I sat in the café alone.
I arrived on time for a discussion group on the “Screwtape Letters” at my local bookstore.
But I sat alone. It was a no show. So I ordered a mug of hot coffee and cracked open my new copy of The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Collection. And I read: for a really long time.
That’s how I entered the world of the great Christian author. I gobbled up the signature series which included several of Lewis’ better know works. I then found Walter Hooper’s definitive guide to the life and writings of Lewis and I couldn’t get enough.
Then the tragic moment occurred when I found a first edition copy of Mere Christianity at a used bookstore for $3. I turned from a fan into a collector, which some might consider a sort of contamination, but my growing collection of first editions and rare copies has only made me appreciate the man and his message all the more.
I realized the signature series with his better-known works was only the tip of the iceberg. As a professor, I am now afforded the excuse of going further into the life of Lewis as a part of my job! In teaching a class on the Narnia author I get to do a lot of digging in his writings and writings about him. There’s far too much to share on a blog post, but here are a few of the treasures I’ve found along the way:
Three Witnesses of Lewis’ Legacy
During the Second World War, Lewis would board a cold train, often with a pounding sinus headache, and head into London, a city trembling beneath the relentless bombardment of the German Luftwaffe, in order to broadcast his baritone voice across England.
These radio talks later evolved into print as Mere Christianity, and the rest, as they say, is history. We often forget the sacrifice involved in Lewis’ radio ministry when we quote from his short masterpiece. If his selfless act was mere Christianity then he exemplified it in every way.
Walter Hooper, a personal friend of Lewis’, said he was the most “thoroughly converted man I have ever known.” Lewis’ faith did not come easily. He began his college studies and even served in WWI as an atheist. He fought vehemently against faith in God, until he, the “most reluctant convert in all of England,” finally gave in and admitted that God is indeed God.
“The intellectual life is not the only road to God,” Lewis once said, “nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.” It was the road God had appointed for Jack, as his friends called him. And it was the road on which many a weary sojourner has found rest in the footsteps of Clive Staples Lewis.
Lewis found intellectual satisfaction in faith in God, but his spiritual journey was not all roses and sunshine. In fact, Lewis said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But he did recommend Christianity, for reasons other than mere comfort. In this way, he was a more avid evangelist than most recognize.
The best place to find Lewis’ heart as a soul winner is in his personal correspondence. One of my favorite passages from his letters comes from his exchange with a young American by the name of Sheldon Vanauken who was struggling with understanding and embracing the gospel. Lewis closed one letter with an optimistic final line, “But I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you’ll get away!”
One of Lewis’ letters to Sheldon after his conversion provides a telling summary of Lewis’ humble desire to point others to faith in Christ:
My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear: such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder & lightening which follow is alarming. And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself . . . Think of mea as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice.”
“One of the dangers of having a lot of money,” Lewis said, “is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God.” Like his father, Lewis, and his older brother Warnie, were plagued with an anxiety about one day becoming bankrupt. Lewis handled this phobia by giving most of his money away.
In fact, he gave away over 90% of his book royalties. His friend, and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, set up charitable fund that Lewis used to bless others who were in need. And Lewis gave away a lot more than just money. The opening scenes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are somewhat autobiographical. While their windows were blacked out in order to hide the light from potential German bombers, though Oxford was never bombed, Lewis still opened their home to evacuated children from London.
Long before Lewis became famous, and well before he became a Christian, he promised a fellow soldier, Paddy Moore, he would care for his mother and sister should Moore not survive the war. Though Lewis was injured, he did survive. And much to his sorrow, Paddy didn’t. Yet Lewis was faithful to his word. He cared for Mrs. Moore until her death in 1951 (when Lewis was 51 years old). Even after Mrs. Moore was put in a nursing home, Lewis was a regular and faithful visitor.
Lewis opened his home to about anyone in need. Multiple children passed through their doors. One young lady who stayed with the Lewises, Jill Flewett, went on to a career in theatre and married the grandson of Sigmund Freud. For a short while a mentally handicap young man stayed there, and Lewis spent a considerable amount of time trying to teach him to read, though to no avail. Lewis extended his help to anyone in need. His hands were open and available, for they did not grasp tightly the things of this world.
Forty-nine years ago C.S. Lewis went home to be with his Lord. I can’t help but think of this following scene from the Screwtape Letters that I read several years ago as I sat alone in the cafe reading the works of Lewis. The passage is a dialogue between the senior demon Screwtape and the junior demon, Wormwood, about the death of his Christian patient:
“The more one thinks about it, the worse it becomes. He got through so easily! No gradual misgivings, no doctor’s sentence, no nursing home, no operating theatre, no false hopes of life; sheer, instantaneous liberation.
One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream, never again to be of any account. Defeated, out-maneuvered fool!
Did you mark how naturally – as if he’d been born for it – the earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! “Yes. of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?”
As he saw you, he also saw Them . . . He saw not only Them; he saw Him.”
Forty-nine years ago, C.S. Lewis saw them. Those demons who sought to harm him his whole life. Then he also saw them, the spirits of God who minister to the saints. And then, finally, he saw Him. The creator of Narnia took his last breath on November 22, 1963, and crossed over to meet the “Emperor beyond the sea.” I think, if one were listening for it, a lion’s roar might have been heard from that old wardrobe in Oxford, England, that very moment so many years ago.