A 'Saints for our Day' Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
CS Lewis - why his writing and life inspire the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral
When I was asked to preach about someone who inspired my Christian faith, I instinctively thought of Clive Staples Lewis. I then had to stop and think: why him? Someone both imaginative and conservative, with many contradictions and limitations; someone so rooted in the Oxford and Cambridge culture either side of the Second World War that he remarked to a visitor shortly before his death in 1963 that he expected to be forgotten within five years, a view endorsed by others at the time.
Why wasn’t he forgotten – and why choose him? Like all those who influence us, I guess, the answer is that his story and mine make a connection.
So what’s Lewis’s story, and how does it connect with mine – and maybe yours?
There’s the outside and the inside. The external story is that he was born in Northern Ireland in 1898, second son of a lawyer, with an older brother, and grew up with books and not many social contacts. His mother died when he was nine; two weeks later his father sent him away to join his brother at a boarding school north of London, which he hated. After a difficult schooling he managed to gain entry to Oxford University and then spent two years in the Army, being wounded on the front line in France, before spending 35 years at Oxford as student and teacher of English language and literature.
While at Oxford he wrote some books and belonged to a literary group called the Inklings; he also did some speaking during the Second World War which brought him to public attention – he was a gifted lecturer. He was increasingly regarded as too Christian and old-fashioned at Oxford and was not promoted, so became a professor at Cambridge in 1954 while keeping his house with his brother in Oxford. Although appearing a patriarchal crusty bachelor, he married an American called Joy Davidman in 1956; she died of cancer in 1960, and he died himself three years later.
But there’s a much more complex inner story
Lewis never forgave his father for sending him away. He longed for a lasting reality, for something more real in his life. During the war he made a pact with a friend that if either of them were killed, the other would look after their surviving parent: and Lewis thus began a very complex relationship with his dead friend’s mother Mrs Moore, who was probably both mother and lover, landlady and dependant, and Lewis ended up with Mrs Moore, her daughter, and his alcohol-dependent brother living with him.
Lewis deceived his father and others about the nature of his relationship with her. His world was very male, but he was not homosexual. His longing for something deeper led him to faith in God in 1930 and a growing commitment to Jesus Christ and the Christian way.
He was used by the BBC during the war to broadcast talks about Christian faith which were non-denominational – published with the title ‘Mere Christianity’, speaking as a Christian layman to other Christians and doubters, commending Christian faith to others as he had struggled with it himself.
He became popular in America as a non-denominational Christian, though he remained staunchly Anglican, and was regarded with great suspicion by evangelical Christians: as his latest biographer Alister McGrath writes, "What evangelical would want to be associated with someone who smoked heavily, drank copious quantities of beer, and held views on the Bible, the atonement and purgatory which were out of place in the evangelical community of the 1960s?".
Lewis found Christian apologetics demanding, so nourished his life and faith with more imaginative work including the famous Narnia series of books for children – remarkable in that he had no children himself. He furtively married Joy Davidman, an intellectually lively and rather manipulative American divorcée with two children who was a fan of his, in order to enable her to stay in Britain, but came to love her deeply and mourn her death before his own.
And what’s the connection with Lewis for me?
There are two particular strands. The first is in his Christian writings, and how they’ve met me at different points in my journey of faith. I began as a new Christian with Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, where a senior demon writes to a junior about how to tempt a possible Christian convert. I found in Mere Christianity and other books, not only arguments, but also pictures which spoke to mind and soul: who can forget great one-liners like “She's the sort of woman who lives for others - you can tell the others by their hunted expression”?
The Narnia books and his adult fantasy trilogy explored Christian faith through stories in ways which linked with what I’d found in The Lord of the Rings and other books by JRR Tolkien, his fellow Oxford Inkling and Catholic colleague. His 1960 book The Four Loves helped me as a romantic teenager to understand what love truly is. Above all there was that sense of longing running through his writing: his longing for reality, for God, for something which would make sense of the world and of his experience, a true myth, a work of imagination which like poetry can re-enchant our world and light up what we see with a deeper sense of meaning: a longing which I recognise as my own.
But it’s not just Lewis’ writing that speaks
It’s also his life, and what God does with it. Lewis called his early-life autobiography Surprised by Joy, a word-play on his wife’s name in a book which mentioned her not at all. His desire for reality, for joy, for God, went along with a desire for recognition and stability; and yet Lewis kept on being surprising, challenging and being challenged, prepared to take risks and do new things, though often reluctantly, saying one thing and doing another – like the rest of us.
To be an Oxford don writing Christian children’s books and speaking to religious and unreligious audiences about his faith took courage, and damaged his career: but he did it nonetheless. Lewis then, like us now, was in an environment where being a Christian was regarded as being old-fashioned and a mental weakness.
And not only did he have the courage to be prophetic, to speak out about faith: he also allowed his life to be shaped by it.
For me, his last book is his most significant. A Grief Observed was published in 1961, a short uncensored set of notes on his feelings of desolation and doubt following his wife’s death. Unlike the rest of Lewis’ work, it’s intensely personal and emotional and honest – though characteristically he hid its authorship behind a pseudonym. In the book, his rational faith falls apart under the onslaught of suffering, a bereavement which recalls for him the loss of his mother also: and yet he comes through to a deeper, more mature and simpler faith in the God who in Christ takes on our suffering, the God who keeps demolishing our illusions and confronting us with reality.
“All this time” he says of his thoughts, “I may, once more, be building with cards.
And if I am, God will once more knock the building flat. He will knock it down as often as proves necessary."
On my mantelpiece at home there’s an old birthday card which I've kept for years as my motto. It has on it a picture of a man in walking boots with his head down a large hole in the earth of a grassy bank, with the caption: ‘Never stop searching for Wonderland’.
CS Lewis searched and lost and found, and in that shaping of his life he has brought wisdom and joy and wonder to millions of people – not a bad record for a flawed and crusty academic, who nonetheless models for us how, if we seek for God with honesty and imagination, God in Christ will find us and reshape us.
In the refrain which comes at the end of the final book of Narnia, and in company with CS Lewis: “Come farther up and farther in.”