A Grief Observed

I just finished reading “A Grief Observed”, which CS Lewis wrote after his wife Joy Davidson’s death from cancer. The book is unfailingly honest as Lewis struggles to regain his spiritual bearings after his loss. I wanted to read it because I find it difficult to relate to idealised, pain-free lives, lives lived seemingly without fear or struggle. Though I am a faithful believer in Christ, I suffer from anxiety at times. Prayer helps, as does spiritual reading, but there are times when life’s journey is seemingly one dark struggle after another. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way sometimes, so I wanted to share some of the book’s more beautiful passages with people reading this blog.

Pages 44 to 47 chart Lewis’s slow awakening from his long night of grief, as he says:

Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. And I’d had a very tiring but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder night’s sleep; and after ten days of low-hung grey skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best…It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.

Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, “He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,” when the truth was, “He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.”

…Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain (here Lewis refers to his sense that God deliberately shut the door on his cries for help during his grief), that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead?

…And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

On the other hand, “Knock and it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9 – my reference here from BibleGateway.com). But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also “To him that hath shall be given” (Luke 19:26 – again, my reference here from BibleGateway.com). After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.

For all sorts of mistakes are possible when you are dealing with Him. Long ago, before we were married, H. was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) “at her elbow,” demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in – I know how one puts it off – and faced Him. But the message was, “I want to give you something” and instantly she entered into joy.

A passage on page 48 resonated with me because I recall my husband once referring to me, with touching fondness, as “little brother.” Lewis himself comments about his wife:

Yet there was something of the Amazon, something of Penthesileia and Camilla. And you, as well as I, were glad it should be there. You were glad I should recognise it. Solomon calls his bride Sister. Could a woman be a complete wife unless, for a moment, in one particular mood, a man felt almost inclined to call her Brother?

Then there is Lewis’s faith in God’s divine purpose behind the beautiful complexity of his human creatures:

Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like lilies of the field you might have given us an organisation more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a “spiritual animal.” To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, “Now get on with it. Become a god.”

The final section of Lewis’s book deals with Joy’s death and his assurance that something more remains for all of us. He comments:

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…

He then ends with a phrase that was a mystery to me (I do not speak Italian) until I did some digging on Google:

Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana

According to online sources, this is taken from Dante’s Paradiso XXXI. It means, quite simply and beautifully, “Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.”

Amen to that.

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