Reflections On “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis – Episode #60

If you live long enough, you’ll be forced to wrestle with grief. While grief might creep into our life through a wide range of personal tragedies, most commonly, grief finds its place in our lives when someone we love passes away.

As some of you who know me and follow this podcast might be aware, this past week my friend and former coworker, Bill Fehr, passed away unexpectedly. Bill Fehr had previously been a guest on this podcast back in January for episode #44 in which he talked about his amazing life journey and unique career as a bike messenger in Charlotte, NC. Bill also worked with me to help coordinate and create a podcast interview I did with Charlotte’s most famous street preacher, Sam Bethea, which was also my one year anniversary podcast show.

In today’s podcast, I want to talk about how I’m processing Bill’s untimely death. And to help facilitate this, I decided this week to read and discuss a small lesser known book by C.S. Lewis called “A Grief Observed.” (which you can read for free online). Lewis is of course most popular for his Chronicles Of Narnia children’s book series, as well as his Christian writings, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters,” amongst many other popular books.

About “A Grief Observed”

“A Grief Observed” is a short collection of writings from the personal journal of C.S. Lewis published after the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, who lost a painful battle with cancer only 4 years into their marriage. The book is gut wrenching, raw, and honest, as Lewis wrestles with the death of his wife, and the test this placed on his faith.

The book may come as something of a shock for those not prepared to read it, as Lewis maligns God’s character and His goodness throughout the book, referring to Him multiple times as a “Cosmic Sadist” and “Eternal Vet.” Such may come as something of a shock to many, considering Lewis was an atheist turned Christian, and became someone who was known as an outspoken defender of the Christian faith.

In today’s podcast, I will discuss this issue in greater length. So, please be sure to listen to it. Here are some noteworthy quotes from “A Grief Observed” that I am wanting to talk about as I process my own loss. For anyone who was friends with Bill Fehr, or if you are someone who has recently lost a loved one, I hope and pray the discussion of this book helps you as you deal wrestle with your own grief.

Quotes Discussed From “A Grief Observed” (Chapter 1)

  • “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be– or so it feels– welcomed with open arms. But go to Him your need is desperate, when other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away…. Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
  • “He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand? Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,” but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’ … Our elders submitted and said ‘Thy will be done.'”
  • “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”
  • “I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”

Quotes Discussed From “A Grief Observed” (Chapter 2)

  • “Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well– how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first give minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that- or disliked this, or knew so-and-so–or jerked his head back the way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me those ten years. How can I hope this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes– like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night–little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes– tend seconds– of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone. What pitiable can’t to say ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. “
  • “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand…. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves.”
  • “Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good”? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest the opposite? What have we set against it?”
  • “What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing us for the next torture.”
  • “And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting, just hanging about waiting for something to happen…. Now there is nothing but time.”

Quotes Discussed From “A Grief Observed” (Chapter 3)

  • “The pleasure of hitting back… And of course, as in all abusive language, ‘what I thought’ didn’t mean what I thought to be true. Only what I thought would offend Him (and His worshippers) most. That sort of thing is never said without some pleasure. Gets it ‘off your chest’. You feel better for a moment.”
  • “What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?”

Quotes Discussed From “A Grief Observed” (Chapter 4)

  • “But by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy Him. Better than nothing.”
  • “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast… Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins…. All reality is iconoclastic… ”
  • The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your meere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.”
  • “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour.”
  • “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child, you don’t understand.'”
  • “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable… How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask-half our great theological and metaphysical problems– are like that. “
  • “I can’t reach the ghost of an image, a formula, or even a feeling, that combines them. But the reality, we are given to understand, does. Reality the iconoclast once more. Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.”

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