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C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: A Study Guide



1. The Author. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the well-known Christian apologist, was born in Ireland to nominal Anglican parents. Unhappy educational experiences contributed to his turn to atheism. But the disciplined thought of a new teacher, a highly moral Scottish atheist, W. T. Kirkpatrick (“The Great Knock”), drilled into him the kind of rigorous thinking that would ultimately lead him back to faith. Surprised by Joy (1955) is the story of his return. The most notable lines in that book are these:

You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. 

His serious religious writing begin to appear in the 1930s. His space trilogy was published at intervals: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945). In 1940 The Problem of Pain was published, his first attempt to deal topically with a theological issue. That theoretical discussion takes on a vivid personal flavor in the writing of A Grief Observed after his wife died a painful death as a result of cancer.

The Screwtape Letters, perhaps his best known work, was first serialized in a religious periodical and then published in book form in 1942. The war years also saw him launch the radio talks that eventually formed the nucleus of Mere Christianity (1952).  Between 1950 and 1955 the seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia appeared, stories that have delighted both children and adults. 

Lewis married Joy Davidman in 1956, becoming the step father to her two boys. Her death in 1960 triggered the writing of A Grief Observed. Lewis himself died in 1963. 

2. Historical Context.  Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, a brilliant Jewish woman 16 years his junior, converted to Christianity, in part, because of Lewis’s writings, brought unexpected happiness into his life. To a friend Lewis wrote: “I never expected to have, in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in the twenties.” That late, brief, and intense happiness is what brings such poignancy to A Grief Observed.

Joy brought her two boys with her to Britain in 1952 to escape a difficult domestic situation. That was when she met Lewis for the first time. Returning to the States to settle divorce and custody issues, she came back to Britain in 1954. After some months, however, her health began to fail. At the same time the Home Office refused to grant her a residence permit.  Lewis agreed to a civil marriage in 1956 simply to keep her from being deported. But with Joy’s health in sharp decline, the two were married in a religious ceremony so that Lewis could bring her to his home conscientiously. They both thought she was coming home to die.

In Lewis’s short essay on petitionary prayer – published originally in Atlantic Monthly, no less – he describes what happened next: “A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray was saying, ‘These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous’” (“The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays [1959], 4).

For three years the two of them reveled in life together. But then the cancer returned with a vengeance. The closing lines of that essay, written a year before her death, foreshadow the anguish that would come in Grief.  Lewis quotes an “experienced” Christian as saying: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.” 

Then in his own words he asks the burning question and offers his answer:

Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, be-[10-11] yond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle (World’s Last Night, 10-11).

When Joy died, Lewis’s brave words melted down into Grief, a composition that simply reproduces the four handwritten journals Lewis wrote in an attempt to work through his pain. Initially published under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, friends began giving the book to Lewis, thinking it might help him.

3. A Short (Illustrated) Outline. Lewis himself simply assigns a Roman numeral to each of the four journal books he used to process his grief. To standardize the many different editions of Grief, I have simply numbered each paragraph of each book successively, adding an Arabic numeral to the Roman numeral assigned to that book by Lewis. 

In the outline that follows, I have selected a title for each of the four books based on a dominant strand or strands in that book. In contrast to Lewis’s novels and narrative compositions where there is plot, or his theoretical compositions which follow a tightly argued logical development, Grief is flow of consciousness. At the beginning of Book IV, Lewis states that he thought he “could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.” But as he journaled, he discovered that sorrow “turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.” Such a “history” could go on indefinitely since every day opens up something new. Thus a stopping point has to be arbitrary. For him, the stopping point was determined by the number of journal books he found in the house: “I will not start buying books for the purpose.”

For each book, I have included key paragraphs that I have found particularly striking. I will comment further on some of these entries in the “Reflection and Analysis” below. It should be noted here that Lewis consistently refers to Joy simply as “H.”

Book I: “The Locked Door” 

I.7 The Empty House. “Meanwhile, 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 yourself and 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 as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might 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 He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” 

I.9 Is God Really Like This? “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

I.11 Absent When We Need Him, Present When We Don’t. “Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent – non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it quite frankly, we don’t ask for Him? 

Book II: “Memories Betrayed; A Cosmic Sadist?”

II.6 Live Forever in my memory? “What pitiable cant to say ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them. Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What’s left? A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost. All mockeries or horrors. Three more ways of spelling the word dead. It was H. I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest.”

II.13 Consolations of Religion. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

II.18 In God’s Hands. “‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the  moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.” 

II.19 God Forgive God. “Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God.’ Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.”

II.26 False Hopes. “What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking; hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”

II.27 Cosmic Sadist? “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again. Is it rational to believe in a bad God? Anyway, in a God so bad as all that? The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?”

II.31 The Drill. “Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.”

III. “A Door No Longer Shut and Bolted”

III.15-19 Cosmic Sadist at Work on H. “H. was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.

“But oh God, tenderly, tenderly. Already month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whilst she still wore it. Is it not yet enough?

“The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed – might grow tired of his vile sport – might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.”

“Either way, we’re for it. 

“What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good. Have they never even been to a dentist?’”

III.25-27 Unbolting the Door. “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. 

“On the other hand ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also ‘To him that hath shall be given.’ After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps you own passion temporarily destroys the capacity. 

“For all sorts of mistakes are possible when you are dealing with Him. Long ago, before we were married, H. was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) ‘at her elbow,’ demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in – I know how one puts it off – and faced Him. But the message was, `I want to give you something’ and instantly she entered into joy.”

IV. “From Locked Door to Mystery.”

IV.3-4 Gradual Coming of Daylight. “Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared. I was wrong to say the stump was recovering from the pain of the amputation. I was deceived because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one.

“Still, there are the two enormous gains – I know myself too well now to call them ‘lasting.’ Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to H., it no longer meets that vacuum – nor all that fuss about my mental image of her. My jottings show something of the process, but not so much as I’d hoped. Perhaps both changes were really not observable. There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.

IV.9 A Sword in God’s Hand. “‘She is in God’s hand.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword. Perhaps the earthly life I shared with her was only part of the tempering. Now perhaps He grasps the hilt; weighs the new weapon; makes lightnings with it in the air. ‘A right Jerusalem blade.’”

IV.10-12 Utterly Mistaken. “One moment last night can be described in similes, otherwise it won’t go into language at all. Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar or dungeon. Then there comes a sound from far off – waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound close at hand – a chuckle of laughter. And if so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound. I’m not mad enough to take such an experience as evidence for anything. It is simply the leaping into imaginative activity of an idea which I would always have theoretically admitted – the idea that I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in. 

“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them– never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? 

“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.’”

IV.14-15. Pictures, Images, Idea of God. “I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle. 

“Images, I must suppose, have their use or they would not have been so popular. (It makes little difference whether they are pictures and statues outside the mind or imaginative constructions within it.) To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images– sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers.”

IV.24 Special Sort of No Answer. “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No Answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

IV.25 Nonsense Questions. “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask– half our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.”

IV.33 Behaving Like Lilies.  “Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’ To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, ‘Now get on with it. Become a god.’”

4. Reflection and Analysis. According to the dates in my book of quotations, my own intense preoccupation with A Grief Observed goes back to March 19-25, 2001. I don’t recall that my interest was triggered by a bereavement. The dates correlate with Spring break of that academic year. But I made note of no other particulars. I do remember being gripped by the intensity with which Lewis grappled with issues of faith.

As I wrote out the quotations by hand, I found that I did not always record them in the order in which they appear in Grief. The first one is from Book IV (quoted above): “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think…” (IV.25) But as I was working through the book, my mind would skip back and forth to memorable lines which I then wrote out in my book of quotes. 

My interest in the skeptical tradition in Scripture (Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms) is deeply rooted, going back to my doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh (1972-74). There I worked closely with a supervising professor who had lost his faith in the course of his academic studies, not because of bereavement, but primarily because InterVarsity Fellowship in Britain refused to budge from its defense of the inerrancy of Scripture.

I have since observed that Lewis’s experience easily reverberates through the souls of those who have experienced any one of a number of personal crises: divorce and separation; loss of employment; tussles with rebellious offspring; moral failure in one’s own life or in the life of a key role model; challenges arising from academic study; confrontation with natural or man-caused disasters; depression –  as well as bereavement.  In short, Grief can be useful in a host of differing situations, any time when God is silent and the wind is shrill (cf. Amy Carmichael).

That same versatility is reflected in other classic grief literature as well. Martin Marty’s A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart (Harper, 1983), for example, was triggered by the death of his wife. That tragedy led him to immerse himself in the psalms, even though he is a church historian by profession. He cites Grief in his introduction, but notes that he had no inclination to replicate that “searing” kind of literature. Yet he notes that in the considerable correspondence triggered by his book, many readers had “sensed” that a bereavement had led to the book, but would then proceed to say that there are crises much worse than death. And they would tell their story.

Finally, I should note that one’s own experience with marriage will yield quite a different reaction to Grief. Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote the preface to a 1989 Harper edition of Grief, noted that her experience of losing a spouse after many long years of a happy marriage, could never be the same as Lewis’s reaction after losing the joys of marriage so quickly when he had tasted its fruits so late in life. She commends Grief, but observes that each will come to its passionate prose with different expectations. 

5. Questions for Spiritual Reflections.

A. To what extent is Lewis’s experience analogous to that found in the Psalms of lament (e.g. Ps. 22 and Ps 88).  Does Jesus’ quotation from Psalm 22 suggest that Jesus, too, suffered in the same way that mortals do?

B. Can questions serve to strengthen faith, not simply destroy it?  How can a believing community find ways to empower the asking of healing questions? 

C. Does Lewis’s pilgrimage from the locked and double-bolted door to one that is open resonate with your experience? How important is it to know that we are not alone in our struggles?  

D. How did Lewis’s interaction with Scripture serve as a source of strength for him?


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