Lewis and Me
Through the Years with C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I had heard of Lewis (his book The Allegory of Love had been on my college reading list, but I had not read it.) I bought Screwtape and began to read.
Right away I loved the impish humor and brilliant style, but the content baffled me. Lewis was the first modern writer who challenged me about Christian faith. He knocked me off my pins. I was an inquirer then—a seeker in today’s parlance. Yet up to that point, what I had read on faith was rather safe and traditional. Lewis, by contrast, stunned me. He seemed to believe in an invisible realm that I would have considered medieval. (Hence, unacceptable.) Lewis helped me span the chasm of the Enlightenment and see Christianity as a religion for the modern world.
The Screwtape Letters began to show me there really is a moral life, and a realm in which our actions count. Lewis’s way of portraying temptation was funny; but it fit perfectly with my own experience. I hardly knew anything then about Christian teaching on virtue.Such terms as temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude would have struck me as hopelessly out of date. Yet as a single woman in New York City, I was constantly confronted with questions about righteous living. Suddenly, I saw a clear light shining. Virtue is real and possible. It can be practiced. It takes courage. You have to gird yourself for it. For the first time I set aside that witty saying of Oscar Wilde’s: “I can resist anything except temptation.”
As I continued to read Lewis—whatever I could get my hands on—he completely re-configured the world for me. The books with greatest impact were Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and The Four Loves. Mind you, I read everything, but those books counted most with me.
Christianity is a collection of broadcast talks Lewis gave during World War
II. It covers a wide range of Christian subjects, everything from the Trinity to
personal transformation. To me, it had the impact a catechism ought to have. It
painted a Christian worldview in ways that were vivid and concrete. I saw how
grace works without fusty theological language.
Surprised by Joy was equally effective. I followed the young Lewis raising all the great questions about the nature of existence and the nature of God. I noticed how he fought against the religious faith of his childhood, until he could somehow re-interpret it in his own terms. I found out how Lewis’s amazing intellectual circle at Oxford helped him draw closer to God, to imagine God, to submit to God, till he came at last with great vigor into authentic Christian faith. I was really struck by all of this, since I needed God as much as Lewis did; but I was too proud to accept God out of sentiment or respect for my elders.
Some twists in his story echoed my own latent spirituality. When, for example, Lewis did not believe in God, he was angry at God for not existing. He was equally angry at God for making a world.
ways reminiscent of Lewis, I too accepted Jesus Christ and his Church. After I
had read just about everything else Lewis wrote—the Space Trilogy, the
Narnia stories, The Abolition of Man, and much more—I moved on
to other writers and set Lewis aside.
Ten years later, I had a second encounter with Lewis. I think of that time as my second conversion. In my middle thirties (midlife, perhaps?) I took up the spiritual life in earnest. This was more than church going. It was a life of regular, dedicated prayer and reflection. C.S. Lewis was my mentor once again.
My husband William Griffin, an editor at Macmillan, had begun to reissue many Lewis works for American readers and shape some new titles, as well, by Lewis scholars and commentators. Our interest in Lewis led us to join the New York C.S. Lewis Society. I also had begun to write a book about conversion in which Lewis figured quite prominently.
It was a point in my life when I was deciding what to do with myself (people do this in their thirties, or maybe once a decade). And so I resolved to do just what Lewis did.
While holding a very demanding day job (as an English professor at Oxford), he had written a vast number of influential books. (I did not quit my day job. And I started writing books.)
had reveled in Christian friendship. It was one of his joys. In a circle called
the Inklings, he read aloud his own works-in-progress and encouraged other
gifted writers (Tolkien and Charles Williams come to mind). Lewis also pursued
friendship by writing and receiving letters. Dorothy L. Sayers and Evelyn
Underhill were just two of his correspondents. Inspired by this, I sought out
friendships and brushed up my letter-writing.
Lewis lived the Christian life fully, including prayer, both petitionary and contemplative. I think his prayer was mystical, though Lewis would not have claimed such eminence. Like Lewis, I gave myself to the life of prayer.
When he finally experienced married love his joy deepened. After his wife died, Lewis lived through severe suffering that challenged his faith. But ultimately he grew even more faithful, and many people have been comforted and enlightened by the book written about his pain: A Grief Observed. My own path in marriage and family life has been different; but he taught me to cherish the ones I love.
Though I never met Lewis, I find it easy to imagine him in the middle of things, in conversation with friends, in argument with foes, on long brisk walks, drinking large cups of tea or brimming pints of English brew.
I have visited his home, "The Kilns," in Headington Quarry, near Oxford. I have been in the room where he died. I have seen his death certificate, displayed on a table. I have been to the churchyard and visited his grave.
But to me, C.S. Lewis is very much alive. I am often in conversation with him. And I bless him for his joyful influence on my life.
Copyright ©2005 Emilie Griffin