A Grief Observed—review & reading challenge
For this month’s Branch Out Reading Challenge, the category was a classic Christian voice. I didn’t hesitate to pick C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It was already sitting on my shelf because a good friend bought it for me, but when I started it back then (a year or two ago), I only made it a couple pages in. Too painful. And it’s been on my shelf ever since.
The power in this book is how raw and real it is. C.S. Lewis was in the middle of his grief over his wife, and he is hurting. The pain is palpable. But I’ll be honest—it was almost too much. Because the beautiful thing it showed me is that, at this moment in time, I’m not feeling that depth of pain. I miss my mom tremendously, and those feelings have been especially strong recently, but this July it will be five years since we lost her. No, time doesn’t erase the sadness. But it does temper it somewhat. I still have moments where it jumps up and overwhelms me. But I also have some where I can laugh about something annoying she did. And it doesn’t feel as though I’m dishonoring her.
There were lots of parts in the book that I marked, but one section in particular pretty much stopped me in my tracks. It was only four pages into the whole book (which, admittedly, is rather short.) Lewis put into words the ultimate fear I felt after Mom died.
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?…
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’
And that truly encapsulates the thoughts I dared not voice. I always believed God was there, that God was God. I did not waver, even in my most alone time, even as I felt like I was drowning in my grief. But I was terrified that He was not who I wanted Him to be, not who I thought He should be. I was afraid that His idea of what was good and true and right was drastically different than mine. That I had put my trust in someone I didn’t like or couldn’t rely on. That He just wasn’t good.
That was the root of my devastation. Because I need God. I need Him to be my strength, my compass, my motivation and inspiration and truth.
Just as I’ve slowly made my way out of that quagmire, so does C.S. Lewis. He says, later in the book, “You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears.” And:
“I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own need that slammed it in my face? The tie when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”
He goes on to say a little later, “He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.” Also, “Can I meet H. [his wife] again only if I learn to love you so much that I don’t care whether I meet her or not? Which is another way of saying what I wrote in my book, when I finally went to God, not in anger, not begrudgingly, but honestly telling Him how much I missed my mom. I felt an immediate response: “She’s as close as I am.”
Like Lewis discovered, the only salve for this gaping wound of grief is God. But I had to be willing to seek God for who He is, not for what He might do for me. He had to be the end of what I sought, not the means of getting there.
What about you—in your life, have you seen or discovered something similar? Do you agree or disagree? (I welcome diverging viewpoints, you know, and I love to hear your stories.)
MARCH: A book written by someone of a different faith
Hmm. I may want to re-read Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. But I really don’t know. I know there are a lot of different beliefs, and I’d like to branch out to something new. I’ve enlisted Google to help me find some options. They don’t have to be memoirs, but I tend to love those, so I always lean a little bit in that direction.
Do you have any recommendations? Can you help me?
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi
The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilly
Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman