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,
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.