It’s any day of any year, which means that somewhere C. S. Lewis is being misquoted in spades.
In this particular case, the misquote appears in a bad font on a trite graduation card distributed by Papyrus, which is perhaps the most trite font of all, but I digress.
Here’s the offending phrase:
There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind – C. S. Lewis
Item the first: This pseudo-quote lacks a full stop. How hard is to write a complete sentence? Not hard. Period.
Item the second: The words “far, far” are often added to this particular pseudo-quote in order to amplify the sentiment. Really and truly. Indeed and yes. For sure and certain.
Item the third: The artwork implies that what lies ahead is some kind of ethereal life journey in which a person will traverse meadows and scale heights and discover glorious delights all while enjoying the aroma of wildflowers and herbs and probably not doing any real life things such as grocery shopping, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, paying bills, folding laundry, and showing up for work each day.
Item the fourth: This pseudo-quote is so completely taken out of context on this graduation card that it’s hard not to wonder whether there are any editorial checks and balances in this world any more.
On June 17, 1963, Lewis responded to Mary Willis Shelburne (a regular correspondent of his as found in The Collected Letters and Letters to an American Woman). We don’t have the immediately previous letter she wrote to him, but we know the context: she was lying in a hospital with what she thought was a terminal illness. She was afraid of dying. Lewis wrote the following to her:
Dear Mary Willis,
This is terrible news. The doctor who refused to come wd., I think, be liable to criminal prosecution in this country.
Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.
Remember, tho’ we struggle against things beause we are afraid of them, it is often the other way round – we get afraid because we struggle. Are you struggling, resisting? Don’t you think Our Lord says to you ‘Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go. Underneath are the evelasting arms. Let go, I will catch you. Do you trust me so little?’
Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.
Yours (and like you a tired traveller near the journey’s end),
Try putting that on a graduation card. It’s really more of a post-get-well sentiment in which context the artwork on this card might serve (feebly) what with its thin attempt at heavenly landscape. “Further up and further in,” as Jewel the unicorn would say.
Turns out Mary’s health scare was indeed just a rehearsal. She lived another 12 years. Lewis, though, died just five months after writing this letter.
There are plenty of actual C. S. Lewis quotes that would be apropos for a graduation card. They wouldn’t coddle or coo, though; they would challenge and charge, in the best of ways.
As it stands, this card should have said:
There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. – C. S. Lewis, to a woman on her presumed deathbed
That might not sell well, but at least it would be honest.
(This blog post was originally published on April 17, 2014.)
During this Holy Week, I’ve thought quite a lot about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I’ve worked my way through some tricky Greek words, wrestled with the exasperating response of Peter (who can always be counted on for that kind of thing), and contemplated the gravity of the coming days.
But mostly, I’ve just thought about Jesus – the son of God, the Almighty incarnate- kneeling down in willing service to wash 24 dusty, dirty, calloused, cracked, leathery, worn, and smelly feet.
It was an insignificant and lowly job, that foot-washing thing, worthy of nobody beyond the lowest servant. It’s a task that doesn’t get noticed, an action that doesn’t get lauded, which is perhaps why the three earliest gospel writers don’t even record it: because it wasn’t something people paid attention to; because its significance was completely lost on those who were right there to see it and experience it.
That’s the thing about foot-washing. When done in the right spirit, for the right reasons, people aren’t likely to take notice. That’s because most foot-washing jobs are entirely inglorious. Entirely. They are not the stuff of headline news or award ceremonies or viral retweets.
They are the dusty, dirty, calloused, cracked, leathery, worn, and smelly jobs. The jobs that absolutely no one wants to do. Ever. Not even a tiny little bit.
Except Jesus – who consistently throws a wrench in the way humanity would choose to live were it left to its own devices.
Like many others in a ministry community, I have washed another person’s feet – one set, anyway, after a month of really hard work during which some of us didn’t perhaps love each other quite as well as we should have all the time, so, you know, we washed feet to make things right and to publicly express unity and grace, forgiveness and humility, which, though beautiful in its own way, isn’t really the point of that foot-washing thing.
What Jesus did when he washed those 24 feet – two of whom belonged to a traitorous friend – certainly embodied unity and grace, forgiveness and humility. But more importantly, it displayed an attitude that says:
I will do the task that no one else will do.
I will do the task that most others consider to be beneath them.
I will do the task that promises no rewards or accolades or notice.
I will do the task that goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
I will do the task that others overlook.
I will do the task that everyone else takes for granted.
I will do the task that leads to nothing bigger and better and grander.
I will do the task that is unpleasant and messy and sometimes even disgusting.
And I will do it quietly, discreetly, and humbly, to the best of my ability, with a gracious spirit.
As moving and beautiful and sincere as our actual foot-washing ceremonies may be – whether in the context of summer camp, large ministry communities, or intimate small groups – washing feet isn’t Jesus’ real challenge for us. Rather, it is to have a foot-washing attitude. In every situation. All the time.
We are all incapable of this on our own. Entirely. A foot-washing attitude cannot grow except in a soul overflowing with the Spirit’s love and grace and strength. A foot-washing attitude cannot thrive except in a life that is totally surrendered to the Lord’s sovereignty. Even more elemental, a foot-washing attitude cannot even be except in those who know their true identity in Christ, know their purpose, and have an eternal perspective – just as Jesus did.
During this Holy Week, when the cross proclaims his immeasurable love and the empty tomb proclaims his infinite power, that foot-washing thing that Jesus did proclaims his wholly servant-minded and humble attitude. We would do well to remember it and do likewise.
In December of 1946, Strand Magazine published “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” by C. S. Lewis. Anyone who has read Lewis extensively will recognize many of the themes within this short essay, primarily that the journey to Christianity for a post-Christian may quite possibly include a short passage through paganism (paganism as it really is, not as we sometimes foolishly imagine it). From the essay: “If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us”
To date, this piece has not been included in any published collection of Lewis essays. It was only discovered several years ago. I have a copy and thought all Lewisians would enjoy seeing the essay and reading a transcription (included below).
Merry Christmas to all. Thanks be to God that because of King Jesus, we need never lament that it is always winter and never Christmas. Rather, it is always Christmas, always Immanuel, always God-with-us, no matter what the weather.
“A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” by C. S. Lewis
Strand magazine, Vol. 112, Issue 672, December 1946
Writing religion for sceptics has made C. S. Lewis a best-seller. His books on Christianity—chief among them “The Screwtape Letters”—sell better, and read more easily, than most crime stories. This sermon is a characteristic piece of writing by the Oxford don who has become the most entertaining missionary of our time.
When I was asked to write a Christmas sermon for Pagans I accepted the job lightheartedly enough: but now that I sit down to tackle it I discover a difficulty. Are there any Pagans in England for me to write to?
I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into Paganism. But they only mean it is ceasing to be Christian. And is that at all the same thing? Let us remember what a Pagan or Heathen (I use the words interchangeably) really was.
A “Heathen” meant a man who lived out on the heath, out in the wilds. A “Pagan” meant a man who lived in a Pagus or small village. Both words, in fact, meant a “rustic” or “yokel.” They date from the time when the larger towns of the Roman Empire were already Christianised, but the old Nature religions still lingered in the country. Pagans or Heathens were the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christian.
To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking that a woman who has lost her husband is the same sort of person as an unmarried girl: or that a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. The ruined street and the unbuilt field are alike in one respect: namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.
Now the real Pagan differed from the post-Christian in the following ways. Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. To him the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. His agriculture was a ritual as well as a technique. And secondly, he believed in what we now call an “Objective” Right or Wrong. That is, he thought the distinction between pious and impious acts was something which existed independently of human opinions: something like the multiplication table which Man had not invented but had found to be true and which (like the multiplication table) he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.
To be sure, by Christian standards, his list of “Right” or “Wrong” acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door or for striking his father: but he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. But though his code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.
And this leads us to the third great difference between a Pagan and a post-Christian man. Believing in a real Right and Wrong means finding out that you are not very good. The Pagan code may have been on some points a low one: but it was too high for the Pagan to live up to. Hence a Pagan, though in many ways merrier than a modern, had a deep sadness. When he asked himself what was wrong with the world he did not immediately reply, “the social system,” or “our allies,” or “education.” It occurred to him that he himself might be one of the things that was wrong with the world. He knew he had sinned. And the terrible thing was that he thought the gods made no difference between voluntary and involuntary sins. You might get into their bad books by mere accident, and once in, it was very hard to get out of them. And the Pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religion was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices, purifications, etc.) which were supposed to take away guilt. But they never quite succeeded. His conscience was not at ease.
Now the post-Christian view which is gradually coming into existence—it is complete already in some people and still incomplete in others—is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit. There is no objective Right or Wrong: each race or class can invent its own code or “ideology” just as it pleases. And whatever may be amiss with the world, it is certainly not we, not the ordinary people; it is up to God (if, after all, He should happen to exist), or to Government or to Education, to give us what we want. They are the shop, we are the customers: and “the customer is always right.”
Now if the post-Christian view is the correct one, then we have indeed waked from a nightmare. The old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints—how delightful to have waked up into freedom, to be responsible to no one, to be utterly and absolutely our own masters! We have, of course, lost some fun. A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages.
But is it? And if so, why are things not going better? What do you make of the present threat of world famine? We know now that it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests: even the whales have less oil. Can it be that Nature (or something behind Nature) is not simply a machine that we can do what we like with?—that she is hitting back?
Waive that point. Suppose she is only a machine and that we are free to master her at our pleasure. Have you not begun to see that Man’s conquest of Nature is really Man’s conquest of Man? That every power wrested from Nature is used by some men over other men? Men are the victims, not the conquerors in this struggle: each new victory “over Nature” yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen, new contraceptives to keep men from being born at all.
As for the ideologies, the new invented Wrongs and Rights, does no one see the catch? If there is no real Wrong and Right, nothing good or bad in itself, none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map of New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York for it to be truer to. If there is no objective standard, then our choice between one ideology and another becomes a matter of arbitrary taste. Our battle for democratic ideals against Nazi ideals has been a waste of time, because the one is no better than the other. Nor can there ever be any real improvement or deterioration: if there is no real goal you can’t get either nearer to it or farther from it. In fact, there is no real reason for doing anything at all.
It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. I don’t mean that we should begin leaving little bits of bread under the tree at the end of the garden as an offering to the Dryad. I don’t mean that we should dance to Dionysus across Hampstead Heath (though perhaps a little more solemn or ecstatic gaiety and a little less commercialised “amusement” might make our holidays better than they now are). I don’t even mean (though I do very much wish) that we should recover that sympathy with nature, that religious attitude to the family, and that appetite for beauty which the better Pagans had. Perhaps what I do mean is best put like this.
If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.
All of the world (even in Japan, even in Russia) men and women will meet on December 25th to do what is a very old-fashioned and, if you like, a very Pagan thing—to sing and feast because a God has been born. You are uncertain whether it is more than a myth. Well if it is, then our last hope is gone. But is the opposite explanation not worth trying?
Who knows but that here, and here alone, lies your way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too, and to the great human family whose oldest hopes are confirmed by this story that does not die?
‘Tis the first night of Christmas. The heavens proclaim:
God with us.
Deity made flesh.
Lord sent to earth.
Christ the Savior is born.
This story of Jesus’ birth (and all it portends) is foolish in all worldly ways. Collective humanity is far more wont to desire:
Us as God.
Flesh made divine.
Earth bereft of Lordship.
Death of saving doctrines.
This list of worldly desires (and all it portends) is a fools’ game, leading to nothing but empty souls full of self.
Surely the arrival of humanity’s Savior indicates this, at the very least: humanity is in desperate need of saving.
Surely the Savior of humanity deserves this at his arrival, at the very least: a crown, a robe, a throne. These are signs worthy of God made flesh, Christ the Savior, Lord of all, Creator of heaven and earth.
As so often happens in the Real Story, things do not progress as one might expect, for the actual signs of Christ’s arrival are shockingly unspectacular and superlatively unpowerful.
And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.
No crown. No robe. No throne. Not a single thing that speaks of royalty or divinity in even the smallest degree.
Sign One: “You will find.”
The finding itself is a sign, for without a specific roadmap or address, how is one to find the Savior of the world, especially a Savior who on the first night of his life was hidden among the vast masses of lowly ordinary folk? Simply by looking. “Let us go and seethis thing which the Lord has told us about.” It really is that simple.
Sign Two: “A baby, wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
A baby. A baby.
This is the sign of Christ’s arrival? This is the proclaimed Savior and Lord of all? This is God among us?
“Sign” (sēmeion – σημειον) means this:
a mark, a token, by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and is known; transcending the common course of nature.
The grown Jesus was often asked for miraculous signs that would prove his identity, that would distinguish him from others, that would transcend the common course of nature. As a general rule, he refused such requests. He knew that signs, spectacular as they may be, can be misused and finicky things.
Still, the grown Jesus, at the most inopportune and unexpected times, displayed sign after sign after sign – most often to the benefit of the vast lowly masses among whom he was born rather than for the morbid curiosity of those who would deny and disown him.
But the newborn Jesus did not display any signs that would qualify as signs, per se. There was no crown. There was no robe. There was no throne. There was no blinking neon sign splattering the peaceful night with its urgent message: MESSIAH ON TAP! OPEN!
The signs, rather than distinguishing Jesus from others, identified him with others. He arrived as a helpless babe, just as we all do.
The signs, rather than proclaiming Jesus as one who transcends the common course of nature, identified him as one who descendsto the common course of nature. Humanity. Suffering. Rejection. Death.
If you expect God to give you a sign that Christ IS, perhaps you must do as the shepherds did:
Go and look for this thing that has happened, this Person who has arrived.
Look in the least likely of places, where worldly power is absent and heavenly humility reigns.
The shepherds hurried to the village and found it … the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, they told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said about the baby. Then they went back to work, praising and glorifying God.
This favorite Lewis quote shows up all over the worldwidespiderwebthatensnares.
Google search it and you will freely receive almost half-a-billion hits. If you can’t trust that, what can you trust?
But here’s the thing. If you read this quote as a self-standing phrase, you’ll likely get it wrong. By itself, it sounds like, “Whatever it is that you want to do, whatever adventure it is that you want to pursue, whatever big thing it is that is dangling in front of your eyes – perhaps surrounded by crowds and acclaim, fame and fortune – then for goodness sake just go do it. I dare you!I dare you to not do it!Do not dare not to dare! Or some such thing. Indeed
Glory be, this is Lewis at his how-we-like-and-imagine-him finest, encouraging us to be Amazing People Who Do Amazing Things (And Hopefully Probably Get Noticed In The Doing).
This real quote is from The Horse and His Boy. The setting: Aravis (human), Shasta (human), Hwin (horse), and Bree (horse) had just recently arrived at the Hermit of the Southern March’s humble dwelling after a long and dangerous journey. Just prior to arriving, Shasta had done both the bravest and most frightening thing of his life. Like his companions, he looked forward to a long rest. But instead, he was immediately sent on another dangerous and difficult quest.
“Shasta’s heart fainted […] for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”
His new task? To go alone in pursuit of a King he’d never met, who lived in a place he’d never been, travelling through a land he’d never visited, to deliver a message he didn’t understand. And because of the urgent circumstances, he must run. Always run, and never walk. Woohoo. The stuff of fame and fortune.
Meanwhile, back at the Hermit’s habitat, Aravis, Hwin, and Bree rested from their exhausting journey. They began discussing Aslan – primarily who and what he is.
Aravis:Bree, why do you keep swearing By the Lion and By the Lion’s Mane? I thought you hated lions.
Bree:So I do. But when I speak of the Lion of course I mean Aslan, the great deliverer of Narnia who drove away the Witch and the Winter. All Narnions swear by him.
Aravis:But is he a lion?
Bree (in a shocked voice):No, no of course not.
Aravis:All the stories about him in Tashbban say he is. And if he isn’t a lion why do you call him a lion?
Bree (in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut):Well, you’d hardly understand that at your age.
[And then a lion, the Lion, who is in fact 100% LION, approached from behind so that Aravis and Hwin saw him, but Bree did not.]
Bree (still in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut):Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. It he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why! (and here Bree began to laugh) If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers!….Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!
You can guess what had happened. The Lion, the Only Lion, the One True Lion, approached the group, and the Lion’s very real whiskers brushed against Bree’s very real ear, and all of Bree’s puffed up worldly wisdom was shot to pieces as he shot like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure, unable to escape the horror behind him.
Hwin, who’d always been the wisest and bravest of them all, “though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across tO the Lion.”
Hwin:Please, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.
Aslan (planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose):Dearest daughter. I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.
And then Aslan said this – and pay close attention because here comes the Dashing Adventurous Big Amazing quote.
Aslan (in a louder voice):Now, Bree, you poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.
Bree (in a shaken voice):Aslan, I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.
Aslan:Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young.
Did you catch that? Did you see what Lewis did there? He flipped “do not dare not to dare” on its everloving self-focused big-and-amazing-things head.
Do not dare not to dare:
to draw near to Christ
to see him as he truly is – the True King incarnate
to shed one’s foolish fears
to shed one’s foolish pride
to cast aside one’s foolish notions that are based on rubbishy blather
to deny oneself so that the Creator can refashion you into your true self
to be undone by the Lord’s almighty presence
to be embraced by the Lord’s patient and faithful love.
There is nothing “me” about this quote. There is nothing particularly “dashing and daring” about this quote.
Mostly, there is repentance, surrender, humility, trust, and obedience.
Which makes it, in fact, quite a stunning truth for all to consider.
Isn’t it interesting how even when we quote Lewis correctly, we are quick to make it mean what we want it to mean? Human nature is so very predictable that way.
On December 6th, 2019, my mother breathed her final breath.
After four years of living with Stage Four breast cancer, her body betrayed her over the course of four weeks.
During the final four days, her organs shut down one by one. In the last four hours, family arrived to gather around her bedside. In the last four minutes, her lungs methodically continued their appointed task of breathing in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out. In the last four seconds, she breathed in-out a final time, and most assuredly her eternal spirit was wrapped up in the arms of her Lord and joyfully carried into her new home.
Though my mother did not necessarily breathe her last breath on her own terms, she did indeed breathe her last breath of her own volition, surrounded by loved ones, in a safe place, without any outside external constraint – which is how everyone’s final breath most certainly and surely ought to be breathed.
Breath is a grace, freely given by an All Powerful and Loving Creator who in the beginning breathed his own breath into mere dust of the ground, and behold – humanity came alive, made in the image of God to fellowship with him, to work alongside him, to worship and adore him, to be his representative in the earthly realm.
In the beginning, humanity (undeservedly and miraculously) breathed the Spirit of Yahweh, in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, just as the Lord himself designed.
Until they didn’t.
Much too soon, the created rejected the Creator, vomited up the Spirit, spewed out the Breath, and proudly declared they would breathe only their own spirit, would determine their own fellowship, would work for their own ends, would worship their own desires, and would represent their own image. They said, “We won’t breathe You.” And the Creator’s intended image was shattered.
“We won’t breathe” (spoken to God) sowed seeds of “you won’t breathe” (spoken to a brother, then countless others) which led to “I can’t breathe” (gasped by a brother, then countless others) that have infiltrated and infected every corner of God’s good creation. What started as a single bite of blame and shame (“But it…”, “But he…,” But she..”) quickly seeped into the soil and the souls, growing into poisoned jealousy, jealous hatred, and hate-filled murder.
Humanity’s path was remapped by humanity itself – from loving light and life into defiled darkness and death.
Until it wasn’t.
Much sooner than we deserved, the incarnated True God-Man arrived, born into earth’s air, breathing with human lungs, revealing with shocking clarity the true Image of God. He lived, he loved, he healed, he taught, he preached.
Until he didn’t.
Until he breathed his last breath.
… for all of creation (which against its will was subjected to sin’s curse).
… for all of humanity (which by its own volition is subject to sin’s utter destruction).
Christ breathed his last – so we could be forgiven. (Oh Lord, we need your forgiveness.) [Romans 4:25]
Christ breathed again – so we could be made right with God. (Oh Lord, we need to be reconciled to you.) [Romans 4:25]
Christ breathed his Spirit on his few frightened followers – so they could be comforted and at peace. (Oh Lord, we need your comfort. Oh Lord, we need your peace.) [John 20:19-20]
Christ poured out his Spirit on his many gathered people – so they could be re-created into the image of God, as he had planned from the beginning. (Oh Lord, we need to be recreated into people who both breathe your Spirit and love others … all others.) [Acts 2]
It is Pentecost Sunday. Today we remember and celebrate God’s Spirit-Breath in a world where people too often breathe their last breath from disease, from hatred, from suffering, from murder – all because humanity still vomits up and spews out the Breath of Life.
Oh Lord: heal us.
Oh Lord: forgive us.
Oh Lord: comfort us.
Oh Lord: correct us.
Oh Lord: guide us.
Oh Lord: gather us.
Oh Lord: we need your Breath to fill our souls, to soften our hearts, to shape our thoughts, to heal our relationships, to reconcile your children one to another.
NB: the following news will be of interest only to fellow bibliophile bookish nerds.
While searching for something on EEBO (Early English Books Online – the drug of choice for historians, medievalists, and similar personality types), I stumbled upon this:
Note the handwriting across the top:
(plus a fancy flourish in the style of JRR Tolkien, which is twice reproduced in the center white space)
Note the handwriting across the bottom:
Tho: & Isabella Hervey
Thomas & Isabella Hervey had an extensive library that has been written about in various places. They lived in the 17th Century, at which point this book was already over 100 years old. Bless you, Herveys, for affirming the joy of book collecting so long ago.
Just a few pages in, I found this:
Note the stern warning on the left side (folio 7 verso) about reprinting books within seven years of the original printing “upon pain of forfeiting the same.”
For those who enjoy decoding, “u” is often “v” accented vowels (i.e. ū and ā) indicate a missing “n” (so: Fraūce=France) “ſ” is a long ess, so ſhal=shal(l), ſpace=space, &c. “y” is often our “i”
But especially note the handwritten blurb at the bottom:
1540: In H- :30: year of Henrie the 8th.
Note that “the” looks suspicially like a “y” plus a superscript e. From this do we get such nonsense as “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” which is a naive misreading of what in fact is the letter thorn (sound = th, orthography resembles a “y”). It should in fact be “The Olde Coffee Shoppe” because, well, a coffee shop is a thing that deserves a definite article, it is not a person that we address as “You Old Coffee Shop.”
Here’s the real point: almost 500 years ago, someone picked up a quill pen, dipped it into handmade ink (recipes for which I have, indeed, found on EEBO), and wrote the words and numbers you are looking at now.
If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
To survive sheltering-in-place, I’m going to read the Narnian books on facebook live, 4 pm (EDT), every day, until we finish the series or are released to the outside world. [UPDATE: When the entire world is online, facebook live is like a very bad carnival ride – likely to cause motion sickness in viewers. Hence, though we will still go live at 4 pm (EDT), we will be “going live” with a pre-recorded smooth non-bad-carnival-ride time of reading. Thought you should know.]
Chapters 1 and 2 on YOU TUBE. Chapter 3 and 4 on YOU TUBE. **ALL THE CHAPTERS ARE UPLOADED ON YOU TUBE.
We start on Thursday, April 2 with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, aka BOOK ONE (let’s not bother now to belabor the undeniable factuality of this fact, which is as factual as a fact can be, but trust me: it’s belabor-worthy).
For those who care about such things, I’ll provide some background tidbits here. Because tidbits are what give life flavor and style.
Notes on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
EVACUATION OF BRITISH SCHOOLCHILDREN DURING WW2
In 1939 and 1940, English schoolchildren were evacuated from cities to country homes. C. S. Lewis himself hosted several groups of schoolchildren during that time period at his home, the Kilns.
Lewis sometimes mentioned the children in his letters. See the excerpts below, all taken from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 2:
To his brother (9.2.39):
“Our schoolgirls have arrived and all seem to me– and, what’s more important, to Minto– to be very nice, unaffected creatures and all most flatteringly delighted with their new surroundings. They’re fond of animals which is a good thing (for them as well as for us.”
To his brother (9.10.39):
“Life at the Kilns is going on at least as well as I expected. We had our first air raid warning at 7.45 the other morning when I expect you had yours too. Everyone got to the dug-out quite quickly and I must say they all behaved well, and though v. hungry and thirsty before the all clear went, we quite enjoyed the most perfect late summer morning I have ever seen…Another thing which would amuse you is the daily bathe– I’ve never known the pond so clean at this time of year– which is in two shifts because they have not enough bathing suits to go round, and each shift interminable because of the insatiable appetite of children. In fact we had the whole Dunbar technique– me bawling ‘Time to come out’ and a head disappearing and then emerging ten yards further away to say ‘What?’, and then twenty yards further away still to say ‘I can’t hear what you say.’
To his good friend Sister Penelope Lawson CSMV (10.24.40):
“Thanks-my brother is not only safe from France but, better still, back on the retired list and living at home: so that what with that and a house full of really delightful refugee children (I am a bachelor and never appreciated children till the war brought them to me) I have very much to be thankful for.”
To Dorothy Sayers (April 1942) in a post-script:
The French prose is not by me but by one of our evacuees– delightful creatures. I’d never lived with children before– oh that world of pencil-boxes! O bell età dell-oro!
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE in LEWIS’S LETTERS
LWW was published on Oct 16, 1950. The letter excerpts below are all taken from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3
In response to a child’s query (1.22.52):
Dear Miss Jenkins,
It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane’s Arabian Nights: it is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan* myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. I am so glad you liked the book. I hope you will like the sequel (Prince Caspian) which came out in November.
*In The Way Into Narnia, Peter Schakel (an esteemed Lewis scholar) writes: “The British pronunciation of the a in both syllables is closer to that (in American speech) of the a in father than in cat.” So Lewis probably said: AHSS’lahn.
To friend and poet Ruth Pitter (11.28.50) in a post-script:
But fan mail from children is delightful. They don’t gas. They want to know whether Aslan repaired Tumnus’s furniture for him. They take no interest in oneself and all in the story. Lovely.
To an unknown reader (3.5.51):
I am glad you all liked ‘The Lion’. A number of mothers, and still more, schoolmistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but very few children….
To Mary Wilis Shelburne (4.17.53):
About my fairy-tales, there are three published by Macmillan, New York (The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
The the Kilmer children (3.19.54):
The typescript of your book* went off to the publisher last week, though it will not be out till next year. It is called The Magician’s Nephew. You must have often wondered how the old Professor in The Lion, Witch & W could have believed all the children told him about Narnia. The reason was that he had been there himself as a little boy. This book tells you how he went there, and (of course that was ages and ages ago by Narnian time) how he saw Aslan creating Narnia, and how the White Witch first got into that world and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of that forest. The one before yours (The Horse and his Boy) is also dedicated to two Americans and will be out ‘this Autumn’ (Fall, as you say).
*The Magician’s Nephew was dedicated to the Kilmer children.
To Joan Lancaster (4.15.54):
I am so glad you like the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to tell me. There are to be seven stories altogether. The ones which have already come out are 1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 2. Prince Caspian 3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 4. The Silver Chair. Some time this year, Number 5, The Horse and his Boy, will be out: and the 6th, The Magician’s Nephew has already gone to the printer (you have no idea how long it takes getting a book printed). The 7th is already written, but still only in pen-and-ink, and I have not quite decided yet what to call it. Sometimes I think of calling it The Last King of Narnia, and sometimes, Night Falls on Narnia. Which do you think sounds best?
To a 5th-grade class in Maryland (5.24.54):
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the book ‘represents’ something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.
To William Kinter (10.28.54):
Aslan is the Turkish word for a lion: I chose it for the sound.
To Mrs. Krieg (5.6.55):
Dear Mrs. Krieg
Tell Laurence from me, with my love: 1/ Even if he was loving Aslan more than Jesus (I’ll explain in a moment why he can’t really be doing this) he would not be an idol-worshipper. If he was an idol-worshipper he’d be doing it on purpose, whereas he’s now doing it because he can’t help doing it, and trying hard not to do it. But God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.
2/ But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not– I mean, the body of a lion. (But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them as He would– He may really have taken all sorts of bodies in them which we don’t know about.) Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother. 3/ If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.’ That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’
To Charles Brady (11.16.56):
I get lovely, and often most moving, letters from my child readers. I had expected that they wd. get the theology more or less unconsciously, but the truth is that they all see it perfectly clearly, bless ’em, and much more clearly than some grown-ups.
To Allan Emery (8.18.59):
Dear Mr. Emery–
Thank you for your kind letter of the 13th. The fairy-tale version of the Passion in The Lion etc. works in the way you describe because– tho’ this sounds odd– it bye-passes one’s reverence and piety. We approach the real story in the Gospels with the knowledge that we ought to feel certain things about it. And this, by a familiar psychological law, can hinder us from doing so. The dutiful effort prevents the spontaneous feeling; just as if you say to an old friend during a brief reunion ‘Now let’s have a good talk’ both suddenly find themselves with nothing to say. Make it a fairy-tale and the reader is taken off his guard. (Unless ye become as little children…)
To Sophia Storr (12.24.59):
That is, when I started The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe I don’t think I foresaw what Aslan was going to do and suffer. I think He just insisted on behaving in His own way. This of course I did understand and the whole series became Christian. But it is not, as some people think, an allegory. That is, I don’t say ‘Let us represent Christ as Aslan.’ I say, ‘Supposing there was a world like Narnia, and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.’ See?
To Anne Jenkins (3.5.61):
Anne– What Aslan meant when he said he had died is, in one sense, plain enough. Read the earlier book in the series called The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and you will find the full story of how he was killed by the White Witch and came to life again. When you have read that, I think you will probably see that there is deeper meaning behind it. The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself ‘Supposing there really were a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong, and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?’ The stories are my answer. Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He would become a Talking Beast there, as he became a Man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) The lion is supposed to be the King of beasts: (b) Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’ in the Bible: (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the books.
THE LION, THE WITCH and THE WARDROBE EXTRA FAQs
On the dedication:
Lewis dedicated LWW to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, daughter of his close friend Owen Barfield. The real Lucy became a professional music teacher. In the 1960s she developed multiple sclerosis and spent a good part of her life in a wheelchair.
On shutting wardrobe doors:
When Lucy Barfield’s mother read a manuscript of LWW, she mentioned to Lewis her fear of children locking themselves in a wardrobe, so he added clear warnings:
From Chapter 1:
“She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe.”
“(She had, of course, left the door open, for she knew that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe.)”
From Chapter 3:
“But as soon as she reached it she heard steps in the passage outside, and then there was nothing for it but to jump into the wardrobe and hold the door closed behind her. She did not shut it properly because she knew that it is very silly to shut oneself into a wardrobe, even if it is not a magic one.”
“[Edmund] jumped in and shut the door, forgetting what a very foolish thing this is to do. Then he began feeling about for Lucy in the dark.”
From Chapter 5:
“Quick!” said Peter, “there’s nowhere else,” and flung open the wardrobe. All four of them bundled inside it and sat there, panting, in the dark. Peter held the door closed but did not shut it; for, of course, he remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
On foxes and rabbits and snakes:
In the first edition of LWW, when the children talk about what they might discover in the countryside around the Professor’s house, it read:
Peter: “There might be eagles. There might be stags. There’ll be hawks.”
“Badgers!” said Lucy.
“Foxes!” said Edmund.
“Rabbits!” said Susan.
Lewis revised this in a later edition in this way:
“Snakes!” said Edmund.
“Foxes!” said Susan.
Lewis likely changed this to give a hint at the characters of Edmund and Susan. The (mis-numbered) Harper-Collins editions reverted to the original text.
On “WOW” as Aslan’s roar:
On the other hand, Lewis did make a change in the American editions that would have been better left as it was. In chapter 13,when the White Witch asks Aslan’s how she can be sure he will follow through on their agreement, he roars so loudly that she races off in fear. The original roar is this: “Haa-a-arrh!” For whatever reason, Lewis changed the American edition to: “Wow!” He obviously wasn’t aware of how “wow” was used in casual slang American conversation, else he never would have made this change. On the other hand, check out this clip of lions roaring. It does rather sound like “wow” – but in a roaring kind of way, not in a “cool & awesome” kind of way – sort of like “wow
“It All Began with a Picture…”
(in Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, Harcourt, Brace & World. 1966, p. 42) The essay is only one page long, printed here in full:
The Editor has asked me to tell you how I came to write The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will try, but you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books. This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a story is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it. In fact, that might stop the works; just as, if you start thinking about how you tie your tie, the next thing is that you find you can’t tie it. And afterwards, when the story is finished, he has forgotten a good deal of what writing it was like.
One thing I am sure of. All my seven Narnian books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’
At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.
So you see that, in a sense, I know very little about how this story was born. That is, I don’t know where the pictures came from. And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up’. Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it? //
ON THE FRONTISPIECE:
The original frontispiece was this:
Thankfully (because just look at that Aslan, would you?) Lewis asked Pauline Baynes to make a new image, which you likely recognize:
We can all sleep easier at night knowing Aslan is more of a lion and less of an overgrown hand-raising, line-dancing, Disney-esque villain.
Here are two of the earliest advertisements for LWW:
As March 25th, National Tolkien Reading Day, draws to an end, I have much to celebrate. For today I discovered a new book. By a favorite author. A book which I should absolutely have known about, but did not. A book which cannot be found anywhere except on Abe Books, two copies, one just under $1000 and one just over $1000, which is pretty much the same as “cannot be found anywhere.”
Fortunately for me, I know someone who has more books than I do – more books than most public libraries, and who is a medievalist, and who is a Tolkien scholar, and who lives in my town, and who is very kind.
This person and I are both rule-followers. And our town is under a stay-at-home-except-for-necessities order. Getting my hands on this book was a necessity. So at noon:30 today, I ventured out to a quiet neighborhood, pulled up to a curbside mailbox, surreptitiously retrieved an unmarked manilla envelope of medium heft, deposited in its place a small hermetically sealed package of British cookies, glanced around nervously because what if someone thought I was making a ransom money-drop, and then drove off with literary gold settled gently on the passenger seat next to me.
And now, at nearly midnight, I am settling into The Old English Exodus, Text, Translation, and Commentary by J. R. R. Tolkien.
You read the correctly.
And glory be. The inside dust jacket has already filled my soul with delight. But the first lines – well, the first lines cause my heart to pound with joy.
Hwæt we feor and neah gefrigen habbađ ofer middangeard Moyses domas wrætlico wordriht wera cneorissum –
All of that valiant orthography. All of that Beowulfian pathos. Plus middle earth. And Moses. There are simply no words to express the wonder and weight of language.
Hold your heart. Rest your soul. And hear the opening lines of Exodus as translated by John Ronald:
Lo! We have heard how near and far over middle-earth Moses declared his ordinances to men, uttering in words wondrous laws to the races of mankind – to all the blessed healing of their life’s care in heaven on high after the perilous journey, to all the living enduring counsel: let him hearken who will!
This man did the Lord of Hosts, true King, by his own might honor in the wilderness, and to him did the Eternal and Omnipotent grant power over many miracles. He was dear unto God, prince of his people, a leader of the host, sage and wise of heart, valiant captain of his folk.
March 25th, 2020 was filled with far too little reading of Tolkien at my house, much to my dismay. But I am going to make up for that now by settling into a mere 590 lines of ancient epic, a mere 13 pages of translation, and a mere 44 pages of linguistic and literary commentary.
I cannot think of a better way to finish out this day of sheltering-at-home.
For almost a week, friends have been sending me emails and texts about this blog post (“C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus”) asking if it is in fact genuinely Lewisian. Are these the words of Clive? The truths of Jack? During this time of COVID19 lockdowns and social distancing, does Lewis really want me to not only pray, read, and listen to music but to also chat with my friends over a pint and a game of darts in the local pub or tavern where presumably there are many other people for whom social distancing is a thing to be eschewed by smart folk who smirk?
They ask me this, I presume, because I get mighty curmudgeonly about the glut of Lewis misquotes in print, digital, and spoken discourse (see here and here and here for starters) as well as the egregiously errant mis-numbering of the Narnian books – but I digress).
In answer to my friends’ questions: Yes. Lewis did write the three paragraphs quoted in the blog post. And thirteen subsequent paragraphs, which are definitely not about the Coronavirus (not even obliquely) and not even about the atomic bomb (primarily). Instead they are about acknowledging and admitting (being “waked” as Lewis put it, which I suppose is akin to being “woke” in this, our superlatively advanced and intellectually brilliant 21st-century)
“that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate ‘civilization’. The important question is whether ‘Nature’ — the thing studied by the sciences – is the only thing in existence.”(“On Living in an Atomic Age,” Informed Reading, vol. VI , pp 78-84, par. 7)
Lewis wrote this essay in 1948, when the possibility of a civilization-obliterating atomic bomb was a very real thing, and when most Europeans, including Lewis, were living not just under but within and among the realities of a gruesome war that often pounded on their backdoor.
In other words, Lewis wrote this essay under circumstances that were entirely unlike those in most of today’s world, especially America, and were absolutely unlike our current battle (skirmish? combat? struggle?) with covid19.
We have been asked to wash our hands scrupulously. To not stockpile more than we need. To avoid unnecessary travel. To stay home if possible, as much as possible. And for certain to avoid such things such as crowded (or even under-crowded) taverns and pubs where one might be “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.” (par. 3)
Certainly do read Lewis’s full essay since true meaning is most assuredly found in full reading. And certainly do take the time to discern if there are relevant ideas and concepts worth pondering (e.g. the limitations of naturalism, the existence of a Creator, the true essence and meaning of life).
But as you read, contextualize wisely. Do not pluck a Lewis quote – even a real one – out of context in order to either satisfy yourself or to be smirkingly provocative (which is not what the referenced blog’s author seemed to be doing, but is certainly what some re-posters are doing).
Lewis played by the rules – whether he was teaching, tutoring, soldiering, rationing, caring for sick and elderly, or quarantining himself during illness. His letters reveal a man who, for all of his worldly renown, did not presume to knock aside the rules or guidelines delivered by those in authority, which isn’t to say he didn’t grumble or grouse about them if he was having a grouchy day or if the occasion warranted.
To those who have read just three paragraphs of Lewis’s 1948 essay addressing the very real fear of atomic annihilation and see within it Lewisian approval to toss aside what may feel like unnecessary and life-squelching limits on certain types of social interaction, I get it. No one likes to be told what to do. And maybe in months or years, the telling will turn out to have been overly reactionary and unnecessary.
But unless the telling defies the laws of decency or requires one to deny Christ, we would all do well to pay attention.
We would also do well to pay attention to Lewis’s underlying and ultimate messages in the essay.
Be sensible: do the necessary daily work (such as bathing babies) as though they matter and have value, which they do.
Be joyful: read books, listen to music, chat with friends as though such things matter to our souls, which they do.
Be thoughtful: consider how the deeper truths of life, the supernatural world, and the Divine inform and intersect with our very existence, which they do.
Be Christlike: sacrifice humbly, love deeply, embrace the here-and-now earthly things that embody this present life, but pursue the now-and-not-yet heavenly things that point towards and reflect the only Real & Lasting Life itself, which they do.
Postscript: And if the current events provide occasion to read (joy!), and if you should choose to read the Chronicles of Narnia (joy, indeed!), then be literarily and Lewisianly orthodox: read them in the order the books themselves propound and the author himself planned: