(Photo of C.S. Lewis courtesy of Wikipedia)
(This post originally written for Speaking to the Soul, November 22, 2011)
Readings for the feast day of Clive Staples Lewis, November 22:
1 Peter 1:3-9
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
--John 16:7-15 (NRSV)
Here's my confession: Really, I've never cared much for C.S. Lewis' work. I read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy because I was friends with the geeky fantasy and sci-fi kids, but I thought Tolkien and Ray Bradbury were far better. I never thought his Christian apologetics held much water (and frankly, in that era of the late 70's I got tired of every hippy-dippy evangelical quoting him--Evangelicals quoting Anglicans? Made no sense.) I just kind of wrinkled up my nose at his trilemma as a false dilemma. But there's one thing on which C.S. Lewis and I are two peas in a pod--the notion that conversion to Christianity is the first step in a very long journey, not an end unto itself.
"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night," Lewis wrote, in Surprised by Joy, "feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
I totally understand what the feeling of being a "dejected and reluctant convert" is like. I spent 20+ years outside the door of any church, convinced that I was, indeed a Christian, but one incredibly unwelcome in the church because of what I believed at the time to be heretical thoughts. Those thoughts included notions of our own slice of the Incarnation residing within us, inclusivity in a way most churches were not (and many still not) ready to accept, and my own formidable stack of doubts despite asserting I was, indeed, a Christian.
Yet, when I returned in my new incarnation of "Me, as a Christian," it was almost like being a precocious child in a new school. It was clear I had plenty of knowledge and "book learning," but I needed a LOT of formation. I had to reconcile "The way I used to understand God and rejected," with "The way I am now beginning to understand God and can accept." I could totally identify with Lewis' own statement about the beginning of this journey of conversion.
John's words echo this--"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now."
When any of us first begin to "get serious about God," that feeling of not understanding, or of doubt, seems wrong somehow. "They're going to think I'm a heretic if I say I think this," was a constant thought for me early on. But it's important to understand it is not the end of the world with our relationship with God if we admit things like, "Ok, I am not so sure what the Resurrection really was or really means," or "I just don't really buy everything about the Nicene Creed." I don't think when we consciously begin life anew as an earnest follower of Christ, we will have all revealed to us as if we were struck by lightning. I think we grow into it, slowly. (Sometimes, so incredibly slow we think we are going backward.)
The totality of how we become part of the kingdom in the "now" is hard to swallow when all we think we are doing in the beginning is hedging our bets for a slot in Heaven. We are not ready for the power revealed in the partaking of the Sacraments. We're not awake to the possibility that prayer is so much more than petitioning God in a dance where hopefully, our wishes are granted--that instead, being called into prayer is to be called into a deep and dangerous proposition. If we start listening to what God's will is for each of us, we will quickly discover we've been sent to do some rather unnerving work, and that we will be gnawed upon to get off our duffs and do something about it. We find that being sent deeply into our prayer places requires being lashed to the deck of a raft sent into the rapids.
At the beginning of this journey, we would not be able to bear these things if we knew they were coming. It takes time. The life of C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is no end point to learning in faith--that it is, indeed, a life-long pilgrimage. Even when we thought we were wandering around outside the church, we could never have borne the thought that our "time away" was not really time away at all--instead, it was ongoing formation.