Friday, January 10, 2014

C.S. Lewis Memorial Service

            When I arrived at the Abbey for the memorial service a half hour early, they were already running low on seats.  I was disappointed to see that the best seats, in view of the altar, were already taken, but a helpful cleric advised me to select a seat from the left.  To my surprise and delight, I was literally a few feet away from the memorial itself.

            After the first hymn, we all sat, waiting for the service to begin.  The silence was broken by C.S. Lewis’ voice himself, booming throughout the church.  They were playing an excerpt of one of his remaining BBC broadcasts and the sound of Lewis’ deep voice, fifty years after his death, sent shivers down my spine. 

            “At the beginning of these talks I said there were Personalities in God. Well, I go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. I mean, no full, complete personalities. It’s only when you allow yourself to be drawn into His life that you turn into a true person. But, on the other hand, it’s just no good at all going to Christ for the sake of developing a fuller personality. As long as that’s what you’re bothering about, you haven’t begun. Because the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only if you’re looking for something else. That holds, you know, even for earthly matters. Even in literature or art, no man who cares about originality will ever be original. It’s the man who’s only thinking about doing a good job or telling the truth who becomes really original, and doesn’t notice it. Even in social life you never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking what sort of impression you make. That principle runs all through life from the top to the bottom. Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Look for Christ and you will get Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.”

            It’s hard to describe how it felt to hear Lewis’ voice, fifty years from his death.  But his words, like so much of his work, still rang true and was perfectly relevant for our era.  In a world where independence and individuality are valued as the cardinal virtues, ‘giving up ourselves’ is about an appealing prospect as it was in Lewis’ age. 

            Dr. Francis Warner, C.S. Lewis’ last pupil, continued the service by reading a passage from Isaiah:

“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35:1-7;10

            The choir then sang a beautiful rendition of Psalm 19, giving us leave to meditate on words of Isaiah.  There was Narnian imagery in every word—the ‘habitation of dragons’ bursting forth with reeds and rushes brought to mind Eustace’s redemption, coming ‘to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads’ marked of any Narnian celebration or feast.  Or perhaps, it wasn’t the passage that brought Narnia to mind, but Narnia bringing Isaiah to mind.

            After the psalm, Professor Helen Cooper, the current Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge (the chair held by Lewis from 1954-1963) read the concluding passage from 2 Corinthians.

            “We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this reassure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body of the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:5-END

            Once again, there were echoes of Lewis throughout the passage, selections he must have thought of while writing The Weight of Glory.  Lewis famously urged us to look beyond reality, to stir our hearts towards eternal joy.  The passage was a wonderful reminder of how Lewis was a servant of God firstly, that all of his clever words and thoughts were reflections of God foremost.  The good in Lewis was the God in him. 

             After another beautiful motet by the choir, (singing Psalm 42:1-3) Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis, stepped to the podium.  His own voice boomed throughout Westminster Abbey, reminiscent of his stepfather.  Gresham read the final lines of The Last Battle.

“’Further up and further in!’ roared the Unicorn, and no one held back…And soon they found themselves all walking together—and a great, bright procession it was—up towards mountains higher than you could see in this world even if they were there to be seen. But there was no snow on those mountains: there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going up forever. And the land they were walking on grew narrower all the time, with a deep valley on each side: and across that valley the land which was the real England grew nearer and nearer.

“The light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-coloured cliffs led up in front of them like a giant’s staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty…

“Aslan turned to them and said: ‘You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.’ Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And that you have sent us back into our own world so often.’ ‘No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’ Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them. ‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’

“And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”—The Last Battle

            If any in the congregation managed to not tear up, they did far better than me.  Dr. Jeanette Sears (one of the panelists at the conference), in her own blogpost covering the proceedings, paraphrased Ngaio Marsh’s opening to her book The False Scent, “But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”  My own tears were not for the fact that Lewis was gone, but simply because he was where he was meant to be, our true home.  And of course, for that gentle stirring, that cold longing Lewis wrote so often about, for my own fated joy. 

            Not very far from my own seat, the dedication of the memorial proceeded.  Dr. Michael Ward, Reverend Dr. John Hall (Dean of Westminster), and Walter Hooper, (Trustee and Literary Advisor to the Lewis Estate) officiated the dedication, with Dr. Ward giving over the memorial to the Dean’s custody, thanking God for the work of C.S. Lewis.  Walter Hooper lay flowers upon the memorial stone and a hymn was struck up. 

            The memorial address was given by the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Williams (also the Lord Williams of Oystermouth) on Lewis’ love and defense of language, as well as what it means to be human.  Finally, as was fitting, considering my own tears, the choir sang Paul Mealor’s arrangement of Lewis’ poem “Love’s as Warm as Tears.”

Love’s as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Haystacks afloat,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.

Love’s as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts—infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.

Love’s as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song hung in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering ‘Dare! Dare!’
To sap, to blood,
Telling ‘Ease, safety, rest,
Are good; not best.’

Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of one
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.

            The service ended with prayers for praise for Lewis’ academics, his Christian vocation, his vision and creativity, along with prayers for those who were inspired him.  I had a train to catch to Oxford (where I would pay my respects at his grave), but I made sure to snap a picture of Lewis’ memorial stone, emblazoned with the quote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  For a moment, I stood, absorbing the moment—at long last, C.S. Lewis was being honored in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.  It had been 50 years since his death.  And I was blessed enough to be present for this. 
Thanking God, I turned towards the exit.  I had a train to catch. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

“Telling the Truth Through Imaginative Fiction”

            Dr. Malcolm Guite was passionate and engaging.  He lacked the crisp, precise speech McGrath had presented, but his lecture was far more organic and personable.  At one point during the lecture, in his zeal, Guite knocked over his glass of water—but the mild distraction did not halt his speech once.  He made a joke about the “cup runneth over” and carried on. 

            Guite began his lecture by quoting a poem C.S. Lewis had written before his conversion.  His American clerk, Walter Hooper, had posthumously entitled the poem, “Reason”, and it was this poem that fluidly connected both McGrath and Guite’s lectures. 

Set on the soul’s acropolis the reason stands
A virgin, arm’d, commercing with celestial light,
And he who sins against her has defiled his own
Virginity: no cleansing makes his garment white;
So clear is reason. But how dark, imagining,
Warm, dark, obscure and infinite, daughter of Night:
Dark is her brow, the beauty of her eyes with sleep
Is loaded, and her pains are long, and her delight.
Tempt not Athene. Wound not in her fertile pains
Demeter, nor rebel against her mother-right.
Oh who will reconcile in me both maid and mother,
Who make in me a cocord of the depth and hight?
Who make imagination’s dim exploring touch
Ever report the same as intellectual sight?
Then could I truly say, and not deceive,
Then wholly say, that I believe.

            Athene is representative of Reason, the goddess Lewis could openly profess to venerate, while Demeter symbolized the allure and warmth of imagination.  In Guite’s words, “Basically, Lewis was saying, ‘My problem is that I can’t get my inner goddesses together!’” 

            Through a Christian lens, it seems an obvious and poignant foreshadowing of ‘who will reconcile in me both maid and mother’.  Guite agreed with McGrath, that Christianity fully accepted and even expected such paradoxes of ‘maid and mother’, ‘reason and imagination’.  Lewis was searching, as so many do, for the reconciliation of these paradoxes.  He sought not just a rationally plausible worldview, but a meaningful worldview. 

            Guite quoted the old phrase, “Happiness writes white”, meaning that writing goodness in creative fiction was strikingly difficult to do so.  And yet, Guite reminded us that after Lewis’ conversion, he became a master at just that.  The inherent goodness in his heroes of Narnia had the power to re-enchant and captivate us into the wardrobe and into magic.  Just as so many other fantasy worlds—Fairyland, Middle Earth, the wizarding world of Harry Potter, even Storybrooke, Maine—all of these are more invitations into beauty.  Just as Christianity is an invitation to truth reliant on imagination. 

            Guite cited a section of Voyage of the Dawntreader, where Lucy read a spell from the magician’s book called, “For Refreshment of the Spirit.”  It was not so much a spell, but a story, “the loveliest story I’ve ever read or shall read.”  Part of the enchantment meant that Lucy could not turn the pages of the book backwards to reread it, nor could she remember the story when she had finished.  When Lucy asked Aslan later if He would tell her the story, he told her, “Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years.” 

            There would be so many stories, so many enchantments and worlds that would invite our spirits and refresh our souls, an allegory of Christianity, whether intentional or unintentional.  Guite quoted from Dawntreader, Aslan’s farewell to Edmund and Lucy, telling them, “That by knowing me here, you may know me better there.”  It is through imaginative fiction that we truly begin to understand and accept Christianity. 

            Guite ended his lecture with one of his own sonnets honoring C.S. Lewis, which can be found on his blog at 

“Telling the Truth Through Rational Argument”

            When I arrived at St. Margaret’s Church outside of Westminster Abbey, shortly before 1PM, there was no one in sight.  I saw more tourists than I expected—it was a cold, blustery day, surprisingly clear for London, but the more determined visitors were still taking photos, chattering amongst themselves.  The gate to the chapel was locked, unsurprising, seeing as I was an hour and a half early. 

            Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before a long queue of people began to form outside the chapel.  There were to be two lectures in the chapel, one by Dr. Alister McGrath, entitled “Telling the Truth Through Rational Argument” and the other by Dr. Malcolm Guite, called, “Telling the Truth Through Imaginative Fiction”. 

            Dr. McGrath is a Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education as well as the Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King’s College, London—however, in April 2014, he will take up the Andreas Ideos Chair in Science and Religion at Oxford University.  He’s written several books discussing the flaws in modern atheistic theory (focusing especially on Richard Dawkins’ worldviews).  His most recent works have focused on the life of C.S. Lewis, both intellectual and personal.

            Dr. Malcolm Guite is the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge as well as the acting Vicar-Chaplain of St. Edward’s King and Martyr.  His varied accomplishments range from writing books such as, What do Christians Believe?, Faith Hope and Poetry, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, to being the front man for the Cambridge rockers Mystery Train.  
            I had thought that both lectures would be distinct from each other.  After all, Lewis’ dry theological works differed greatly from his creative prose in both style and substance.  But I was very wrong in distinguishing the two.  Both McGrath and Guite concentrated on how imagination and reason were intertwined, how looking at the world through a Christian lens (as Lewis did) required both facets.  Lewis’ theology and creative fiction were not nearly as distinct as I thought they were.

            McGrath started off by detailing C.S. Lewis’ significance to Christianity.  His works not only stood the test of time, they transcended denominations.  There was something core about the Christianity Lewis subscribed to that touched the hearts of Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, even Mormons—Lewis’ brand of ‘mere Christianity’ was something universal. 

            McGrath continued focusing on the accessibility of Lewis’ works, how academics and laymen could connect and respond.  According to McGrath, Lewis was not so much a composer of theology, but an arranger—taking dry, arduous theological ideas and making them palatable, understandable, and relatable. 

            McGrath warned us not to see Lewis as a man who followed pure, rational, logic to find Christianity.  Lewis’ approach “was more inductive than deductive, more visual than rational.”  Lewis did not so much tell the truth through rational argument—but showed the truth through rational argument.  Reason was visualized by imagination.   

            For the first half of his life, C.S. Lewis was a coldly rational atheist.  Nevertheless, he found the rationalist worldview uninteresting and bleak.  There was no place for imagination—“Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” (Surprised by Joy)  Ironically, the writers he preferred, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton were Christian (he once described MacDonald as someone who ‘baptized his imagination’), while most of the writers he disdained were atheist—Lewis found their work dull and austere.  

            In McGrath’s view, Lewis was drawn to Christianity because of “its intellectual capaciousness and its imaginative appeal”—Christianity was not limited by what could only be understood or grasped by reason.  Conversely, the Christian worldview provided a way of seeing life that was rationally plausible.  McGrath quoted Lewis’ good friend Austin Ferrer’s comment, that Lewis made us “think we are listening to an argument…we are being presented with a vision, and it is the vision that carries conviction.” 

            McGrath concludes his lecture by saying that Lewis’ true genius as an apologist is how he showed us how Christianity identifies the human experience, connects with it, and still remains imaginatively satisfying.  Lewis was always careful to state that nothing could “prove” Christianity, but observation might “suggest” a certain point.  The longing that pierced Lewis’ life, which he later deemed joy, was a good example of this.  Christianity teaches us to expect these unsatisfied desires, as they are echoes of the world we are meant for.  In the end, Lewis’ argument for Christianity was not an argument at all—it was a collection of observations on various facets of life and how very persuasively these fit in the worldview of Christianity.  In doing so, Lewis affirmed rationality without plunging it into cold logic.  Apologetics is not just deduction, but an invitation into this worldview.  McGrath insists Lewis’ appeal to reason is implicit to imagination, which brings this worldview into sharpest focus. 

            McGrath ended with the very apt quote that best summed up Lewis’ approach to apologetics (and was inscribed on his memorial stone):  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”