Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Grief Observed review

Tonight I finished reading A Grief Observed, a compilation of C. S. Lewis' journals following the death of his wife, Joy Gresham. The book was first published (interestingly, under a pseudonym) in 1961. It is a short book, only 76 pages of actual text and another twenty of foreword and introduction. But it is a profound, and while not without its problems, an immensely valuable book. Lewis deals as thoroughly as one can with the topic of grieving. His intent was not to write a book on grief - for he had already done that, in The Problem of Pain, some years earlier, and these were but journal entries - but rather to give himself an outlet in which to vent some of the emotion and thought that so overcame him in that difficult period.

Lewis began his journals in the midst of deep grief and with considerable anger at God, questioning quite deeply the goodness of God and fundamentals of our relationship with Him. He ends the book in quite a different place, a very great journey to have occurred only in his heart. (In some sense, I think all the greatest journeys are within our hearts.) Each chapter marks a distinct stage in his grieving. The distinctions between individual entries in his journal are rarely clear; when they are it is because he notes that he wrote the above section an evening before or something similar. In that regard, the writing flows surprisingly well; there is immense continuity throughout the text despite the breaks in his writing.

A good deal of that must be laid at the feet of Lewis' superb prose. As elsewhere in his writing, Lewis demonstrates here - even in his journals - a masterful command of the English language, and not merely of word but of phrase and thought and metaphor. The language he employed often surprised me with its depths of insight and analogy. A few of the more prominent metaphors resonate deeply with me and continue to stir up thought and imagery even having laid the book aside. As I noted above, there is a distinct sense of continuity to the book, and a very clear narrative of Lewis' emotional and spiritual progress throughout the book.

Lewis' spiritual journey here is one to follow and learn from. He began in a very dark place indeed - questioning if God is no more than the Cosmic Sadist (his words) and lashing out in fierce anger at Him. The book's pages open with a deep self-centered-ness. His first reaction to Joy Gresham's passing was - as it would be for most of us, I suspect - not any sort of joy or contentment for her, but deep bereavement and a deep desire to have her back. For a man so deeply passionate about delighting in and enjoying God, this is a striking fact. That he then slowly moves through his pain, dealing with the passion and the intellectual problems and returning more and more to love - of her and of God - is a mark of how deep and securely rooted his faith was.

That he questioned his faith and indeed considered it no more than a house of cards marks how deep his understanding of God's work was and was becoming. For so indeed our faith is: a house of cards, built on the air, until God knocks it down and calls us to build a real house on a real foundation. As Lewis notes, so God does over and over again until we are really built on Christ.

It is worth noting three caveats on my otherwise thoroughgoing endorsement of the book. First, and this may only pertain to my edition of the text, there is a foreword by Madeleine L'Engle. Despite her considerable literary talents - I have thoroughly enjoyed much of her fiction over the years - she is hardly an orthodox Christian. Her introduction, short though it is, is filled with considerable nonsense of the postmodern variety. This is readily enough dismissed or skipped, but I thought it worth mentioning nonetheless.

Second, and more important, is the fact that Lewis himself was not perfectly orthodox. There are hints here, as elsewhere, of his struggle with a sort of universalism. And in a more general sense, as a practicing Anglican, he fell on a rather different view of various questions than we Protestants do. In particular, Lewis' thoughts on purgatory are rather pronounced throughout the book, and though they are never the point, he does spend a fair amount of time reflecting on his reasons for believing purgatory not only to exist but also to be necessary.

Finally, this is a book that requires considerable discernment and conviction. I also believe it may well be an excellent book for people questioning their faith. Lewis grappled very seriously with very difficult questions about the Christian view of the world and of God, and the early chapters are at times difficult to read. His formidable intellect was, for that brief period of time, set in very deep anger at God, and it shows. However, the final state he came to is as encouraging as the early material is discouraging. He thoroughly embraced his faith in Jesus Christ, and speaks clearly and profoundly of the glorious mystery that is belief.

I heartily recommend the book. Go read it. (Just do it discerningly!)

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