|Photo by James Daigh of JFK on El Cajon Blvd in San Diego|
Source: Tom Shess/Pillar to Post
Kennedy's death, though 50 years have past, is still a vivid memory. But another great man, C.S. Lewis, died just an hour earlier on the same day. His life has come to have an even greater influence on me. So on this 50th anniversary of Lewis's death, I would like to recall the "greatest lay champion of basic Christianity in the twentieth century."*
I first encountered Lewis several years after his death. Like other devoted followers, his life and work only became important to me long after he left this life. I was first introduced to him, not through his popular fictional works like the Chronicles of Narnia books or his Planetary novels, all of which I now have read many times, but through his non-fiction essays and sermons, many of which are now published in God in the Dock and other volumes. Since the early 70s, I have read most of the books this great man published in his lifetime, as well as many others by and about him and his literary work since then.
I believe in Christianity as I believe
that the sun has risen: not only
because I see it, but because by
it I see everything else. C.S. Lewis
Born on November 29, 1898, as Clive Staples Lewis, his early years were spent in County Down of Northern Ireland, the younger of 2 boys. Lewis remembered his mother as the one who nurtured him with “cheerful and tranquil affection” and encouraged his early intellectual life. Because of the wet climate, Lewis spent much of his time indoors with his brother, Warren, drawing, writing, and yearning for the distant green hills on the horizon. When he was 4, young Lewis decided that he should be called “Jacksie”, which was later shortened to “Jack,” the name by which he was known to his friends for the rest of his life. His childhood was filled with the presence of books, and before he could even write, he was dictating stories.
By the age of 10, the Lewis boys lost their mother to cancer. In the pattern in which he had been schooled, Lewis’s father sent the boys off to a boarding school in England. It was a dreadful experience, and later Warren described it as one of being given as “helpless children into the hands of a madman.”
Jack Lewis never had the relationship with his father that he had enjoyed with his mother. They were never able to communicate. A well-intentioned parent, the senior Lewis was also emotionally stormy and morose, an illogical but larger-than-life Irish lawyer. Since he was never able to understand his boys, he never knew what their first boarding school was really like.
Later, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis observed that life in this boarding school was early training for the Christian life: It taught him to live by hope or faith. During these years, Jack approached his religion seriously, agonizing for hours in prayer before he would allow himself to crawl exhausted into bed. This distorted view of Christianity was an endless torture that he was only too happy to abandon. At 13, he entered an English preparatory school where he stayed until he was 15. It was during this phase that he confessed to taking up smoking, cultivating an interest in the occult, falling into atheism, and becoming unchaste. Later, Lewis summed up this part of his life as that when he lost his faith, his virtue and his simplicity. Later in life he was freed from immoral behavior, his atheism, and his preoccupation with the occult. However, he never did deny his taste for tobacco.
In spite of the bad habits he acquired, Jack Lewis did benefit greatly from his preparatory schooling: His introduction to serious education started an imaginative inner intellectual and “spiritual” life. At 15, in spite of a high fever on the day of his final examination, he won a scholarship to Malvern College. The school environment did not suit Lewis, and by all standards was a profane and unpleasant atmosphere for him. Nevertheless, he did make the best of it and took refuge in intellectual pursuits. He developed a stuffy and superior attitude as a defense against the pervasive homosexuality and the ruling upper classmen athletes who hazed the younger students. His retreat was his studies. His favorite literary pursuits were the poetry and romance of Norse mythology. Later, he wondered whether his adoration of the false gods of the north in whom he did not believe was actually God’s way of developing in him the desire and capacity for true worship. He was captivated by myths, and later it was his appreciation of myth that led to his conversion from atheism to a belief in the true God.
Lewis was 16 when the First World War began. He left Malvern College to live in Surrey to study with an elderly Scottish tutor. So glad was he to leave Malvern for a better life that he later wrote that it felt like “waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited loved had somehow vanished from the world.” His father’s old teacher became Lewis's tutor and mentor. The tutor was a confirmed atheist, but he did instill within Lewis a mind for precision and logic. His dialectical approach was like mental combat to Jack, and it was an intellectual environment in which the young man's mind thrived. Indeed, arguing became for Lewis what athletic competition had been for the jocks at Malvern.
During this period, Lewis read abundantly. He also began to buy books—lots of books. One of the most important was a Christian fantasy by George MacDonald. MacDonald turned out to be the most important single influence in Lewis’s life—more than all his favorite writers and teachers. It's ironic that it was during these years of formative atheism that Lewis was confirmed in the church in Belfast and took his first communion—in total disbelief. Sadly, he lied his way into the church only to satisfy his father’s wishes.
Lewis was next accepted into the University College at Oxford. However, by now England was deep into the Great War, and by his 19th birthday he found himself in the front line trenches in France. Suffering the horrors of trench warfare, like so many others, he eventually became a causality. He returned to England to recover from his wounds, and then reentered Oxford. Back at Oxford, Lewis enjoyed the company of admirable friends, and eventually followed 2 of them out of serious atheism. He was a long way from being a Christian, but he had decided that the universe was not entirely meaningless. While he did not yet believe in God, he was moving away from a materialistic view of the universe toward absolute idealism.
I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences,
attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the
noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. C. S. Lewis
Lewis began teaching at the university. While teaching philosophy, he was forced to be more specific about his idea of the Absolute. He soon became convinced that he was shutting something out. His alternative was to either open up or keep himself closed to God. He freely chose to expose himself whatever the consequences. From that point on, he was challenged by everyone around him to live his philosophy instead of playing at it intellectually. It was a crisis period for him as he was confronted by his own badness. Concerning this period of his life, Lewis wrote, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” God was closing in on him.
Indeed, that was how Lewis pictured the process of his conversion—God’s “unrelenting approach… That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me… I admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night [in the spring term of 1929], the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” At this point, Lewis did not yet believe in the Son of God, the atoning sacrifice for sin. Nevertheless, he became a churchgoer. History and his own reason had led him to choose Christianity among the religions, but he put off acceptance of a Savior because he knew that the incarnation would bring God near in a new way, and he wasn’t sure he wanted God that close. However, in intellectual honesty, Lewis knew that his reluctance to accept Jesus as the Christ was not grounds for evading the truth.
Two Christian friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, influenced him in the final stage of his conversion. But there was one final step he had to take for himself. It happened one sunny morning in 1931, while he was riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle. “When we set out," Lewis recalled, "I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Lewis could not have known at the time, but his life on earth was just half over when the Cat finally caught the mouse.
The second half of Lewis’s life—the Christian half—began at the age of 32. It was to proceed successfully and happily monotonously for another 23 years, until it closed on a special 9-year chapter of love and loss.
Until this time, and for another 20 years, Lewis had lived with and cared for a woman he came to call his “foster-mother.” Not long after, his brother Warren, who had by now enjoyed a distinguished military career, also came to live with him permanently. Lewis and Warren were the best of friends, a sentiment shared by both men since their childhood. Their 2 great pleasures were their long walks together in the country and their intellectual conversation all evening with a small group of friends, later to be known as the “Inklings.”
When he was 35, only 3 years after his conversion, Lewis published the classic, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Thirty-four other books would follow over his remaining life. Pilgrim’s Regress was an allegorized account of his own spiritual journey leading to his conversion. It's not the easiest reading for many, myself included. Of it Lewis wrote, “It was my first religious book and I didn’t then know how to make things easy… [I] hoped for no readers outside a small ‘highbrow’ circle.” While the book didn’t have the impact he might have hoped, it is still being sold and read and quoted throughout the world today, 80 years after its release.
A note about Lewis and the audiences for which he wrote: He always tried to identify the audience he addressed. Especially when discussing topics of spiritual importance, he wanted to be precise and clear. For many today who read him, at least at first, Lewis may seem difficult to understand. While he aimed to be clear to his audience, not all of his writings and published lectures are as accessible as others. Even some of the critics of his day didn't appreciate that Lewis tried to give consideration to his audiences. In one of his replies to a critic (“Rejoinder to Dr Pettenger”) Lewis expresses this concern: “My task was… that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine… into the language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand… if real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about 100 years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.” (God in the Dock). In another place he wrote, "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." He was a writer and a teacher who sincerely tried to connect with his listeners and edify his students. So, don’t give up on Lewis. He is still reaching out to you!
It is funny how mortals always pic-
ture us as putting things into their
minds: in reality our best work
is done by keeping things out.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Lewis continued to write over the second half of his life. The Allegory of Love was his big breakthrough in 1936. It was a literary study of medieval literature and assured Lewis a respected place in the literary scholarship world. However, it is his “religious” writings that are best remembered by most of us. Another highlight in his career as an author was The Screwtape Letters in 1942. Interestingly, he did not consider it to be one of his best books (neither, by the way, did his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, the one to whom he dedicated it!). Lewis preferred The Great Divorce (1947), one of my favorites, but it was Screwtape that won him fame among the general public and even earned him a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Three years later, he published the first of his Narnia series. These came after his famed planetary trilogy (1938-45), which I reread every couple of years. Lewis enjoyed his writing and lecturing immensely. No doubt, if he had had more time, he would have written much more.
His life conformed to the sacrificial unselfishness he believed in as a Christian. One form that his unselfishness took was his willingness to reply to strangers who wrote to him. As his fame grew, so did the many letters he received from admirers as well as detractors. Lewis never failed to answer personally. His hand grew arthritic as his time on earth grew shorter, but he answered everyone who contacted him personally. Thankfully, these letters to children, the spiritually distressed, the seekers, and others have been collected into 3 large, handsome volumes and published for the general public. They give amazing and personal insight into this noble man.
Circumstances began to change in Lewis's final nine years. In 1954, he left his post at Oxford after 30 years, for a much better position at Magdalene College in Cambridge. Though his years on the faculty at Oxford had been distinguished, and he had received wide acclamation from thousands outside the college community, Lewis was never fully accepted by the college. Many there felt that his practical Christianity precluded him from reaching higher status as an academic there. By contrast, he was received with honor at Cambridge where he was made a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, a special position created for him there.
Affliction is often that thing which pre-
pares an ordinary person for some sort
of extraordinary destiny. C.S. Lewis
By 1954, Lewis had become friends with an American author, Joy Davidman. At the time, she was married to author, William Lindsay Gresham, whom she had met in the Communist party. The Greshams became Christians through the influence of Lewis’s books. Sadly, however, their marriage was damaged beyond repair by Gresham’s alcoholism and philandering, and in 1953, Joy moved to England with her two sons. Following her divorce, Lewis and Joy were married in a civil ceremony to enable her to remain in England. They remained neighbors but did not live together as husband and wife. But that changed when Joy was diagnosed with cancer in 1957. While she lay dying, an Anglican minister married the two of them in a Christian ceremony at her bedside. Miraculously and in an answer to prayer, she unexpectedly recovered. Three more extremely happy years were to follow until her death in 1960.
During these same years, Lewis’s own health was deteriorating. He gave little attention to his own ailments, which began as an enlarged prostate, resulting in bad kidneys, followed by heart damage. His kidney problems apparently caused his osteoporosis, which became both painful and crippling. His condition spelled the end of the country walks that were so much a part of his life. After Joy’s death, Lewis continued with his work, busy as ever, but his wife was gone and his health was deteriorating. In 1961, he published A Grief Observed, a painful but hopeful analysis of his profound loss.
In 1962, Lewis set to work on his final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. On a summer day of 1963, uremia caused Lewis to slip into a coma. He was not expected to recover, but by the afternoon he was alert and ordered his afternoon tea, something he considered essential and never to be missed. In one of his letters later that year, he commented that “[death] is rather fun after all—solemn fun—isn’t it?” He knew the end was near, so he sent a formal resignation to Cambridge.
On today's date in 1963, he was sick at home in the Kilns. He had his late afternoon tea, and then he died shortly thereafter. His passing may have been better remembered if he hadn’t preceded President Kennedy in death by only an hour. C.S. Lewis was quietly buried under a yew tree in a little churchyard where he was a member in Headington. So grief-stricken was his brother and friend, that he couldn’t bring himself to attend the funeral. Warren's loss was summed up in the Shakespeare quote he had inscribed on the stone, “Men must endure their going hence.” Ten years later, Warren was buried there, too.
Death has not stopped the influence that C.S. Lewis still has on me and countless others. By far, more thousands of people have come under the Christian teaching of Lewis than he ever experienced in life. Many of us owe deepest appreciation to him for the insights into the faith and the encouragement to live our lives in self-conscious obedience to the Almighty God behind the universe we know. Perhaps these are best summarized in his book, Mere Christianity, originally delivered as radio talks to his countrymen during the Second World War.
Meanwhile the cross comes
before the crown and tomor-
row is a Monday morning.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Over the years since I first encountered Lewis, I have grown to love the things that my teacher also loved. Indeed, that's been one of the best blessings of our friendship. Lewis saw himself as a “mere Christian,” someone who owed everything to the sovereign God of the universe who caused all things to work together for the good of his children. Through his Christian life, Lewis chose to focus his work and teaching on the practical and essential elements of the faith. These he saw as “Mere Christianity,” a theme he discovered in the Puritan, Richard Baxter. It was the name that Lewis preferred to describe the common ground that all orthodox Christian share—the essential Christian message, and the title of an enduring book.
So today, on the 50th anniversary of the death of this great man, I'm taking some time to revisit some of his writings, to thoughtfully reflect on the life of a great Christian saint, and to thank God for the powerful effect C.S. Lewis's writing still has on me.
* This quote is from Katherine Lindskoog, and much of the biographical information is from her, too.