THE great collect for Advent Sunday urges us “to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light” while we are mortal, so that, when we enter into immortality, we will flourish into eternal life. This year, Advent Sunday falls on the birthday of a great intellect and Christian disciple: C. S. Lewis.
Lewis is part of my “armour of light”. I carry him in my heart and in my mind.
In his writings, I find the essence of my youth, the beginning of my independent reading, and the gateway to my imagination. Lewis’s own love of literature goes before me and beckons me; but he also points me back to my past, and the moment when I first became aware of God.
I am seven years old, and overwhelmed by joy and sadness in equal measure having just watched a cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is Easter Day, and I know that I feel expanded by the story, but am unable to articulate why or how. Instead, I go into the back garden and think about what I have seen and heard, while I pace around on the pair of stilts that my godfather has recently made for me. Everything feels larger than ordinary life.
A few days later, I buy a copy of the book with some pocket money (85p), and my adventure with reading — and with God — truly begins. The rest of the Narnia books followed, but I would always return to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It became part of my outlook.
Years later, I discovered Lewis’s theological writings. I was an undergraduate, and facing a crisis of faith. A friend gave me a copy of Mere Christianity, like a lifebelt tossed to a drowning man. Lewis carried me to the shore and enabled me to get my breath back. I was thrilled earlier this year to visit The Kilns, the house he lived in from 1930 to 1963, and to see where he would kneel down, next to his bed, and say his prayers.
C. S. LEWIS was an atheist until the age of 32. Then, as he writes in his memoir Surprised by Joy, he felt “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet”.
Lewis’s appreciation of myth enabled him to accept the centrality of scripture. He recalls his journey towards Christianity: “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. . . If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.”
Reading Lewis gives me fortitude, and emotional and mental strength. Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (along with justice, temperance, and prudence) that Lewis writes about in Mere Christianity. “Guts”, he writes, “is perhaps the nearest modern English. You will notice, of course, that you cannot practise any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.”
I find fortitude in his prose style: its clarity, directness, calm persuasion, aphoristic quality (there are many anthologies of Lewis’s work), and in Lewis’s own tough-mindedness.
His mind was sharpened and filed in his teens by his rigorous tutor, William Kirkpatrick (who would become Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). He taught Lewis how to think and write with an indefatigable logic that, undaunted by difficulty, reaches ever more deeply to unearth the truth and to present it with his own salty tang of rhetoric.
Lewis is fond of antithesis and contradiction, of turning things on their head in order to show them the right way up: “Our Lord,” he writes in The Weight of Glory, “finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In the magical land of Narnia, the great lion Aslan speaks to several of the children alone: words intended only for that particular child, like the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas gives Peter a sword and shield, Susan a bow and arrows and a small ivory horn, and Lucy some miraculous cordial and a dagger.
In Prince Caspian, set centuries later in Narnia time, the children take up their gifts again in an ancient treasure house of the now ruined castle of Cair Paravel. Lewis places special emphasis on this moment: “All the battles and hunts and feasts came rushing into their heads together.” Peter’s shield of faith and his sword of the spirit allude to the armour of God that St Paul writes about in Ephesians 6.10-18. Susan’s bow and arrows evoke William Blake’s “bow of burning gold” and “arrows of desire” in “Jerusalem”.
ON Advent Sunday, the children’s gifts from Father Christmas become like our armour of light: symbols of immortality in this our transitory life. This central, Christian truth is of profound importance to Lewis’s writings. In Surprised by Joy he illustrates this crisply: “If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing.” We are mortals living towards eternity in a God-incarnated universe.
Advent is a lion, and Lewis is one of the voices crying in the wilderness. There is something of St John the Baptist about him: Lewis, too, calls us to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth. He is keen to emphasise that we do not possess any luminosity of our own. In The Great Divorce, the fantasy writer who inspired Lewis, George Macdonald, shows him around heaven and says: “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him, and bad when it turns from Him.”
Lewis shows us that our earthly armour needs to be given up, like Eustace’s dragon-scales in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, otherwise we become dark and vulnerable creatures, fretting, even petrified. It is Love that calls us out of the shadows, like the lion Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle to bring them to life.
Lewis took pains to define and articulate how God’s love for us is present in our different kinds of loving, and how these are related and revelatory: affection, friendship, sexual love, and charity. The Four Loves provides important insight into Lewis’s inner being.
“Friendship” love is especially interesting and important to him because, although it is a great gift, it is not absolutely essential to our existence. Many people, writes Lewis, go through life quite happily without experiencing the special kind of friendship he describes: one of “naked personalities”, unconditional loyalty, no expectations, and everything open and equal. Lewis clearly found the Kingdom of God through his excellent and intimate friendships.
Lewis is my Advent watchman, my guardian angel, and my friend. I hear the voice of love in him, and I want to follow it because I know it will be good for me. He continues to influence and enhance my life, my discipleship.
When I was ordained, a friend congratulated me with Lewis’s words: “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.” In ministry, I continue to see his short and powerful A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife, bring consolation to those raw with the loss of loved ones. His works are part of my wider scripture, my “armour of light”.
I hope that C. S. Lewis will one day be included in the Anglican Lectionary, and I have written this Collect for him:
who so gifted and blessed
our fellow disciple, C. S. Lewis
with intellect and imagination
to hear the sound of your loving roar,
grant that we, knowing we are made for immortality,
may be guided by your Holy Spirit
into the ways of truth, fortitude, and hope,
and be overwhelmed by the joy of your Kingdom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is head of learning and research for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and an NSM at St Andrew’s, Shottery.