Thursday, June 05, 2008

At the Kilns: On Death

I recently read C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce. It tells the story of the narrator’s journey from Hell to Heaven on a magic bus. The work is entirely imaginative in that Lewis does not make any attempts to seriously speculate what Hell or Heaven is really like. What he does accomplish, though, is a powerful allegory of salvation and humanity’s determined resistance to the gift of JOY found only in Christ.

It is a strange tale, I must admit. Nevertheless, I found it powerful, especially in portraying our folly as humans. Visitors from Hell encounter--in the “foothills” of Heaven---redeemed saints who they once knew in life. These redeemed saints seek to persuade the condemned--one last time--to turn to Christ. The petty and self-centred sinful nature of humanity is revealed to be so ridiculous and so pathetic (at times) when contrasted with the setting of Heaven, which is vividly portrayed as a fantastical and imaginative landscape. In light of eternity, in light of Heaven, in light of the God of all creation, anything and everything that separates us from Christ should be immediately discarded. Lewis portrays this plainly and forcefully. Frequently during the short read, I pondered my own life and wondered how much I valued Christ and the salvation of souls over my career, my family, my life, my possessions, my “anything” and “everything.”

The book also caused me to ponder death. This became especially potent in light of my Opa’s recent passing. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is told by his mother that death is common.

Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity. (Act I Scene 2)

Death afflicts us all, but it is not “common” in the colloquial sense of the word, that is, mundane or ordinary. We were not created to endure death or the separation that death brings. The fact that we do manage to endure the passing of our loved ones is due to the grace of God. Death itself is not natural, in that we were not created to die. We were created to live eternally in fellowship with God and man.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes candidly about his own grief after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. It is an incredibly revealing account of Lewis’s private thoughts and his pain. Lewis had experienced the death of his mother (when he was 10 years old), the death of his father, the death of fellow soldier Paddy Moore, and the death of his close friend, Charles Williams. Yet, he never seemed to fully accept the “commonness” of death. Originally, A Grief Observed was published under the pseudonym, N.W. Clerk, to hide the fact that the great apologist C.S. Lewis doubted the goodness of God while he was in mourning (N.W. Clerk is short for “I know not what scholar” in Old English). On death, C.S. Lewis writes,

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. 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 died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?
Death IS difficult to handle and impossible to truly understand. Even though death has lost its sting, it still hurts. Coping with death does not come naturally. So much else in life does come naturally… Take for example a mother loving her wrinkly, purplish, alien-like newborn baby. She even calls it beautiful! But maternal love is natural. God made fathers and mothers to love their children. But accepting death... that is not natural nor easily done, despite the obvious and universally known fact that "all that lives must die." As Lewis puts it, one gets “over” the death of a loved one the same way a one-legged man gets “over” loosing his leg. He gets “by” not “over.”

Death is a consequence of sin. Christians have hope in death, but Christians also have hurt in death. Death has no sting for the departed in Christ, but for those left behind, death stings like any other consequence of the great fall of man.

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