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle
2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge
8 thoughts on “Reading the Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis”
Thanks for this post, Arti. I read Joan Didion’s book, but haven’t read “A Grief Observed” yet. Now, though, I think I must! This line really grabbed me: you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.
Shari, I’ve read many of Lewis’ books before, mainly in my youthful days. My recent read of this book has really impressed me in a way I haven’t felt before. You’ll be surprised at his openness in sharing his anguish and doubts. But it’s the triumph at the end that’s so uplifting. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
Yet another review that finds me adding another book to my list. Thank you for AGAIN for a thoughtful review and for your darned good taste in material.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment in the midst of Christmas rush. Have a great Christmas… you and yours… I look forward to reading some holiday laughs from your very special son.
I happened to read Didion’s book because it was left at the house by a friend. I got right into it. Before I fnished it I found Lewis’ “grief observed” at a used book store. I am currently enrolled in a Thanatology program and I am going to use both books as the basis for a series of papers (TWO AT BEST) for these courses. I was amazed at the similarities of dialect in describing their experiences. It was such a coincidence that the two books just crossed my path just when I needed them most for my coursework and personally as well. There is a play throughout the country and perhaps the globe, UK and Austrailia (at the very least) theat is a monologue of ‘the year of majical thinking’ I am going to see it mid April in Hartford, Conn., John G.Dunne’s hometown.
I was moved to learn that Joan Didion went to visit Natasha Richardson at the NYC hospital shortly after being transferred from Montreal after her ski accident. It’s such a tragic irony now that Vanessa Redgrave has to live the reality of Didion’s play in which she performed the monologue. That was in 2007. I didn’t know they’re putting the play on again this April. Do you know who is the performer?
C.S. Lewis is definitely a great writer to explore on the subject of grief and dying. His other books may also offer insights into the subject. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your response. All the best to you in your program.
It took more than 15 years for me to finally watch ‘Shadowlands’ at last! Gosh, where have I been all these years??? How could I have missed it?
I didn’t cry although I was close to it. I share the passionate grief of Hopkins (who played C.S. Lewis), who lost his beloved wife to canaer, he played the role so vividly! He is one of my favourite actors.
I put a search on your Blog & found your earlier post. Thanks for mentioning ‘A Grief Observed’, I can’t wait to get a copy!
Yes, I’m slow but it’s never too late, right? Thank you Arti!
Thanks for your kind words. It’s never too late to discover good books. And those by C.S.L. take a whole lifetime to explore and savour.
Simply beautiful sharing of this book by C. S. Lewis. I was reading your current writing for Christmas 2018, and thought to look at previous ones. I am so glad that I did. Thank you so much, Arti! Merry Christmas and God bless, C-Marie