On November 22, 1963 C.S. Lewis died one hour after the death of President John F. Kennedy. It was a sad day in human history. One does not know what deeds would have been done had the president lived; that he died so young is a tragedy. C.S. Lewis did not die tragically, but he died young, of renal failure at the age of 64. On the same day, Aldous Huxley, author of the prophetic novel “Brave New World,” also died at age 69. Each of these men has had a lasting influence, but arguably none more than Lewis whose writings have been translated into more than 30 languages and continue to edify millions of people 50 years after his death.
Scientist Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, points to Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” as the source of Collins’ conversion to the Christian faith. Lewis’ works also include the famous “Chronicles of Narnia,” essays on suffering in “The Problem of Pain” and the deeply satirical theological “The Screwtape Letters.” My personal favorite – and the one that I think is his most profound theological work – is “A Grief Observed,” the memoir that he wrote after the death of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman, who died after they were married for only two years. Lewis’ writes through his grief with piercing candor, daring to ask the hardest questions of God and opening his heart to the answers (and non-answers) to those questions. At one point, Lewis describes what it is like for the theological convictions that he uttered with confidence prior to Joy’s death to be overturned by his experience of life-shattering grief. “Reality is the great iconoclast”, he declared, by which he meant that real experience shatters all the illusions, icons and idols that we construct to control our lives and define God. When his beloved died, Lewis’ entered more deeply and honestly into a faith in the inscrutable, wild God who is beyond all sentimentality.
In the Chronicles of Narnia he says of Alsan: “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down – and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Not like a tame lion; our God is wild. Lewis learned this through his experience of grief. He also began to write eloquently about the deep longing that defines human existence; a longing that can only be satisfied by our true eternal home in God. What I find profoundly helpful here is the acceptance that our lives will always be restless and filled with longing. It’s what led Augustine to sigh that well-known prayer: our heart are restless, O Lord, until we find our rest in you. Lewis describes the full implications of that restless longing as an essential part of being fully human, full alive.
The restless longing of our hearts is evoked in everyday experience and it can lure us into the reality of God’s invisible presence. In “Till We Have Faces,” he declared, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most. .. The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing … to find the place where all the beauty came from.” He believed this longing was evoked by such simple experiences as the scent of a flower, a lovely musical tune, a conversation and more. When we mistake the experience as the real thing is when we lose our way. The real thing is always elusive in this life; it is our eternal home in God. The beautiful, the good and the true are the foretaste of what is to come: the eternal weight of glory (the title of another of his books.)
In the season of Advent, we draw most deeply into this longing for our eternal home. In the music, the biblical texts, the prayers and the Sacrament of Holy Communion our hearts are lifted into the remembrance of our eternal home. This longing is a sweet sorrow to which we respond, Come, Lord Jesus, come.
ROY W. HOWARD is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the Outlook book editor.