Ever since I read Mere Christianity in college as a new believer I have been a lifelong admirer of CS Lewis. He may be better known for his children series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia. He wrote other fiction, including a trilogy of science fiction novels, but Lewis more than just a writer of fiction.
Lewis was a professor, a poet, a critic of English literature, and he was a first-rate Christian thinker with an ability to tease nuanced meaning out of complex ideas with rare clarity in his writing. Having been an atheist almost into his 30’s. Lewis came to Christianity with a wealth of knowledge in the classic languages and literature from a scholarly and secular perspective.
His autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, is a literary cornucopia of allegorical references to the classics. Ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Germanic writings were the universe in which his mind operated and found meaning. He was intimately familiar with the myths found in these writings.
When he became a Christian, and he looked back on that wealth of knowledge with new insight, the language of classic literature became the background and (in some ways) the springboard for his belief in “the true myth”, as he came to call it. The “true myth” is the life, death and resurrection of God who became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
While Lewis is known for being a Christian apologist in addition to being a writer of children’s fiction, he was first and foremost a scholar of classic literature. He was a lifelong professor of English Literature with tenures at Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). His books include a highly regarded and well-used critique of Paradise Lost and a textbook on Sixteenth Century English literature.
To say that Lewis was a prodigious writer and thinker is to understate the fact. He wrote over 30 books of varying types in addition to his “fulltime job” as a distinguished university professor and sought-after speaker.
Given the legacy of thought and writing that Lewis generated, one might suppose that Lewis had no time for the more mundane matters of life. One might suppose that his ego was as prodigious as his works. One might be wrong about such suppositions.
Lewis was one of a kind. Born in 1898, Lewis didn’t marry until 1956. One might suppose that bachelorhood allowed him the luxury of time, but Lewis made a different kind of lifetime commitment that infringed greatly on his time. Lewis took in a woman he didn’t know and cared and provided for her until she died.
The backstory is that Lewis and Paddy Moore met as soldiers in the trenches during the Great War (WWI). They made a pact with each other that the survivor of them would take care of the family of the other if one of them did not survive he war. Lewis, himself, was injured and ended his involvement in the war in the hospital, but Paddy Moore went missing and was never found.
True to his word, CS Lewis, who had interrupted his college years to volunteer for the war, took Paddy’s mother and sister in to live with him on a very modest student’s budget. Lewis cared and provided for Mrs. Moore the rest of her life – a total of 30 years – often doing the household chores himself. After she developed dementia and was moved to a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until she passed.
Perhaps because of that care and provision, Lewis lived a very modest life, but he always found time for hospitality. Lewis was, perhaps, as generous with his hospitality as he was productive in his writing and professorial vocation.
When the Germans invaded Poland, Lewis opened up his home to several groups of children forced to evacuate the big cities. Lewis also regularly hosted the Inklings on Thursday evenings in his classroom for nearly two decades. (They met alternately at the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as The Bird and Baby) on Tuesdays at midday).
The Inklings was more or less an ad hoc group of writers and thinkers who met to discuss their literary works in progress and whatever other subjects suited their fancy, often late into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien was a faithful member of this group from the beginning, reading the Lord of the Rings to his fellow Inklings, who critiqued it, before it was published. Including a small handful of regulars, the group included about 15 frequent visitors and another dozen infrequent visitors and guests over the years.
As noted above, Lewis married later in life. The marriage, itself, was an exercise in hospitality. Lewis opened his home to Joy Gresham Davidman, a writer from New York city, and her two sons David and Douglas. They eventually married in a civil ceremony so she could gain British citizenship, but what began as a gesture of generous hospitality, turned into true romantic affection.
They were married a short while, by a priest this time. Joy had developed cancer, and their wedding vows were exchanged in a hospital. They had four more years together when Joy went into remission, but cancer eventually claimed her. Their unlikely story is the subject of the movie, Shadowlands, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Lewis also wrote about her death in A Grief Observed.
But all of this is prelude to the real purpose for which I write today. My inspiration comes from Douglas Gresham, one of Joy’s sons, who was very young when he went to live with his mother in the home of CS Lewis.
I watched an interview of Douglas Gresham last evening. He lived an interesting life in his own right, but his recollection of “Jack” Lewis, as he always wanted to be called, is what prompts me to write today. I will embed the whole interview at the end of this article.
Lewis received Joy and her two sons into his home at the age of 58, and he became father to them. Lewis lived only 8 more years, and just three years after Joy dies, but he left a lasting impression on Douglas. Though it would be many years before Douglas, himself, would become a Christian like Lewis, Douglas was forever grateful for Lewis as a father figure.
But all of this is to come to the point, which is found in a very simple and straight forward answer to a question that began with the statement of obvious fact: that Lewis was a very busy man.
What was he like in person?
Douglas recalled his mother reading The Chronicles of Narnia to him as a very young boy. When his mother told him they would be going to live with the Lewis, Douglas imagined him to be heroic, like a character in one of his stories.
In person, Douglas was initially disappointed to find that Lewis was “an ordinary man” of middle age and slightly stooped. He was not the sort of man who wore his accomplishments and literary stature on his chest.
To address the comment about Lewis being such a busy man, Douglas recalled that Lewis was never too busy to be interrupted. Lewis expressed the opinion that interruptions were more important than his work, and Douglas recalled that he very much lived as if that were so. It wouldn’t matter how often he was interrupted; Lewis was always generous in taking time with people, including young Douglas.
Who among us sees the world as Lewis did: considering the interruptions of people to be more important than the work to which we are devoted?
Who among us had so much influence as CS Lewis?!
Lewis, the ordinary man, had a lifelong influence on his step-son who lived with him not even ten years. the extraordinary influence of an ordinary man is found in the reality that Lewis lived what he believed. It was Lewis, after all, who penned these words:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
There were no ordinary people in the world of CS Lewis. Lewis, himself, was certainly no ordinary person. At his funeral, his friend and pastor, Austin Farrar, spoke these words of Lewis:
His characteristic attitude to people in general was one of consideration and respect. He did his best for them and he appreciated them. He paid you the compliment of attending to your words. He did not pretend to read your heart. He was endlessly generous.
For the whole discussion with Douglas Gresham with more insights into the life of CS Lewis and the interesting story of his own life, see Talking Point interview with Derick Bingham below: