Book Review: A Grief Observed – By C.S. Lewis

cslewisC.S. Lewis is one of those authors who I know I can always go to for a good read. Sometimes – many times – I disagree with him, but it’s always a good read, and most times he has some brilliant insights. But most of the time he’s writing in the style of an academic, which I also like; The Problem of Pain is a good example of this type. A Grief Observed stands against this trend. The Problem of Pain is academic. A Grief Observed is raw.

For context, A Grief Observed is Lewis’ journal following the loss of his wife to cancer. It’s visceral, and lucid. It’s Lewis figuring out how to process his wife’s death, how to process the things he knew as fact in The Problem of Pain but had never had to really deal with personally – those things he knew theoretically but not existentially – which now that they have hit home take him to the point of questioning his faith. It’s a guided tour through the testing of his faith, and you watch as he comes to terms with the pain and loss and finds healing.

The most hitting part of the book is that every now and then a lone line will be directed towards his wife (always referring to her as “dear” at these points), and then it’s like a punch in the gut, and you remember even more clearly that what you’re reading are the personal journals of a man in incredible pain.

The text is wonderfully moving, and has some of Lewis’ most brilliant insights into the faith, into grief, and into life in general.

A Grief Observed is now my favourite book by Lewis, and I highly recommend it (whether you’re dealing with loss or not).

Memorable Quotes:

(there are a ton of great lines in this book)

“One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few y ears H. and I feasted on love, every mode of it – solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has the thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another – quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want.”-p8

“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.”-p10

“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.”-15

“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.”-19

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you… Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief… I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.”-22, 23, 37

“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.”-25

“He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”-38

“Thought is never static; pain often is.”41

“The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed – might grow tired of his vile sport – might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. 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 the dentist?”-43

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”-52

“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process… Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. As I’ve already noted, not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But is isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.”-59

“There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.”-62

“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?”-64

“[God] is the great iconoclast… All reality is iconoclastic.”-66

“We all think we’ve got one another taped.”-67

“If you’re approaching [God] not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.”-68

“Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide it if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives – to both, but perhaps especially to the woman – a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

“Intelligence in action is will par excellence.”-75

 


This review has also been republished on Presbyformed.

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