On October 3, 1963 Lewis writes to Sister Madeleva:
“I will direct Fabers to send you a copy of the little book, but it may shock your pupils. It is ‘A Grief Observed’ from day to day in all its rawness and sinful reactions and follies. It ends with faith but raises all the blackest doubts en route.
“Since my wife’s death I have been very ill myself…but nella sua voluntade e nostra pace.” [Dante, Paradise, III.85: ‘In His will is our peace’].
[All excerpts from letters taken from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper editor, Harper San Francisco.]
Readers of A Grief Observed and students of Lewis have different takes on the book and on Lewis’s experience as he observed and recorded his grief; in this letter Lewis gives us a few words of his own on the matter.
The other morning at church I had a moment when, approaching the expansive foyer filled with people talking with each other, I wondered if the manner of general conversation was natural and relaxed or formal and religious. When we gather on Sundays are we ourselves or are we in character? I’m sure the answer is complex and mixed, we don’t really know ourselves anymore than we really know other people – only God really knows us – and inordinate introspective leads to narcissism; Lewis recognized this and trusted God to deal with our innards. But I ask the question in this post because if Lewis were concerned about saying the right religious things and acting the right religious way I don’t think he would have written A Grief Observed.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in groups of professing Christians and have heard, “You shouldn’t think like that,” or “You shouldn’t feel like that.” The people making such comments might as well say, “Wait here, hold on, you’re getting out of ‘character’, you’re not playing the role the way it was written to be played.”
What would these people have said to Paul had they heard him say in 2 Corinthians that he despaired even of life?
I have a dear friend who laments the fact that pastors are typically not open with each other; holding their cards close to the vest. I’ve thought about his concern a lot over the past few months, and again I’m sure the reasons for this behavior are many and complex – but should things be this way? Paul was transparent not just with his coworkers, but with his various “flocks” beyond what most contemporary church leaders would consider appropriate for themselves or colleagues. What has happened to bring us to this place of opaque relationships?
There is a line between sharing our burdens and experiences with one another and being the equivalent of a talk-show guest who displays all the nitty-gritty of life for all to see and to garner attention – but again, better to let the Lord sort out where the line is for surely the line is relative to the person and situation.
A few years ago I heard what I consider to be an entirely appropriate exclamation “damn!” in church. The context was the conclusion of a Sunday morning service which was the last Sunday morning for a local church prior to a significant number of people leaving to form a new church as a result of congregational conflict. As is often the case, the process was ugly and hurtful. This was also the pastor’s last Sunday at this location.
After the service a woman went up to a grandmother and said, “Well, it’s over, the pastor is leaving, we can have a new start new Sunday and we’ll all be better off.” [Or words to that effect]. The grandma, her teenage granddaughter standing by her side, reacted thusly, “Well damn!” This was a woman who was a picture of Southern gentility. The granddaughter said with surprise, “Grandma!” And the other woman was taken aback – but I don’t know that there could have been a better response.
It was a response to a professing Christian gloating over conflict in the church, thinking that things had gone her way – she was so self-absorbed that she didn’t even know that this grandma and her family were leaving the church – she just assumed that with the pastor gone everyone would stay.
While I’m not advocating the normative use of “damn!” in our vocabulary, nor suggesting we include it in our responsive readings or liturgy, I do think it was a natural and appropriate response in this context – and for sure grandma was not acting a part when she uttered the exclamation.
There is a lot we could learn from each other if we could trust each other; and there is a lot we could give to each other if we knew the burdens and temptations of one another. Lewis was a private person, he was even what we would consider private in his friendships; it was a departure for him to write A Grief Observed, to share his doubts as well as to share his faith in Christ. How quickly we forget the words of Christ to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness,” and Paul’s response, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me,”2 Corinthians 12:9.
As Dante wrote, “In His will is our peace.”