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
2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo
2015: The Book of Ruth
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
2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis