Five years after C. S. Lewis stopped writing, I started reading what he had written. He stopped because he died—November 22, 1963—and I started because my parents sent to me a twice-read copy of Mere Christianity.
Dad’s markings were big and bold, beginning with his signature of ownership inside the front cover; on the last page he wrote with the flourish the date he finished reading the book: 11/68. Mom annotated the book with her own references; and it was she who brought my attention to the matchless paragraph on page 124:
“And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going around the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” Thus, ended the chapter entitled “Making and Begetting” which begins section four, “Beyond Personality”.
I later bought a first edition of that very book, in January of 1972 on a college study trip to England. I rented a car and drove into Wales and there at Hay-on-Wye found a used bookstore. I bought every Lewis book they had, perhaps a dozen, all still in my possession, all first editions, some first printings.
Lewis wanted to be a poet, but neither the professionals nor the public thought much of his work. His lone book, simply entitled Poems, did not sell well, but I bought it in Wales and learned to love one near the end, entitled “An Apologist’s Evening Prayer”.
But his scholarship (Medieval and Renaissance English Literature), his apologetic writings, and his fiction—especially The Screwtape Letters and The Narnia Chronicles—made him rich and famous (although he gave away so much of what he earned).
But through it all he wrote letters, up to 70 letters a day every day after his notoriety reached around the world. People wrote for advice, and he wrote them back; he considered it a calling, a duty.
Thousands of these letters have been discarded and lost by recipients who never dreamed of their significance. But many others were collected, edited, and published in three volumes, starting in 2004. The editor was the former lecturer in English literature at the University of Kentucky—Walter Hooper, now 88 years old—who went to see Lewis the summer before he died and served for a few months as his private secretary. Hooper then parlayed this short stint into a lifelong vocation as chief editor of the letters, papers, and articles of C. S. Lewis.
Of all the words that Lewis wrote—the sermons, stories, poems, essays, and such—none surpass the letters for brilliance in writing. Brief, witty, learned, and imaginative: they are the best. I even culled from these three volumes (4000+ pages!!!) my own favorites, bound them up, and gave it a title he had used as a description of too many of his short letters, “A Wave of the Hand.”
I have loved every minute of my one-sided, long-distance friendship with Lewis, for it was he who taught me to write with clarity, passion, and imagination, especially the use of metaphor. Now, one of my Nine Marks of Good Sermon is, “it includes at least one metaphor”.
Recently, a double blessing of Lewis came my way. I have had the delightful task of placing all of my Lewis books on shelves newly built in my home here on the Island; and one week ago I found on a table of used books managed by the St. Simons Literary Club a copy of the Lewis biography by another Oxford don, Alister McGrath; it is subtitled Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. It was released in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of C. S. Lewis just shy of his 65th birthday.
But reading this wonderful book and arranging my precious Lewis library reminded me once again of what he had written and where he was wrong. And it has to do with what Lewis described throughout his illustrious career as longing, the feeling that there is something more, something beyond, something still to come. As millions of readers know, longing is at the center of his spiritual and literary life, and also of his religion.
Longing, Lewis thought, was strong evidence that something was out there, something for which we were made, to which we are destined. We live here in the shadowlands, he wrote, and the real world lies elsewhere, over the ocean or through the wardrobe. Anything might be a gateway to the real world for which we were made.
But I think he is wrong.
This is the real world. We are not silent stone creatures, waiting for Jesus-as-Aslan to breathe on us some esoteric spirit. No, we are real people, living in the real world, grappling with real problems, offering real prayers for real relief. This is the world created by God, into which Jesus came as our savior, and in which we must live, and breathe and have our being. This is the place where it is sometimes summer and sometimes winter but, in the wonderful image of Lewis himself, always Christmas. Jesus has come into our world, perhaps through even a wardrobe.
October 31, 2019, Dwight A. Moody