A Summer in the Psalms
“Shadowlands” was the 1993 movie loosely based on the unlikely marriage of Joy Davidman, an American divorcée, to C.S. Lewis of the “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Screwtape Letters” and “Mere Christianity” fame. It starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger (she got an Academy Award nomination for her performance), and it was directed by Sir Richard Attenborough.
I really like this movie. But I like the true story that is behind it even more. As one clever critic put it, “I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I just wish it had been more about C.S. Lewis.” And my criticism of it would be very similar. I just wish the movie had told the whole story of C.S. Lewis.
As it stands, when the closing credits begin to crawl down the screen, the impression that “Shadowlands” leaves you with is that after the untimely death of his wife, C.S. Lewis had a crisis of faith from which he never fully recovered. I’m pretty sure that most people walked out of the theater after this movie thinking that the circumstances of his real life shattered the convictions of his theoretical faith, and that C.S. Lewis then just heroically carried on through the wreckage, a sadder but wiser man. In fact, the death of his wife threw C.S. Lewis into a very real crisis of faith that was in itself a profound act of faith that wound up producing in him an even greater faith.
This will take some explaining.
In 1951 Winston Churchill offered C.S. Lewis the honor of being named a “Commander of the British Empire” in large measure for the service he rendered during the war. His broadcasts on the BBC helped many beleaguered British citizens keep their faith in the darkest of days. Known as “the most reluctant convert,” C.S. Lewis became one of Christianity’s ablest teachers after his adult conversion to Christ when he was 33 years old. He was not a minister. He was not a trained theologian. He was an Oxford professor whose field of expertise was mythology. Logical, literate and articulate, C.S. Lewis’ reasoned defense of the historic teachings of Christianity continue to have great force today. For many people he is the proof positive that you can be both brilliant and a Christian, that it really is possible to love God with all of your mind.
In 1940 C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain. Some people argue that this was his very best book. Early in the movie “Shadowlands” C.S. Lewis is shown on several occasions lecturing on suffering, and the content of what he is saying is taken directly from The Problem of Pain –
Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (93)
In the movie this quote creates the baseline for Lewis’ convictions about suffering. It is an expression of the classical Christian argument for the “redemptive value of suffering,” how God uses pain to alert us to His presence and draw us to Himself out of our great need for Him. The movie gives the impression that this was Lewis’ “stump speech,” the glib and facile words of a man who lived a shielded and pampered existence in an ivory tower where everybody smoked a pipe, drank sweet sherry and talked endlessly about their pet theories in sophisticated abstraction. In fact, C.S. Lewis grew up a virtual orphan, was physically and emotionally abused by a brutal schoolmaster when he was a child and fought in the trenches of WW I long before he became a professor and began to write his books. The accusation that what he believed about suffering was all just theory without any of the substance of real life is a dog that won’t hunt.
After the arrival of Joy Davidman in his life, their marriage, her cancer and eventual death, “Shadowlands” shows C.S. Lewis at a faculty reception during which, in a burst of anguish born of his great loss, in response to an innocent comment from a colleague about trusting God in the mystery of our sufferings, C.S. Lewis virtually denied the existence of God, or at least, named God to be a monster, if He was there at all. It is a shocking statement from this man who had become the public voice of intelligent Christianity for so many in the middle of the 20th century. And what cannot be denied is that he actually said it! In fact, he wrote a book about it, A Grief Observed, in 1961. This quote gives you a pretty good feel for what the book says –
Where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember to turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might even be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is God so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (4-5)
A statement like this one (and A Grief Observed is chock full of them) sounds like a repudiation of faith, a direct rejection of belief, an abandonment of a previously held conviction. Lining up this quote with the earlier quote from The Problem of Pain could easily lead one to the conclusion that C.S. Lewis discarded what he had previously affirmed, that his faith in God became a casualty in the experience of the death of his wife. And this is certainly the impression that the movie “Shadowlands” leaves you with. But facts are “stubborn things,” as they say, and the fact is that C.S. Lewis didn’t lose his faith in the storm of his grief.
His very last book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, was published in 1963 right after his death (he died the very same day that President Kennedy was assassinated – November 22, 1963). This was the book that was the immediate follow-up to A Grief Observed, and it describes the outcome of the storm that the death of his wife created in his heart. The subtext of this book about prayer is the question of suffering. The problem of pain weaves in and out of it throughout, and where C.S. Lewis found his final consolation was in what he described as the beginning of Christ’s Passion – “the first move so to speak” (42) – His time of anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
C.S. Lewis drew real strength from the example of Jesus Christ struggling with the prospect of His own suffering in prayer on the night before He died. His “preceding anxiety” in Gethsemane (43), as he called it, was the place of His strengthening encounter. It was in the storm that He received His help – what Luke described as the drawing near of a strengthening or comforting angel (22:43). Commenting on this detail of the story, C.S. Lewis wrote –
At the end… we are told that an angel appeared “comforting” Him… But “strengthening” is more the word. May not the strengthening have consisted in the renewed certainty – the cold comfort this – that the thing must be endured and therefore could be? (42)
This is a statement of realism and promise. There are things that we are going to have to face and endure in this life. This is what it means to be human, C.S. Lewis explained. “Ropes are going to break when we seize them. Doors are going to get slammed shut when we reach them” (43). Christianity does not offer us an escape from such realities. What it does promise us is the assurance that we will never be alone in these moments, or taken beyond the reach of God’s love by them. We will not only find the companionship of fellow strugglers on this road of our shared suffering, we will also find ourselves in the very companionship of the Master Himself (44). This is not some “untrodden path,” it is instead “the main road” (44). This is what Christ’s experience of anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane offers us. It’s an example of the meaning of “Emmanuel,” a picture of how “God is with us.”
The only place where Christ’s experience of anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane gets referenced outside of the Gospel narratives is in the book of Hebrews –
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (5:7-8)
This connects with the central thesis of the book of Hebrew’s presentation of Jesus Christ –
For this reason he had to be made like them,] fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (2:17-18)
And this was C.S. Lewis’ final resolution to the problem of pain: not that we will be granted some kind of imagined immunity from it just because we are believers, but rather, that there will be an experience of the companionship of the Master alongside us when we suffer, strengthening us. And this is because Jesus Christ is no stranger to it. He has faced it all Himself. It has already tested Him in every way. In His confrontation with the darkness that threatens us all on the cross, and then in His triumph over it when He got up out of that borrowed tomb on the third day, our suffering in this world is given meaning and finds its resolution. And anguished prayer, what A Grief Observed might best be understood to be an expression of in C.S. Lewis’ life, is they key. Rather than being an abdication of his faith, the anguished prayer that is A Grief Observed might just be C.S. Lewis’ faith’s most powerful affirmation.
The Bible’s Psalms of Lament are examples of this kind of anguished prayer, and as we learn how to make them part of the vocabulary of our own relationship with God, we will find ourselves heading out into the depths of the spiritual life where its greatest gifts are waiting to be discovered. DBS+