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C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed

from Program Two


Miraculous joy followed by grief shakes the foundations of Lewis's faith.

Narrator: By the 1950s, C.S. Lewis had become a famous figure and the most popular spokesperson for Christianity in the English-speaking world. Living and working in Oxford for over 30 years, he was content and had no plans to change.

James Como: He was a bachelor leading a chaste life. There was no reason to think he would never be anything other than celibate. Warren was never anything other than celibate. And of course when Joy Davidman came along — kismet.

Colin Duriez: Joy Davidman was a writer, a novelist and a poet from New York. She grew up in a Jewish background, and she came across the writings of C.S. Lewis when she was an atheist and a Marxist, and started corresponding with Lewis.

Narrator: She told Lewis in her letters that she had embraced the Christian faith in part because of his writing.

Como: Lewis got lots of letter from eligible ladies wanting more than just advice about Christian problems. Why would Joy be any different? Well, she was different. She was different first because she was very, very smart. She knew Lewis' work, she was a poet herself, she was a novelist herself, and she was his match in what Owen Barfield called "dialectical obstetrics."

Narrator: Lewis married Helen Joy Davidman so that she would not be deported. But as they became closer and closer friends, they fell in love.

Lewis: When two people who discover they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass into erotic love.

Narrator: At the time they were married, Joy and Lewis knew that she had bone cancer.

Lewis: I am very shortly to be both a bridegroom and a widower.

Narrator: Lewis turned to a former pupil who had become a priest, Peter Bide.

Como: Peter Bide comes to the hospital and Lewis asks if this man who has some reputation for possessing a healing gift would place his hands upon Joy and pray that she be healed. Peter Bide does this. And lays his hand upon Lewis who prays that he will get the pain that Joy is suffering. The pain is ferocious. And of course Joy is expected to die within a day or two. She doesn't. In fact, she starts to get better. Within a few months, X-rays show that her pelvis has grown back. The bone has regenerated. Doctors cannot explain it.

Narrator: After her remission, Joy moved into the Lewis home with her two sons, David, 11 and Douglas, 13.

Lewis: I never expected to have in my 60s, that happiness that passed me by in my 20s. For those few years Helen and I feasted on love.

Walter Hooper: Her great other worldly ambition in life was to go to Greece. She'd wanted this since she was a young girl. They went to Mysini, they went to Crete, they went to Rhodes. Joy climbed all the way up to the Acropolis. It was a wonderful bonus. And it was one of the happiest periods of Lewis's life.

Narrator: But the cancer returned. Joy and C.S. Lewis were separated by death on July 14, 1960.

Lewis: Oh, God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell, if it's now doomed to crawl back to be sucked back into it. Where is God? What pitiable cant to say, "She will live forever in my memory." Live! That is exactly what she won't do. What's left? A corpse, a memory, a ghost. Three more ways of spelling the word 'dead'!

Narrator: A Grief Observed is Lewis's description of the journey he took after Joy's death, a portrait of grief and a struggle with his own faith.

Lewis: 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 consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand. The conclusion is not "So there's no God, after all" but "So this is what God is really like, the Cosmic Sadist. The spiteful imbecile?"

Peter Kreeft: He lashes out at God and he says, "How can you expect us to live this way?" Very much like Job. Very honestly, he doesn't just argue. He emotes, the whole of his being is there, in front of God, it's a deep trust in God that allows him to give vent to his distrust.

Lewis: From the rational point of view what grounds has Helen's death given me for doubting all that I believe? Should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn't for a man whose faith had been real faith. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow it is because it was a house of cards. Indeed, it's likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a 'restoration of faith', will turn out to be only one more house of cards.

Something quite unexpected has happened, it came this morning early. Suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned Helen least, I remembered her best. Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off — waves or windblown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he's not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Lord, are these your real terms? Can I meet Helen again only if I learn to love you so much I don't care whether I meet her or not? When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of "no answer." It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent gaze. As though he shook his head, like, "Peace, child, you don't understand." How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back. She said, not to me, but to the chaplain, "I am at peace with God." She smiled. But not at me.

Narrator: Two years after his wife's death, C.S. Lewis began to have problems with his heart. He fell into a long coma, and then unexpectedly recovered.

Lewis: It would have been a luxuriously easy passage and one almost regrets having the door shut in one's face. To be brought back to life and have all one's dying to do again was rather hard.

I would like everything to be immemorial — to have the same old horizons, the same garden, the same smells and sounds, always there, changeless. Autumn is really the best of the seasons: and I'm not sure that old age isn't the best part of life. But of course, like autumn, it doesn't last.

Narrator: Clive Staples Lewis died three years after his wife in 1963.

Lewis: Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you. What are you afraid of? Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret?