C.S. Lewis helped me understand my grief—and reminded me why I write
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you,” writes C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed. It’s a moment of epiphany, or, as I prefer to call it, a smackdown. Epiphany sounds too hopeful, too certain, at a time when I find myself, like Lewis at the time of his writing, questioning everything I thought I knew.
A career spiritual writer, I suddenly find the vocabulary of my genre shallow and even repugnant. The old tropes of beauty in brokenness, wounded healers and cracks letting the light in seem pathetically thin in response to this kind of brokenness. More than thin. In a culture so heavily invested in denying responsibility for the pain it has caused in order to preserve itself, they seem dangerous. I fear the language of beauty has been deployed to trap us in systems of abuse.
In the space of a few years, my life—personal, professional, religious—has become unrecognizable. Have I followed the path of faith to a dead end?
A Grief Observed is the only Lewis book I can stand to read anymore. Here we see the great apologist, one of our finest and most beloved spiritual writers, stripped of his convictions and openly, viciously angry at God.
Books by revered white Christian men, in particular, haven’t been much comfort to me lately. A Grief Observed is the only Lewis book I can stand to read anymore. Here we see the great apologist, one of our finest and most beloved spiritual writers, stripped of his convictions and openly, viciously angry at God. The Oxford don is confused, hopeless and utterly bereft. His wife has died, and nothing makes sense anymore. He is disgusted by the platitudes of well-meaning religious friends and the sympathy cards—he calls them “pitiable cant.” He can’t even pray for the dead anymore. He confesses that when he tries to pray for his wife, “bewilderment and amazement come over me. I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity.” His confidence in the reality and nature of God has been destroyed: “Apparently the faith—I thought it faith—which enables me to pray for the dead has seemed strong only because I have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not.”
The rubber has met the road, and he has found that all the theology in his world cannot fix a blown out tire.
A Grief Observed remains powerful precisely because Lewis does not come to lovely conclusions about his God or his religion or his suffering. He asks many more questions than he answers. He rants, questions, weeps and feels terrible, deservedly sorry for himself and for the woman he loved so much and has now lost. And in doing so, he renders in prose what it really feels like to grieve.
But there’s another reason I like it so much. The book is so raw, and gives such vivid expression to the challenge of belief in a time of suffering, that even the pedigreed C. S. Lewis, already a respected spiritual writer, published it under a pen name.
When I picked up my copy of the book recently, leafing through it idly while preparing to teach, I realized this is what I’ve been feeling. Grief. I know grief, don’t I? I’d easily recognize the real animal pain of losing one’s beloved. My mother died when I was 14 and took my whole world with her. But this feels different. I am grieving not a single person but the pain of others—literally thousands of abuse victims—while I adjust to the loss of all the conventional markers of my identity. I am no longer a married Catholic writer and stay-at-home mom. I no longer trust the rails I was riding, the institutions that I once so firmly believed in, to be my guides.
I’ve long thought of writing as my vocation. Words are the only tools that fit in my hands, as Natalia Ginzburg once wrote. I’ve believed that any natural ability I have is God-given, with strings attached. But are these just more closely held beliefs that I will have to let go in order to press on? As a spiritual writer, I’ve been stripped of my context. Do I have anything left to offer? In the wake of all this, I’ve thought, honestly, that I could surely live, and live well, live better, and never write again.
And yet, while I’ve called so much into question, I still experience art as another path to God. I still believe that the act of creation, of making anything at all, or of entering into another’s creation, is a way of entering and sharing the experience of the divine. Art is not bread, and it won’t save us, but it can be another kind of food that helps people to thrive, if not survive. And I think that means that artists, imbued by the creator with the ability and desire to create, have an obligation to do so.
That’s the nobility of art; it makes no promises toward virtue, and yet it can help us to tend the virtue of hope in each other, even when the art itself is not explicitly hopeful. The Roman Catholic Church, for so long my sanctuary, has become another locus of pain, but art has been my minister in these days of confusion, disruption, grief and reinvention.
By telling stories, sharing our visions, drawing each other into the mystery of human experience on the page or canvas, photograph or song, we show each other the infinite and wildly various forms the life of faith—which is also a life of doubt—might take.
Alan Jacobs wrote in his book on memoir and personal testimony, Looking Before and After, that one of the greatest dangers for a Christian is to assume at any point in our lives that our journey is over and that we have all the answers. I’d say this is also true for artists. It is only too likely that we have answered wrong, or that the answer was right—for a time—and is wrong now, or that we have, as Lewis pointed out in A Grief Observed, been asking the wrong question all along. Jacobs says we are always running the risk of the twin dangers of presumption and despair, and I recognize myself in his observation. Hope means believing our story is not finished, that we’re still on our way.
Jacobs writes that we must “learn to think of our lives as stories that move along recognizable paths, paths followed by our predecessors and indeed by our contemporary companions in the faith [so that we] will be better able to see changes in the road as continuations of it rather than detours or dead ends.” In art, as in faith, there are no dead ends.
By telling stories, sharing our visions, drawing each other into the mystery of human experience on the page or canvas, photograph or song, we show each other the infinite and wildly various forms the life of faith—which is also a life of doubt—might take. Especially when our stories and visions do not fit an acceptable or conventional pattern. Especially when the answers do not come easy and we are not even sure what questions to ask.
The artist and writer Caryll Houselander, when describing one of her mystical visions, said that each of us is living out the Christ life in some way—whether we are living his infancy, his suffering, his death or his resurrection. “No one of us must ever lose hope,” she wrote, for “it is the will of Christ’s love to be put into the hands of sinners...that He may be their gift to one another, that they may comfort Him in each other, give Him to each other. In this sense every ordinary life becomes sacramental, and every action of anyone at all has an eternal meaning.”
These two sentiments from two very different thinkers have been my guide for the last decade of writing: the infinite value of every person’s story and the potentially sacramental nature of every ordinary action. And yet, as I write I notice, again, how narrow my religious imagination turned out to be. How strange that I, a working-class woman writing from a small town in the Deep South, should have sought wisdom only among those whose experiences are so very distant from my own. On the one hand, it is beautiful—a testament to the universality of human spiritual longing and experience, nearly a proof to me of a common creator, that a writer like Lewis can speak to me across time and context and gender and class. But it should not be so shocking to me that my own experiences of God and church are not matching up with those of the writers of the canon that shaped me.
I find I am no longer content to point to the beauty in the wreckage. If I am going to continue as an artist, as a person of faith, I need to rebuild my imagination, or at least expand it significantly. I suddenly appreciate how the crumbling of a foundation might not be a tragedy at all but an opportunity to create one that is stronger. It might be of immeasurable benefit to me as an artist, a witness, a person of faith, a human being, to rebuild. To trust that my own voice and the voices of so many others are worth amplifying exactly because we did not fit and because what we create may challenge or threaten a status quo that has been found not just wanting but destructive.
In the short story “Jack Frost,” by Josephine Jacobsen, the main character, an elderly woman named Mrs. Travis, cultivates a spectacular garden of flowers in a tiny New Hampshire tourist town. The parish priest comes to visit her at the time of the first frost, hoping to persuade her to leave her cottage before winter, for her own safety. Mrs. Travis clearly makes him uneasy, but the priest recognizes a bond between them—“a belief in the physical, a conviction of the open-ended mystery of matter.”
But because Mrs. Travis is not a Roman Catholic, he can find no avenue to approach her: “her passion was in this scraggy garden.” In her presence he finds he is tempted to tired metaphors about Eden and Gethsemane and familiar Scriptures like the one about the lilies of the field. But Mrs. Travis grows at least five kinds of lilies, “lifting their slick and sappy stalks above confusion,” and his well-worn words falter in the presence of such physical, material abundance.
When Father O’Rourke leaves, Mrs. Travis, “sorry to see him go,” offers him all she has to give: some flowers.
He hesitates, recalls the “pious arrangement” on the side of the altar back at the parish church, wary to bring anything as wild as what Mrs. Travis grows into that space. Still, he warns her, “idiotically,” we’re told, not to let Jack Frost get them.
That night Mrs. Travis wakes from a nightmare to find the first frost of the season approaching without warning, and she launches her resistance. “Light and warm, drunk with resistant power,” she cuts every flower from her wild garden and brings them inside. She injures herself attempting to dig up a rose begonia with a trowel, and barely makes it back across the threshold of her cottage, where sprawled helplessly across the floor, “a dozen shapes and colors blazed before her eyes.” Gethsemane indeed. This is Mrs. Travis’s Passion, a defeat and a victory all at once.
There’s a bit of me in both Mrs. Travis and Father O’Rourke, and I find myself inspired by their awkward interaction in this story. She is at times troublesome, wild, stubborn and self-defeating; she does not share the priest’s language or his worldview. She insists on traveling her own road and waving him on down his. And yet, they have a bond, the person of faith and the artist.
Somehow, they draw each other deeper into mystery.