Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 2nd March 2014
2 March 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
That is the quotation which you’ll find on the most recent memorial to be unveiled in Westminster Abbey. It’s over there in Poets’ Corner and it’s that to CS Lewis, whose fiftieth anniversary of death fell on 22nd November 2013, when a great service was held here to celebrate his life and work.
He was an outstanding man - an academic, a devout Christian, and a prolific and imaginative writer of a huge range of literature – writing more than thirty books during his lifetime.
In my sermons during March I want to look at just five of these books – Surprised by Joy, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, and the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
These will give us just a glimpse of his life and work, but as we look at each one I hope that it will enrich our journey through the coming season of Lent.
We begin today with Surprised by Joy in which Lewis tells the story of the early part of his life and of his eventual conversion to Christianity.
It’s true for most of us that our early childhood had a deep influence on things which happened to us later in life, and also in the way our personality has developed.
Clive Staples Lewis known as Jack to his friends was born in 1898 in Belfast. As he describes his early childhood, he speaks of his family as 'bookish' but also enjoying the open space of their home in Ireland. He writes, 'I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under tiles. Also, of endless books'.
He had a particularly close relationship with his brother; Lewis describes their relationship as like 'Allies' even though they were rather different in temperament. They shared a world of make-belief, an acute sense of humour, and later in their childhood enjoyed the journeys between their home in Ireland to their school in the English countryside.
Lewis was deeply affected by the death of his mother describing how she was lost to him once she became ill and how this also changed his relationship with his father. He writes, 'My father never fully recovered from this loss' and adds, 'With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.'
The next few chapters of his book describe his school days and we get more than a hint of what these were like from the title of Chapter Two, 'Concentration Camp'.
The overwhelming sense of his school days is one of unpleasantness and misery – he describes bad food, uncomfortable uniforms, bullying and abuse, cruelty by staff, his hate of sport, and on the whole very poor teaching.
However, there were some happier moments at his prep school; he talks of this as a period when he made his first real friends and received some inspirational teaching from the headmaster, nick-named Tubbs.
Throughout his youth he enjoyed his own company and the ecstasy of escaping into his imaginary world and the sanctuary of the library. As he describes his personality he says, 'Never at any age did I clamour to be amused; always and at all ages I demanded not to be interrupted'.
This was the period in his life though when he stopped believing in God; describing what a relief it was to be free of the burden of guilt which he associated with Christianity.
Interestingly though, as he describes his atheism he says this, 'I was at this time living, like so many Atheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world'.
Lewis was later sent down to Surrey to be tutored by a man he and his father called 'The Great Knock'.
His real name was Kirk and it was he who taught Lewis to explain his ideas carefully; giving proper evidence to support his opinions. Lewis describes their first meeting at Bookham railway station.
He writes, 'I began to make conversation and said I was surprised at the scenery of Surrey, it was much wilder than I had expected. "STOP!" shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. "What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?"'
It was the time spent with Kirk which equipped Lewis to unite the use his imagination with an outstanding ability to think logically. The intellectual demands made upon him as he delved into an even greater variety of literature than he’d previously enjoyed, prepared him for gaining a scholarship to Oxford.
Like many young men of his generation though, he was destined to join the army and fight in the First World War, arriving in the front line trenches on his nineteenth birthday. However, he heads this chapter in his book, 'Guns and Good Company', saying that he was surprised that he did not dislike the army more.
He was inspired by the courage of his fellow soldiers, admired their display of conscience in such terrible conditions and was touched by the genuine kindness he received at their hands. He was like so many others badly wounded and thought he was going to die.
He says of this experience, 'I felt no fear and certainly no courage' – in fact he was almost disinterested in his feelings at that moment.
It was his return to Oxford at the end of the war which took him on the final part of his journey to embracing the Christian faith.
The subject of joy not surprisingly is referred to throughout this book. Lewis describes joy as those moments when one experiences a sense of yearning, of desire and of awareness that there is more to come.
In the final two chapters he speaks of how he began to be influenced by Christian friends and writers who he respected as intelligent people and yet they believed in God – people such as George Herbert, Dyson, Tolkien, and Chesterton. Gradually the Christian faith not only made sense to him, but he experienced an overwhelming desire to open the door of his life and hand it over to God.
From this point he became much less pre-occupied with his own feelings – joy lay rather in looking beyond and outwards. So what might we take from all this as we prepare to enter the season of Lent?
First, in much the same way as Lewis looks back over his life and thinks about what has influenced him, what has been painful, what has brought comfort and delight; Lent is an excellent time for us to engage in a similar exercise.
As we look at our lives there will be things to give thanks for, things we regret and wish to say sorry for, things we would like to change.
His was a story of a major conversion, but we can experience little conversions and transformation in our lives constantly, if we open ourselves to change.
Second, throughout 'Surprised by Joy' there is an appreciation of silence and space. Lent is an excellent time to consider what we might stop doing in order to create space in our lives – quality time, to pray and reflect on God’s call to us.
Then thirdly, Lewis was deeply indebted to a series of people who taught him, supported him, inspired him and eventually helped him to find God in his life. His journey to faith was something of a struggle because he was a deeply thoughtful personality.
We too may find ourselves struggling from time to time with the great questions of life – around such things as suffering, injustice, the life beyond and so on. There is no shame in having doubts and questions – but we can rejoice in the fact that we make our journey in the company of others and thank God for those who share our burdens on the way.