C.S.Lewis: Atheist to Christian?

Clive Staples Lewis (Public Domain

How excited I was that day back in 1975!

It was while I was studying at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, that I discovered Surprised by Joy, by C.S.Lewis.

It was set for study as one of three spiritual biographies, chosen from what could be classed as  the cream of English Literature.  The others were James Joyce’s  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the Confessions of St Augustine.

I found all three texts quite moving.

It was almost disappointing to me, I am ashamed to say, that St Augustine’s Confessions were not at all what I anticipated.  I expected something like True Confessions,  a magazine  that  teenage girls  hid from their parents in my youth.

But any feelings of being let down  evaporated when I found that they were  an outpouring of the love with which the Lord had captured him, expressed in sincere and very beautiful prayers.  I’ll never tire of his best-known one: “Our hearts are made for Thee alone, O God, and they are restless, ever restless, until they rest in Thee.”

I could  understand that, while most of the Americans in the class shared my love of St Augustine’s Confessions, they  were mystified by James Joyce’s book.  And it was beyond my comprehension that they failed to make anything of C.S.Lewis’s  autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

How I know is that the lecturer asked me to form a discussion group on each book and share with the other students  the meaning,  as I saw it.

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As  for Surprised by Joy, I was rapt in this marvellous book.  It was a first-hand account of  the author’s journey from atheism, in his university days, to belief in God, expressed in the style that is unique to C.S.Lewis.

What makes Lewis’s book so remarkable is his total honesty and willingness to shed all masks that were holding him to his atheism.  He made no secret of the fact that he simply did not want to find God; he had a burning desire to run away from where his heart was leading him.

This was because of the inexplicable joy that almost exploded in his young heart whenever he read the Nordic myths.   He was puzzled, and even disturbed.  What could explain the wonder, the magic even, of these feelings of sheer delight  that welled up within him whenever he read these stories from the north?  It seemed that some Power within him, that alone, could explain the exaltation of spirit that he experienced.

He tried his best to argue his way out of it, using all the trivial excuses he could muster. But he had to admit that this experience of  Joy so thrilled his whole being,  it  was so intense and it always  related to  something so good and so high up, that it could not be explained with words. These “stabs of joy” throughout his life continued to point to some powerful reality  possessing his soul.

Lewis was also influenced by other believers.

The leading one was Tolkein, a Christian,  who shared with Lewis his love of myths, and who gave the world The Lord of the Rings.

The other was G.K.Chesterton.  This literary genius of the 19th century astonished the world when he joined the Catholic Church.  He records his religious experiences in The Everlasting Man, a book that had a strong influence on Lewis.

However, the aim of  C.S. Lewis in writing Surprised by Joy  seems to be not so much to give a detailed account of his life or to tell of these religious contacts; rather it is  to identify and describe the events surrounding his accidental discovery of, and consequent search for, that phenomenon he labelled Joy. This is his best  translation of the idea of the German word for longing.

All the time, as we read, we sense God’s presence bearing down on him, step by step, like a great weight, until he realises that there is no escape.

This is his description  of the lead-up to this  final  struggle in Surprised by Joy:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”.

C.S.Lewis dragged into belief (Martin Nolan OSA)

What a powerful description of his last struggle:  “kicking, struggling, resentful, and  his eyes darting in every direction for a chance to escape,  he is dragged, across the threshold into his complete acceptance of God!”

His words are so reminiscent of  The Hound of Heaven, a poem by Francis Thompson.

Like C.S.Lewis, the author had been fleeing from the Lord for years. He had sought fulfilment in lustful relationships; in astronomy, nature, and science; in ambitious desires; in drugs.   All the time, he was conscious of the:    “following  Feet,  And a Voice above their beat –  ‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’ “

So beautiful are  those moving lines towards the end, where the Lord speaks to the fleeing sinner:

“All that I took from thee I did but take,   Not for thy harms,  

But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.

All that which thy child’s mistakes   Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: 

Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

A wonderful sequel is what happened in his future life.  It was as though the title of his book grew out of a premonition he had received. Other commentators seem to consider it merely another incident in the life of Lewis.

I don’t agree – I tend to see it as an amazing coincidence, bordering on the miraculous.

It was after his novel was  published and it had become a world bestseller, that C.S.Lewis was surprised again by an altogether different type of Joy.

It was his meeting with his great admirer, the American divorcee, Joy Gresham, separated from her alcoholic and abusive husband.

With Clive Staples Lewis, she fell deeply in love.  Already she loved his books; now she loved the author.

His  principles opposed divorce.  However, he did go through a civil form of marriage with her so that she could obtain a green card, enabling her to live in England, away from her home in the USA..

Then Joy contracted bone cancer and was obviously dying.   This caused a change of heart – where love  surpasses law.   He went against those earlier  principles and  married  her, legally adopting her two young sons, David and Douglas.  He  saw how ill she was, and how much she needed his complete support, in a full expression of his love.

His bachelor brother, nicknamed Warnie, wrote about Lewis (using  his nickname, Jack):  “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met… who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun”.

The movie, entitled Shadowlands, tells this heart-rending story. If any reader has not seen it, I strongly recommend it to you.

I have continued to love this author.  In future years, when I ran the seminary library in Papua New Guinea, I filled a number of shelves with his books.

One was to help those who are  bereaved to deal with sorrow in their lives.  It is called : The Problem of Pain.

Then came the tragic moment when Joy died.  All the words he had ever preached about suffering, all the words he had ever written, they were now so empty.

The loss of Joy shattered everything he had ever believed or taught – his heart was broken.

After a long period of deep grief, he finally set to work to write another book about pain.

This time, the words were short, simple; words that  reached right into the depths of his own suffering; words, admitting that all his former  ideals about  how to cope with grief, those words were meaningless for one who had lost the idol of his being, the one who had become his whole raison d’être.

He called  his second book: A Pain Observed.   In this small book,  Lewis  worries that he will  be able to believe only in a “Cosmic Sadist,” in an evil God, the one who took from him Joy, the great love of his life.

Lewis wrestles with this question throughout the book.

Grief is not overcome in the course of the book, but Lewis acknowledges that grief is a process and not a state. As he works though his grief, he  finally ceases to look at God as a sadist and sees purpose in the suffering.

He even feels the presence of God and of his wife in a renewed way, and it brings him some measure of peace. Towards the end of the book, in reference to his wife’s death, he says: “It has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one”.

But he goes on to write later:

“Still, there are two enormous gains. Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to Joy, it no longer meets that vacuum.

My jottings in this book, A Grief Observed, show something of a slow  change.  It was like the warming of a room, or of the coming of daylight. When you first notice them, they have already been coming  for some time.

Because of his candid account of his grief and the doubts he voices, some of his admirers found it troubling. They couldn’t believe that this Christian writer, one they had grown to know and love, could be so close to despair.

Yet, when T.S. Eliot read the manuscript, he found the book intensely moving.

I, too, found it one of the most moving, and most sincere,  books I have ever read.

Have you felt the joy of meeting a football fan, overseas,  who supports the same team as you?  That’s how I felt the day I met Father (now Bishop) Bill Fey, a Franciscan priest in Papua New Guinea.  Like me, he  also really likes C.S. Lewis.  What is more, he gave me a cassette tape where Lewis  himself is reading a part of his own writings.

A sad ending, though!  I had to leave PNG in something of a hurry.  And I had no time to collect my treasures.  Hence that gem is still at the seminary in Fatima.

A delightful little touch came to me some years ago..  My great-niece, Catherine, from Jakarta, occasionally sends me e-mails.  In  one, written when she was eight years old, she tells me that one of her favourite books is Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

This story grows out of the first joy that Lewis derived from his boyish reading of the Nordic myths. He uses these, after his conversion to Christianity, as a basis for his Narnia series.

This particular one, loved by Catherine, gives a powerful image of Jesus, the saviour, who triumphs over evil and brings freedom to his followers.

This strongly Christian theme  is evident in the movie, as well in the book, and in all the writings of this very popular author, one of my favourites!


 

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