To most, C.S. Lewis is probably known for his fantastic imagination. The Chronicles of Narnia have been a core part of millions of people’s childhoods, and with good reason: Lewis builds out a whole world and develops a rich array of characters, and the themes he develops are provocative enough for most parents to enjoy the books, too.
Many others know Lewis for his incisive mind and Christian faith, which combined to make one of the best popular Christian works of apologetics ever written, Mere Christianity. Originally delivered as a series of radio addresses to Britain during World War II, the book has come to be one of the most influential Christian books of the last century.
But while these works show aspects of the character of Lewis, they do not display the man himself. Eerdmans Publishers has re-released a book this year that provides just that window into the man his friends called simply Jack—Letters to a Christian Lady, originally published in 1967, four years after Lewis’s death.
The book is a compilation of Lewis’s side of his correspondence with an unnamed lady living in America. They exchanged letters almost monthly, and sometimes more frequently, for almost 13 years. The very first letter provides the first bit of texture we see of Lewis’s personality. The lady has apparently written a letter praising his work and sharing some of her personal troubles, and Lewis responds:
Thank you for your most kind and encouraging letter. I should need to be either of angelic humility or diabolical pride not to be pleased at all [with] the things you say about my books….May I assure you of my deep sympathy in all the very grievous troubles that you have had. May God continue to support you….I will have you in my prayers.
Throughout the letters we see examples of Lewis’s warm piety. His Christian faith was no academic affair, and it deeply shaped the way he lived and viewed the world. He concludes most of his letters to the lady with a variant of the line "Let us continue to pray for each other," and we get the sense that he really meant it.
His warm piety is also evident in the way that he approached death. He faced a number of physical difficulties throughout his life, but he could sense his time was drawing to a close in the last couple of years. This sense of the end was not a source of pain or anxiety for him, however, and he exhorted the lady not to fear in the face of death as well:
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 hairshirt 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.
Lewis’s piety, however firm and warm, did not inoculate him against the pains of this life, and he clearly felt them acutely. Indeed, he experienced one of the worst possible torments: the death of a spouse. He married Joy Davidman effectively on her deathbed, knowing, in his words, that he "may soon be, in rapid succession, a bridegroom and a widower." She rallied and lived for several more years, during which time Lewis’s letter take on a greater vitality—the reader can almost feel his joy at his companionship with her.
But then the cancer returned, and in 1959 he wrote, fearing the worst:
Apparently the wonderful recovery Joy made in 1957 was only a reprieve, not a pardon The last x-ray check reveals cancerous spots returning in many of her bones…We are in retreat. The tide has turned. Of course God can do again what He did before. The sky is not now so dark as it was when I married her in hospital. Her courage is wonderful and she gives me more support than I can give her.
The dreadful thing, as you know, is the waking each morning—the moment at which it all flows back on me.
Yet he never paused his correspondence with the lady, even with his wife dying. He wrote on April 19th, 1960, "But pray for us: the sky grows very dark." And then on July 15th, he jotted this short note:
I’ve just got your letter of the 12th. Joy died on the 13th. I can’t describe the apparent unreality of my life since then. She received absolution and died at peace with God. I will try to write again when I have more command of myself. I’m like a sleep-walker at the moment. God bless.
Lewis continued to mourn his deceased wife two years later. He wrote to the lady that he was recovering from some illness, but "As I get better I feel the loss of Joy more. I suppose the capacity for happiness must re-awake before one becomes fully aware of its absence."
This line is just one of many glimpses we see into the incisive mind so often on display in his other books, especially his non-fiction books such as The Four Loves. That he includes these nuggets in his correspondence shows how effortless his insight was. That he included such careful thoughts in his letters to a lady he had never met in person shows how generous and gracious he was.
The letters also provide glimpses into Lewis’s very British humor. He quips at one point, as a parenthetical, "that journalists can be saved is a doctrine, if not contrary to, yet certainly above, reason!" And he shares with the lady his disgust with administration: "Yes, we have the word ‘dither’—and the thing too," he writes the lady. He continues:
And our offices are in a dither too. This is so common that I suspect there must be something in the very structure of a modern office which creates Dither. Otherwise why does our "College Office" find full time work for a crowd of people in doing what the President of the College, 100 years ago, did in his spare time without a secretary and without a typewriter? (The more noise, heat, and smell a machine produces the more power is being wasted!)
The letters on the whole are characterized by a sense of Lewis’s connection to the world and the people in his life. He hated writing letters, he says at multiple points—especially around Christmas, when the overflow of letters took up much of his time and when he wrote to the point of physical pain—but he kept up a rigorous correspondence with not only this lady but with many others as well.
This connection he had with people around him forms as much of a theme as can be divined from a set of occasional letters. Early in his correspondence with the lady, who apparently repeatedly fell on hard times, Lewis encourages her to accept the charity of others. In 1953, Lewis writes:
I suppose—tho’ the person who is not suffering feels shy about saying it to the person who is—that it is good for us to be cured of the illusion of "independence". For of course independence, the state of being indebted to no one, is eternally impossible. Who, after all, is more totally dependent than what we call the man "of independent means". Every shirt he wears is made by other people out of other organisms and the only difference between him and us is that even the money whereby he pays for it was earned by other people. Of course you ought to be dependent on your daughter and son-in-law. Support of parents is a most ancient and universally acknowledged duty. And if you come to find yourself dependent on anyone else you mustn’t mind.
Yet despite this encouragement to be dependent, Lewis acknowledges his own anxieties immediately after:
But I am very, very sorry. I’m a panic-y person about money myself (which is a most shameful confession and a thing dead against Our Lord’s words) and poverty frightens me more than anything else except large spiders and the tops of cliffs.
This dependence Lewis encourages and the honesty he displays are of a piece with the simple fact of his letters: He was not interested in pretension or aloofness, but rather with full engagement with the world and those in his orbit. His other books show a curiosity about and analysis of the human condition only possible when one is fully engaged with the world. But he wasn’t satisfied to be a cultural critic. Lewis wrote because he loved people and saw himself as connected to them.
It is tempting to mourn the lost art of letter writing today, and Lewis, while perhaps not a master, certainly contributed to the art, as this book beautifully captures. What we can learn from Lewis, however, is not how to write letters, which were sometimes so short they were "More a wave of a hand than a letter," as he put it. What we can learn, through Lewis’s example, is the richness of a life connected, though concerted effort, to the experiences of others and the engrossing texture of the world. Lewis was no atomized soul.
We can achieve that kind of engaged life without writing physical letters, but we cannot achieve it without communicating, privately, to real people, in more than 140 characters.
Speaking of which, I have an email to write to an old friend.