Giving thanks for C.S. Lewis

Giving thanks for C.S. Lewis November 22, 2012
C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis, Wikimedia Commons

Besides Thanksgiving, November 22 this year marks the 49th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death.

I read a newspaper obituary about Lewis that my grandmother kept. She preserved the entire paper. The event was buried in the back–barely two column inches if memory serves. The rest of paper, or at least the majority of it, was dedicated to reporting the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Both men died the same day. Coincidentally, both men answered to Jack.

Though popular, this British author could not compete with an American president, and his passing was choked out by pages and pages of copy about the death of Kennedy.

Waning days

After remembering this fact earlier in the week, I spent some time reading about Lewis’ final years. The biographies of A.N. Wilson, George Sayer, and Alan Jacobs provided windows into his waning days.

A bachelor until late in life, Lewis eventually wed, but the marriage was brief. His wife, the American Joy Davidman, died of cancer in 1960 after just four years of marriage. Following her death, the grieving Cambridge professor found himself a single dad to Joy’s two boys.

Some eleven months later Lewis began experiencing difficulty peeing. Doctors concluded that his prostate was significantly enlarged and that his kidneys were infected, spreading bacteria through his bloodstream and causing heart problems. His condition didn’t go unnoticed by friends. One recalled that he looked “very ill”; another said that he appeared “unwell.”

Besides giving him blood transfusions, doctors put Lewis on a low-calorie diet and ordered him to quit smoking. He disobeyed. “If I did [comply], I know that I should be unbearably bad tempered,” he told George Sayer. “Better to die cheerfully with the aid of a little tobacco, than to live disagreeably and remorseful without it.”

Good spirits

Sayer says that Lewis “never lost his sense of humor.” Indeed, he was famously good natured.

My father, an English teacher, once told me a story that might illustrate just how good natured Lewis was. Another teacher he heard at a conference recounted how she once assigned her college prep students a book review. They could pick any book, and one of the boys in the class chose something by Lewis.

The teacher was excited when the student filed his report. She was a big Lewis fan and had read everything he’d written to that point. But the problem was that Lewis certainly hadn’t written this book. She was convinced the kid made up the report. So–much to the boy’s horror–she sent the report to Lewis.

Six weeks later, the teacher received a response. Lewis was famously serious about answering his correspondence. Inside the letter was a sealed note to the student. She gave the boy the note.

With more than a little fear, he opened it to find words to these effect: “I want to thank you for the review of a book I may someday write.” Lewis went on to say that if the imaginative boy should ever write a book of his own, to please send him a copy.

Lewis never did get to write that book.

Two years after his original diagnosis, he suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. The situation was dire and friends feared the worst. Some came and prayed. A priest gave the sacrament of extreme unction. Amazingly, after the sacrament, Lewis awoke, revived, and asked for a cup of tea.

True to form, he found a joke in it.

“I was unexpectedly revived from long coma,” he wrote Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun with whom he frequently corresponded. “Ought one honor Lazarus rather than Stephen as the protomartyr? To be brought back and have all one’s dying to do again was rather hard.”

The wall of books

Though his health improved some, Lewis resigned his position at Cambridge, and settled into life at his home, The Kilns.

Jacobs records another story that captures his good spirits from the time. Following his resignation, Lewis sent his secretary, Walter Hooper, to collect his things from his rooms at Cambridge–including an extraordinary number of books for which he had little room. Back at the house, writes Jacobs,

some comedy ensued when Lewis talked Hooper into building a wall of books around the sleeping body of Alec Ross, Lewis’s live-in nurse, who had chosen the wrong time and place to take a nap.

Books always formed a key part of Lewis’ life, just as Lewis’ books have now long formed a key part in the lives of many others.

Lewis’ books have been part of my mental atmospherics for two decades now. I read the Space Trilogy in high school and my first year in college, followed by Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. I read Till We Have Faces then as well and have come back to it several times since. Somewhere in that period I also read Sayer’s biography, Jack, for the first time.

A friend’s dad was a minister and had a dust-jacketless hardcover of God in the Dock that he’d given his son. In those dark days before Amazon and AbeBooks, this was a treasure of inestimable value. I traded my friend a nearly-complete collection of Charles Williams’ novels to secure the important collection of essays.

Williams was a close friend of Lewis and wrote a series of eerie stories that were characterized as supernatural thrillers. One, The Place of the Lion, which imagined Plato’s forms breaking into the material world, influenced Lewis’ creation of his most memorable character, Aslan.

Some years later I wanted to reread Williams’ novels. I lucked out and found the set at a used bookstore. But I had the pearl of great price, Lewis’ God in the Dock, and was able to make much use of it.

In time I found and purchased many Lewis volumes: The Four Loves, Christian Reflections, Studies in Words, Miracles, The Weight of Glory, Present Concerns, and others.

The Narnia stories actually came late for me. I only read them about five years ago now. It’s the same story with Reflections on the Psalms, four years ago or so. About two years ago I read The Discarded Image for the first time.

I haven’t checked, but I would guess that I quote Lewis more than any other author on this blog. I keep coming back to his books, particularly his essays.

The pleasure of re-reading

Lewis was always a serious re-reader. “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once,” he once wrote a friend. Rereading “is one of my greatest pleasures,” he said.

Holed up at The Kilns, he reread the Iliad and other books. Sayer lists not only the Iliad and the Odyssey but mentions that he read them in Greek, that he read the Aeneid in Latin, as well as “Dante’s Divine Comedy; Wordsworth’s The Prelude; and works by George Herbert, Patmore, Scott, Austen, Fielding, Dickens, and Trollope.”

Surrounded by his books, Wilson says that Lewis “remained . . . propped up in the very room where Joy had spent so many heroic hours suffering.”

And then he joined her.

It was Friday, November 22. He was cheerful but had a hard time staying awake. He ate breakfast, got dressed, answered some letters. After lunch, his brother Warnie “suggested he would be more comfortable in bed, and he went there.” Warnie took him tea at four. An hour and a half later he heard a crash. Lewis had collapsed at the foot of his bed. Unconscious, as recorded Warnie, “[h]e ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later.”

C.S. Lewis wrote dozens of books, some of profound theological, psychological, literary, and cultural insight. If you’re a fan like me, is there a better way to express our thanks for his life and work than rereading one or two of our favorites this holiday weekend?

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  • Catholics remember saints on their feast day, traditionally the day of their death or close to it. CS Lewis is the closest thing modern protestants have. Not to many people have written as much as he has and retained a high level of respect among all Christians.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Agreed. He’s well loved by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.

  • I used “Mere Christianity” to get points across to my 8 children. We met yesterday minus 2, the youngest had to work, and the oldest lived far far way but her oldest was there with the 4 girls. My husband would have proud…( deceased.1997) at what I looked out to see standing in Thanksgiving prayer….they and their 23 children have such great accomplisments, and goodness…..C.S Lewis works went far and wide…thanks for the reminder of him.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  • His ” men without chests” is most apt for today’s political class.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s a fact. The Abolition of Man, where that idea comes from, is a very timely book. The Orthodox priest Fr. Thomas Hopko cites it often.

  • paul duplechain

    While it is true that Kennedys assasination dominated the news media and culture in November 1963, I can assure you CS Lewis will be read and studied 100 years from now while JFK will simply be a historical footnote.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s very true.

  • I met an elderly man last Sunday who was the newspaper boy for Tolkien. He had also heard Lewis deliver a sermon at a church in Oxford. He described Lewis as being “in another world” (intellectually I presume). On the other hand, he remembered Tolkien with great affection because he received a small gift from him one Christmas. Perhaps this is a reminder that we all have our part to play. For me, Lewis is the grandfather I never met. I’ve read his Narnia books many times over. Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity are also outstanding works. I look forward to meeting Lewis, Tolkien and all the saints who have gone before us when we are finally gathered together in Christ’s presence.

  • Duncan Davie

    Terrific article and a timely reminder of Lewis’ manifold contributions to our Christian faith. But please, next time — can you omit the use of the vulgar synonym for “urinating?” Let’s raise our discourse to a higher level of sophistication.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m sorry if I offended. I did not think the word too vulgar or I would have used another. Forgive me.

      • Jay

        No worries, Joel.The word ‘peeing’ certainly isn’t vulgar.

  • Thanks so much for your tribute to a man whose writings are very dear to me. I gave my best friend Mere Christianity and she soon afterwards came to know Jesus Christ as her personal Savior. I love the way Lewis thinks. It’s delicious. And the Paul D. is correct when he says that: “While it is true that Kennedys assasination dominated the news media and culture in November 1963, I can assure you CS Lewis will be read and studied 100 years from now while JFK will simply be a historical footnote.” That, in itself, is a great tribute to our dear and beloved friend and brother in Christ, C.S. Lewis. Can’t wait to meet him someday.

  • Robert Garner

    The Lord often seems to call Saints home when secular figures pass. I was struck that Mother
    Teresa died the same day as Princess Diana. Princess Diana’s death and the assassination of JFK were great tragedies, but a better world would have understood that it lost more when C. S. Lewis and Mother Teresa departed.

  • David Power

    Very nice article and with some information I did not know about a great man and author.
    The mistake you made is the same one Pope Benedict made in his Jesus Book which is to refer to Lewis as a British author when he saw himself as Irish .

  • Frank

    C.S. Lewis had done more for me and my effort to live up to my faith than any other man. He has accompanied me in more than 20 years of RCIA classes and as said above rereading his works only serves to strengthen their impact. I hope that I may be met by him when I leave the bus and walk into the distant and vibrant mountains. All I need do is listen.

  • Terry Lindvall

    With merry delight I read your tribute and laughed. Thanks Joel for this splendid essay that evokes thanksgiving and faith, even as some of us age quicker than others. You are probably already aware, but Lewis will be welcomed into his own memorial at Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner next year at this time (cf. You gave us a taste of being further up and further on. thanks again. Terry

    • Joel J. Miller

      This made my day, Terry. I did not know about the Westminster memorial. That’s wonderful news. Thank you.

      And for those that don’t know, Terry Lindvall has written one of the great C.S. Lewis books — an exploration and celebration of his humor, Surprised by Laughter. We published it at Thomas Nelson, and there’s a new edition available.

  • Phoenix

    Lovely article about my favorite writer! Just one minor factual correction. Lewis didn’t have a sister — just one brother, Warren Lewis (Warnie.) He did have a “foster sister” Maureen Moore — and that’s another interesting story! And it’s interesting to note that the writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) died on the same day by assisted suicide. Peter Kreeft wrote a wonderful little book that is a three-way after-death debate among Lewis, Huxley, and JFK. Between Heaven and Hell, highly recommended for lovers of Lewis.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Yes. Thank you for that correction. Lewis wrote not his sister Penelope but the Anglican nun, Sister Penelope! I’ve corrected it.

      I remember reading Kreeft’s book, Between Heaven and Hell, in high school. It would probably reward a return visit.

  • Thanks for this great post and the reminder of Lewis’ legacy. I too am a huge Lewis fan. I’ll never forget reading the chapter “Hope” in college in Mere Christianity and the effect it had on me. I find myself going back to him again and again.
    Thank you.

  • Beautiful story, thank you for this. I am from the Philippines, half the world away from where all this began, and have discovered CSL’s writings rather late, already when I am in college after my conversion to Christianity and suddenly, ‘miraculously’ found myself surrounded by all manner of Christian-related literature and culture. We (or in my experience at least) were not taught about Lewis when I was in school (unlike so many other fortunate students out there, I now discover, simply because his works are included in their academic curriculum) except for a very brief mention of him by my English high school teacher in class one day. My curiosity naturally piqued, all the rest I had to research on my own (and this was all before Google). I’m not complaining though; I just wished I had an earlier start at reading his works (when I had more time in my hands). But at least now I could still look forward to more amazing discovery (after Mere Christianity, Weight of Glory, Screwtape Letters and all 7 books of the Narniad)!

  • jim

    Sorry to say I have never read any of his works.I have come across narnia but thought it was for children. Can you suggest a start off read ?

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think the best one to start with is The Screwtape Letters. It’s insightful and humorous. The Weight of Glory and Mere Christianity are also good ones to start with.

  • Noel

    The part of C S Lewis’s work , the Screwtape Letters that almost made me cry was where one of the devils says that what most affected the enemy(God) was when one of his followers, with all evidence of his presence was gone and yet still believed.
    Another was his essay “Learning in War Time. No matter what our circumstances we should always be learning. If you want something else see the dvd ‘The Question of God”, a comparison of the thought of C S Lewis and Sigmund Freud.
    Like Lewis I love to reread books, getting more out of them the second and third time.

  • Jessica

    I think I’ll reread The Pilgrim’s Regress!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Right on. I’ve got a copy but have never read that one.

  • Denn Denning

    Thanks for the article. My wife and I were at the Kilns last summer (2012) and toured the Anglican church where Lewis is buried. The lay tour guide from the church took us to Lewis’ grave in the church cemetery (near Mrs. Moore’s grave if you know the story of Lewis and Paddy Moore). The guide told us, “Lewis’ death was not announced for a week due to the focus on JFK’s death.” He said that Jack’s (C.S.’) burial preceeded the announcement of his death and just a handful attended. Warnie was not there; we were told C.S.’ brother was somewhere drinking away his sorrow. Can any of you shed light on this information?