Love, cancer, and the caregiver’s faith of C.S. Lewis

Joshua D. Niforatos
Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH

Poi se torno all’ eternal fontana.
Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXI

Author C.S. Lewis wears a bathrobe in his house Photo by © Norman Parkinson 

C.S. Lewis, the medieval and Renaissance scholar of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, wrote prolifically on myriad topics and won international recognition early in life. During the Second World War, Lewis had numerous broadcast talks that made his voice second only to Winston Churchill’s as the most recognized on the BBC. After the war, Time magazine would describe him as the most influential public speaker for the spiritual worldview.1 To this day Lewis is particularly well-known for his thoughts on theodicy, the branch of theology that attempts to explain the goodness of God in the presence of suffering. In 1940 he wrote the still-popular book on this topic, The Problem of Pain. Lewis’ writings after his wife’s death, however, allow the reader to engage in vicarious introspection with the internal turmoil of faith that accompanies loss of a loved one from devastating disease.

The Problem of Pain outlines an intellectual argument that a good God can exist amidst even the worst forms of suffering. In the preface to this book, he appears humble and acknowledges that “any theologian will see easily enough what, and how little, I have read.”1 Though with confidence later in this work he asserts that the individual “can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world…Even if there were pains in Heaven, all who understand would desire them.”2 Although easy to dismiss these statements as flippant, especially to health care providers who see the devastating effects of disease daily, it is worth noting that they come from Lewis’s life history, which had been filled with great loss and agony. Perhaps they are even a testimony.. to the ability to survive and make sense of one’s suffering. As Lewis became a caregiver later in life, his tone would change when confronted with the death of his wife.

Late in life, Lewis met the American Joy Davidman after two years of overseas correspondence. Lewis did not show romantic interest during the first years of their friendship, which was described by his brother Major Warren Lewis as ‘undoubtedly intellectual’.3 In 1956 he agreed to a civil marriage when her visa expired as a matter of friendship, and lived separately during this time. A few months later she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and it was in that moment Lewis realized how much he loved Joy. Six months later they married in the Church, where the ceremony was performed at Joy’s hospital bed. Four years after her initial diagnosis Joy passed away. Reading through most of the Lewis corpus, his love for Joy seems to be second only to his love for his mother, whom he lost at a young age.

To cope with his grief, Lewis kept a journal that was published the year after his wife died, in 1961.  Lewis requested a pseudonym to be used for the book, A Grief Observed, to maintain anonymity given its themes. Ironically, his friends recommended that he read the book to help with his own grief.4 After his death, the book was published with permission from his estate under his name. While The Problem of Pain represents an intellectual response to theodicy, A Grief Observed is a memoir of his feelings and thoughts during the moments of anguish following the death of his wife.

A primary theme throughout A Grief Observed is the constant interrogation of why he believes what he believes, and whether or not this belief adequately reflects and addresses what he perceives to be reality. In other words, Lewis attempts to both understand and find meaning in the suffering he experiences after the death of his wife rather than defending millennial old perspectives on suffering and the goodness of God. In perhaps one of the most moving accounts in his journal and perhaps his entire corpus, Lewis announces that his faith, the intellectual faith in A Problem of Pain, had been nothing more than a house of cards:

From the rational point of view, what new factor has H’s [Joy’s] death introduced into the problem of the universe?  What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe?  I knew already that these thing, and worse, happen daily… should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this?  No.  And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern… If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards.  The faith which “took these things into account” was not faith but imagination.  The taking them into account was not real sympathy.  If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of this world [or, for H.], I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.  It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labeled “Illness”, “Pain”, “Death” and “Loneliness”.  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…. Your bid—for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity—will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it…. If my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better.  And only suffering could do it…However often the house of cards falls, shall I set about rebuilding it?  Is that what I’m doing now?5

His struggle with his faith here is two-fold. A superficial glance of the text reveals that he questions whether the axioms of his religious tradition hold up to the pain he is experiencing. With knowledge of Lewis’s corpus up to this point in time, however, an additional struggle is noticed; whether the pain and doubt he is feeling at this moment discredit or undo the previous two decades of theological defense, mentoring, and conception of the suffering of the world. This entry in A Grief Observed is profound as it is emblematic of the existential movement to engage in “meaningful suffering,” or to “find the meaning in his suffering.”6

At the end of his journal, Lewis concludes that his representations of God—his house of cards—perhaps now has a more secure foundation, though he realizes that this foundation may be as insecure as the previous one. With this realizations, he is able to ‘let’ his wife return to the hands of his God:

How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!  She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.”  She smiled, but not at me.  Poi se torno all’ eternal fontana.5*

Words are paltry substitutes in the attempt to capture the magnitude of emotions that accompany the death of a loved one, but here Lewis uses imagery from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, and not ancient religious texts, to convey his emotions of the finality of the loss of Joy. This passage from part III of Dante’s work, Paradiso, is a melancholic moment when Dante says his last farewell to the love of his life, Beatrice, as she turns towards the eternal fountains in paradise.

To find meaning amidst suffering as Lewis does in his journal requires, according to the existential psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, that meaning is “sought for conscientiously”: “a human being, by the very attitude [he or she] chooses, is capable of finding and fulfilling meaning in even hopeless situations.”6 When Lewis actively found peace in his sufferings, he was able to flourish and then actualize his potential both individually and communally in his writings, which have allowed other people to flourish amidst their suffering. He would spend the last few years of his life writing not on theological topics as he had done for over two decades, but in the area of his academic training of medieval and Renaissance literature. The lesson from Lewis’s A Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed is an important reminder that beliefs of any kind, ranging from religious to scientific, are representations that draw from a variety of sources and form the tapestry of the self that is destroyed throughout life, but can also resurrect with time.7 As healthcare providers are confronted by patients and caregivers with chronic, debilitating diseases or death of a loved one, perhaps a new movement in healing is required; a movement in which we allow ourselves to experience the death and rebirth of representations of the world with our patients and to survive this process with them.

*“Poi se torno all’ eternal Fontana” is from Dante, and translates, “Then unto the eternal fountain she turned.”

Salvatore Postiglione (Naples, December 20, 1861 – Naples, November 28, 1906) was an Italian painter, mainly of portraits, and historic and genre subjects, in a Realist style.

Endnotes

  1. Armand Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 3.
  2.  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948), 81, 112; vii.
  3.  Warren Lewis, “Memoir of C.S. Lewis,” In Letters of C.S. Lewis, eds Warren Lewis (New York: Harcout, Inc., 1993), 43.
  4.  Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide (San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1998), 195.
  5.  C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1961), 31-33; 61.
  6.  Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York: A Plume Book, 1969), 118; 62-63, 75.
  7.  For more on this topic, see the seminal work of Ana-Marie Rizzuto, The birth of the living God: A psychoanalytic study (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Joshua Niforatos, M.T.S. is a medical student at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, he eventually made his way to University of New Mexico (UNM) where he earned bachelor degrees in both ethnology and biology. He then went on to earn a Master of Theological Studies at Boston University School of Theology where he studied theology, anthropology, and ritual.