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C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis

The Shadowlands (cf. Job 19: 25)

Rarely in motion pictures are the eternal questions of love, suffering and life depicted with such a degree of sensitivity and poignancy then in the 1993 motion picture, Shadowlands; a dramatic portrayal of the famous British author, C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), struggling with God, – writes Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania in The Church and Life Newspaper.

Married for only a few years to Joy Gresham (1915 – 1960), Lewis as Shadowlands comes to its climax must now face the painful reality of Joy losing her brave battle against cancer. Throughout the film we have witnessed Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, and defender of God’s Providence, emotionally torn between his very real love for God – and the situation of emotional agony he sees daily enveloping him. In a series of beautiful interplays, Lewis, and his friend, an Anglican minister, Harry Harrington, conduct impromptu debates about God and suffering. At one stage, when Joy is in remission; Harry reassuringly comments to C.S. Lewis (Jack): Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.”; only to have Lewis sharply reply: “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” Then after Joy’s death the two friends are seen once more locking horns over the presence of God in Lewis’ tragedy. Attending a social gathering for the first time after the funeral, Harry greets Lewis: “Anything I can do?” Lewis responds with the stinging retort: “Yes, just don’t tell me it’s all for the best, that’s all.” Harry retreats with the discrete comment: “Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.” At this point the full weight of Lewis’ sad musings are revealed: “God knows, but does God care? … We’re the creatures, aren’t we? We’re the rats in the cosmic laboratory. I’ve no doubt the experiment is for our own good, but… it still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn’t it? It won’t do. It’s this bloody awful mess, and that’s all there is to it. I’m sorry. I am sorry. Just not fit company tonight, that’s all.” As the movie closes, Lewis shares his thoughts regarding this time in his life – providing the viewer with a powerful rationale about love and loss: Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal

It is but natural for the individual to feel angry about tragedy and loss in one’s life. Harrington’s comment to Lewis: “Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.”; although theologically very sound, in fact ignores the duality in every person, between what the intellect knows to be true, and what our emotions are feeling at a particular moment. God does not wish us to be theological automatons, who like the Stoics of old, train ourselves to feel no degree of suffering because our rational minds tell us that the emotion serves no great purpose. If indeed, this is what God had wanted from us – then why did God, in the Person of Christ, weep over the loss of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew that he had the power to raise his dead friend back to life in a mere matter of moments (cf. John 11: 35). God does not wish us to be a pilgrim people on earth, so attracted to suffering, that we begin to enjoy it being inflicted on ourselves, and become impervious to others who are experiencing tragedy. No. God wants of us to be people of real emotion, but similarly a people of hope and not despair. For this reason, St. Paul instructs the community in Thessalonika: But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 17, Revised Standard Version)

The spectacle presented to us on a starry night is sometimes incomparably more beautiful than anything to be seen on even the sunniest day. In the daytime, doubtless, our view may extend far over the surrounding country, and even to the sun itself, though its light takes eight minutes to reach us.

As human beings we live in the shadows – shadows cast by a cloud of unknowing that hang over us all – a cloud caused by the limitations of our intellect and a Divine plan far greater than we can fathom. Garrigou-Lagrange concludes, that indeed it is true that through God’s eyes – there is meaning in all that happens, and although we do live in the shadowlands, it is during this very Dark Night that the human being is capable of seeing the furthest – seeing the distant stars, that in times of bright light, are hidden from our view: “The sun, in fact, must first be hidden before we can see the stars and have a glimpse of the unfathomable depths of the sky. The spectacle presented to us on a starry night is sometimes incomparably more beautiful than anything to be seen on even the sunniest day. In the daytime, doubtless, our view may extend far over the surrounding country, and even to the sun itself, though its light takes eight minutes to reach us. But in the darkness of the night we see at a single glance thousands of stars, although the light from even the nearest requires four and a half years to reach us. From the spiritual point of view the same holds true: as the sun prevents our seeing the stars, so in human life there are things which by their glare obstruct our view of the splendors of the faith. It is fitting, then, that from time to time in our lives Providence should subdue this glare of inferior things so as to give us a glimpse of something far more precious for our soul and our salvation.” (Garrigou-Lagrange, 1937, p. 260).

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Tragic as indeed Lewis’ sufferings were, his writings after having journeyed through the shadowlands have inspired millions of people to come to terms, themselves, with a grief that every human being who has ever loved must face; and as Dante in his La Divina Commedia writes, after describing his fabled journey from Hell to Paradise – no degree of sadness for the Christian is ever permanent – for there is always hope – even in the darkest of nights; this hope in Christ is the key for passing through the shadowlands, and into a world where all that was once hidden will be made known: “We climbed, he first and I behind, until, through a small round opening ahead of us I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, And we came out to see once more the stars.” (Dante Alighieri, 1985, Paradiso, Canto XXXIV: 191)

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This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, April 2017.