As November draws near I find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis; Lewis was born November 29, 1898 and died November 22, 1963. His death didn’t draw much media attention because November 22, 1963 was also the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
I am on the third (and final) volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis; this has been quite the multi-year journey and well worth the trip. I put this volume aside for a few months and recently took it up again and am now moving toward its conclusion; since I still have 553 pages to go I expect that I’ll be reading the letters into 2012. When I read books I love I tend to slow the pace towards the end, and when I read a multi-volume biography or a collection of letters I am especially prone to do this because I don’t want it to end – it’s like savoring the last bite of a favorite food.
Right now I’m up to October 21, 1959 and as I read the letters I’m keenly aware that I know something Lewis doesn’t yet know, I know that his wife will soon die of cancer. Every time I turn the page to read another letter I wonder if it will be a letter in which he writes that the cancer is back – I don’t want to read that letter.
Here’s an excerpt from a letter to Bernard Acworth, dated September 18, 1959:
About my (very happy) marriage, do you know the story? I married my wife at her bedside in hospital when she was to all appearances certainly dying of cancer in the bones. The young priest who married us…laid his hands on her and said the prayers for the sick. Then – it was unbelievable – nature went into reverse. The totally disintegrated femur slowly rebuilt itself. Now (2 years later) except that she limps, she is living a normal life, gardening, shooting, shopping, and walking. The doctors themselves used – tho’ not so seriously as we would, perhaps – the word ‘miraculous’. May we have your prayers? For of course the sword of Damocles always hangs over our heads.
In addition to Lewis’s letters I’m also reading the letters of another person, whose name I will not mention. This other person is intellectually sharp, a great writer, and a person whose public writings (as opposed to the letters) I enjoy. Like Lewis, this other person writes in different genres. The contrast in humility between Lewis and this other person is great. When Lewis was young he took himself quite seriously; he was an arrogant prig, as he would admit after he came to know Jesus Christ. The other writer takes himself/herself far too seriously, defending prerogatives at times with rapier thrusts that could only evoke misunderstanding and resentment in the recipients of letters.
I can make excuses for this other writer; I don’t know if the excuses are valid or not, but I can point to events in this other writer’s life that may have nurtured the “edge” manifested in the letters; but Lewis also had tragedy and disappointment in his life, yet his humility seems to deepen with passing years. Lewis can be self-deprecating, this other writer is not. Perhaps things will change with this other writer for there are still two more volumes of letters to read before the writer’s death, if so I’ll tell you what I find.
Lewis writes to the high and low, to adults and children, to friends and strangers. There is courtesy and congeniality and encouragement in his correspondence…and I think perhaps above all…there is humility.