While J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are well known for their brilliant fantasy worlds, many of their personal letters and other works have profound teachings on both joy and grief. These two British writers, who left literary legacies like few others, remind us that both grief and joy will weave deep in our souls throughout our lives. That is both hard and beautiful, but each making us all the more human.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
It was after his wife died from cancer that Lewis wrote this short, yet profound work. His collection of thoughts and observances so close to her death reveal a depth of honesty and raw emotion. It isn’t full of theological arguments on grief or five steps to overcoming your pain. It is, just as he named it, observations while grieving.
In the introduction Lewis’ stepson Douglas H. Gresham wrote: “A Grief Observed is not an ordinary book. In a sense it is not a book at all; it is, rather, the passionate result of a brave man turning to face his agony and examine it in order that he might further understand what is required of us in living this life in which we have to expect the pain and sorrow of the loss of those whom we love.” He goes on to say it is “the power of unabashed truth.”
I believe one of the reasons this work continues to touch the hearts of millions is that Lewis gives the reader permission to grieve fully. His experience, so vulnerable and honest on the page, gives any who come across his words the freedom to not hide or shy away from pain or grief. We don’t need superficial platitudes or answers as we grieve. There’s no “perfect Christian” response to grief. Trite words, Lewis proves, will not bring us peace or healing.
Instead, by reading Lewis’ words, I am reminded that there’s no right path to healing. As Lewis wrote, “Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…”
Lewis’ words remind me of those penned in Psalm 77. In it the author writes:
“I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Psalm 77:1-7 (NIV)
As I read these words, I feel the deep distress the author is in. He cried out to the Lord, begging for his help. He too, wasn’t afraid of demanding answers and through the process of crying out, questioning, and pleading, found his peace. In this valley, he remembered:
“Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” Psalm 77:10-12 (NIV)
It was similar for Lewis, who through demanding answers and not shying away from his pain, found his peace, even when it meant his life would forever be different. As he shared, he continued to live his life with a limp:
“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”
In The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher, we learn of a term that was newly minted by Tolkien: eucatastrophe.
After listening to a sermon that shared the story of a young boy, where the parents thought they were about to lose him (due to illness), the boy suddenly made a positive turn and asked for some food. On this, Tolkein went on to say, “It is quite unlike any other sensation. And all of a sudden I realized what it was: the very thing that I have been trying to write about and explain – in that fairy-story essay that I so much wish you had read that I think I shall send it to you. For it I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” (Bold emphasis mine)
He later went on to write that “I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible…and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”
“Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one.” I can’t help but pause, especially on this Good Friday, on this line; where joy and sorrow are one. How true this is in our lives.
In my nearly 40 years on this planet, I continue to learn that both joy and sorrow shape me deeply and how much I, and all of us, need never to shy away from feeling both deeply. Asking the hard questions, railing at God… these are what draw us to deeper intimacy with the Lord. Nor should we miss glimpses of sudden truth, happiness, and joy. Limp on, crawl on when you need, rejoice when you experience deep happiness. Humanity and life are rarely black and white, but that doesn’t mean the end result still won’t be beautiful. I can say this with deep confidence because He is Risen Indeed.