The Conversion Story of C. S. Lewis
The most dejected, reluctant convert in all England
"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, 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" (Surprised By Joy,ch. 14, p. 266).
Speaking these words is Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends simply as "Jack", a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University until 1954. Lewis was born in 1898 into an Anglo-Irish family at Belfast. After what he calls a blandly Christian childhood he threw himself heart and soul into a rationalist and idealist atheism that he professed and lived.
Young Jack's intelligence was subtle, his curiosity boundless, his acumen amazing, his dialectic power exceptional; yet something came into play that shattered his seemingly firm belief in the inexistence of God, for in life there is always something else, something unforeseen, unnoticed or surprising.
Surprised by Joy is perhaps one of the most beautiful titles that can be given to a book that is to tell the story of a conversion and it is this title that C.S. Lewis chose for his autobiography, which he wrote at the age of 56. However, it concerns only his first 30 years, because, as he wrote in the preface, "I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting".
In 1955, C.S. Lewis' passionate interest in the first years of human life was a natural, as it were, "obligatory" choice. In those very years the publication of the seven episodes of the Chronicles of Narnia was nearing completion. This was the literary work which, together, with the Screwtape Letters, was to place him among the most read authors, famous throughout the world (it overshadowed, however, his excellent philological research in mediaeval Anglo-Saxon literature).
Even his well-known novels of pure fantasy focus on the theme of youth and conversion. In a passage from Mere Christianity, Lewis speaks of an "emblematic" boy whom he calls Dick, and writes several words that could be taken as summing up the Narnia saga: "It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost him crucifixion....
"As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is only when Dick realizes that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God — it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose".
Dick is not only Edmund, the small boy for whom the lion Aslan gives his life, letting himself be killed in the second episode of Narnia; Dick is obviously Jack.
To borrow Bonhoeffer's words, the story of Lewis' conversion recounted in Surprised by Joy is a story of resistance and surrender. From this viewpoint the book can be seen as a diary in which the writer notes the movements of his soul, shaken, enthralled and at last overcome by God's assault, a diary of Joy (God's Name, according to Lewis), to be followed six years later by the very short and intense A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife (who, as chance would have it, was called Joy).
'No longer an amiable agnostic'
In the middle of his autobiography Lewis writes: "Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about 'man's search for God'", but Lewis is no longer an "amiable agnostic" and no longer speaks "cheerfully", because he has experienced God's "compelling embrace" and how awe-inspiring his beauty and joy can be. These were the two poles on which Jack staked his entire life, Beauty and its fruit, Joy, "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense), has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is."
In the light of this idea of joy, so intermingled with pain, one glimpses the depth of the image of Aslan, the divine lion who plays the lead role in the Chronicles of Narnia, one of the most surprising Christological figures of 20th-century literature. Aslan, a symbol at the same time of God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer and who sacrifices himself for love, is a lion, at the same time good and majestic, gentle and terrible, because for Lewis God is a lion who goes in search of man, hunts him down and embraces him.
"Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully", he confides in Surprised by Joy. "Dangers lie in wait for him on every side".
A permanent state of siege, this is what life was for C.S. Lewis, an assault that, paradoxically exalted the humility of God who, like the father of the Prodigal Son, goes in search of all, even the one who endeavours to flee from his embrace.
"I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?... The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation".
The world is a dangerous place, especially for those who desire to keep their incredulity intact and prevent God from starting this process of liberation.
Perils undermining his atheism
And Lewis lists all the perils that attacked and then undermined the foundations of his atheism: the beauty of nature and art, the gift of joy with which life regales us in an ever sudden and unexpected manner and then the encounter with others, real people, physically known and those met through the mediation of reading.
Among these numerous "dangerous encounters", it is worth citing three which played a crucial role in the process of the conversion of the English writer: Chesterton, MacDonald and Tolkien.
"In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for", he writes in Surprised by Joy. "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises', as Herbert say, 'fine nets and stratagems'. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous".
It was to be precisely Chesterton's books, (namely The Eternal Man), and those of MacDonald, (in particular The Shadows), that "would prepare" young Jack for the "capitulation" which, however, would only happen with the final blow, dealt by his meeting with Tolkien.
They met towards the end of the 1920s in Oxford, both enamoured of the ancient sagas and legends, and a more than 40-year-long friendship was to develop between them which led to the birth of the novels that are famous today: Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
Although in 1929 Jack was already on his knees and had prayed to God desperately and reluctantly, it was Tolkien's friendship that brought him to the encounter with Christ. On 19 September 1931, Jack and "Toilers" (as Tolkien was called by his closest friends), together with their common friend Hugo Dyson, were taking their usual after-dinner stroll in the grounds of Magdalen College and began discussing ancient myths and the Truth "hidden" in these legends.
They talked until after three o'clock in the morning and a few days later Lewis wrote to his old friend Arthur Greeves, saying: "I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ, in Christianity.... My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it", and that he would explain it at some other time.
Like Nicodemus, Lewis the intellectual had his night filled with light and his life changed radically. From that moment he became an ardent defender of faith regained and a refined popularizer of Christian truth: still today his essays on faith, grief and love are among the most effective works of 20th century Christian apologetics.
In this regard his parable is reminiscent of Chesterton's; although Lewis never succeeded in taking the formal steps to enter the Catholic Church (although he did so substantially, which is borne out by the numerous signs of his crypto-Catholicism, and not the least his splendid correspondence with Don Giovanni Calabria, his story, like that of the inventor of Father Brown, was that of a heart and a mind that surrendered to the joy which flows from the Good News and sweeps away all the fantasies and lucubrations of human rationalism (quite different from reason, which is a marvellous gift of God).
Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922, a few years before Lewis, and was thus able to pass on to us two affirmations to which Jack would have fully subscribed.
The first is found in his essay: The Catholic Church and Conversion,in which he declares: "The mark of faith is not tradition; it is conversion. It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity.... A century or two hence Spiritualism may be a tradition and Socialism may be a tradition and Christian Science may be a tradition. But Catholicism will not be a tradition. It will still be a nuisance and a new and dangerous thing...".
The second is found in a poem, written precisely on the occasion of his conversion to the Catholic faith:
"...The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free;
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live"
Weekly Edition in English
16 July 2008, page 4
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