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“I will not, if I can help it, shin up either the feathery or the prickly tree. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forbode. But the other, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’” — C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (embedded quote from Julian of Norwich)
A couple of weeks ago, I watched, for the umpteenth time, one of my favorite movies. It’s Shadowlands, the somewhat fictionalized account of C.S. Lewis’s romance with, and marriage to, Joy Davidman Gresham, the divorced, former Communist, Jewish then atheist then Christian, American poet he married “in a matter of friendship and expediency,” (so that she could stay in the UK, sort of a British version of a “green card” marriage in the US) in April 1956, and then again, in the eyes of God, and for real, in March 1957.
By that time, Joy had been diagnosed with cancer, and the marriage took place at her hospital bedside. By that time, in addition to the marriage being “for real,” both of them had realized that the relationship was “for real,” as well.
Joy’s next three years were largely cancer-free, but she suffered a relapse in 1960, and in July of that year, after suffering the torments of the “treatments” of the time, she died at home, surrounded by her devoted husband and her two sons from her earlier marriage to American author William Gresham.
I love this movie. I know it’s romanticized and oversimplified, but the fine, nuanced performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger are just wonderful. The young actor who plays Douglas Gresham (only one son is featured in the film) is also very good. Much of it was filmed in my home territory of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, and it’s beautiful and speaks of home to me. And, I think its treatment of its subjects is sensitive and real.
A day or two after seeing the film again, I decided to tackle A Grief Observed. This is one of Lewis’s last works (published in 1961; he died two years later), and I recently described it to a friend as what happens when all of C.S. Lewis’s marvelous intellectual ideas “collide with reality.” The grief. The pain. The healing. The place of God in our lives.
It’s a series of reflections on the death of a beloved wife. Some have speculated that Lewis wasn’t really “feeling” what’s described in the book (which is quite short), but that he was imagining this grief and writing it to “help,” others through the process as an intellectual exercise. I disagree, mostly for two reasons.
First, he initially published the book under a pseudonym, that of “N.W. Clerk,”* and I’m not sure what the point of that would be of that sort of posturing, unless he wanted to separate his academic self from his grief-stricken self.
Second (and this is why I’m glad I waited so long to read this, until I had (considerable) experience of both grief and joy (lower case “J”), myself. I recognize such passion, such rawness, such feeling in what he writes, about both his physical and spiritual connection to “H” (the only name he gives to his wife, and the initial for her first name, which she didn’t use — Helen), that I can’t quite believe it’s not coming from his heart.
I’ve always admired C.S. Lewis. His fiction. His non-fiction. His clear writing. His humanity. His common sense. His morality. But I’ve always (pace, serious Lewis devotees) thought of him as an academic, and of his non-fiction work especially, as a bit dry.
This little book rocked my world.
I highly recommend it.
* Possibly a pun on the Old English phrase for “I know not what author (or scholar),” “Nat Whilk (sometimes “Hwilc“) Clerc.” Sorry. I know this is probably TMI. So, sue me.