How’s this for an implausible love story. A 31-year New York woman writer is married to the love of her life, a WW II veteran trying to drown his war trauma with liquor. While he’s out on a binge one night, she’s home with their two young sons in terror that this time her husband won’t make it home. She falls to her knees sobbing, and, in a mysterious spiritual flash, she experiences God as a real presence beside her.
Not unbelievable so far. Fast forward three years when she finds an old magazine article about a British theologian and Oxford professor globally recognized as a leading intellectual who is 17 years her senior. She decides to write him because the old news story said he’d had a similar Christian conversion as an adult. Maybe still not a stretch. But here’s where fact begins to feel like fiction: this world-famous religious scholar across the Atlantic actually writes her back. And then she writes again. And so does he. And their trans-ocean correspondence about the meaning of faith continues for several years until she decides to go meet him in person.
But this is not a romance novel; it is the true story of two people. In 1956, Joy Davidman, divorced from her husband, marries the British author and scholar C.S. Lewis—who called himself Jack. In Patti Callahan’s history of this stranger-than-fiction love story, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, C.S. Jack tells Joy how he thinks their unlikely romance happened. C.S. uses his close friendship with Tolkien, Hobbittauthor, as an example.
He tells Joy that while Tolkien was the “don of linguistics and language” and Lewis the “fan of literature,” their relationship was tied far deeper than differing literary passions. “Yet what draws any two people together toward friendship,” Jack says to Joy, “is what drew you and me—that we see same truth and share it.” Their friendship began with shared Christian conversions and continued with years of endless discussions about faith, literature, and philosophy.
In A Grief Observed, the short book broken-hearted C.S. Lewis wrote in 1961 to deal with his beloved Joy’s horrific cancer death, his description of her explains what drew Joy to him. Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness, and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked. I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure—and there’s another red-hot jab—of being exposed and laughed at.
We know C.S. Lewis from The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce,Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Lettersamong more than thirty books he wrote. We don’t have such a library to tell us about Joy Davidman Lewis. Yet this single paragraph by her beloved Jack reveals a lot. Not only about her own intelligence and sparkle, but also what fun these two great minds and loving hearts must have had together.
And that is better than fiction. It is the truth.
From A Grief Observed
What does a committed Christian scholar and world-famous theologian do when his much younger wife, the joy and Joy of his life, dies a painful death? He does what he is. He writes and weeps. He journals and screams at God. He peels the skin off his heart in agony and asks all the terrible questions everyone must in the face of ripping loss. While he writes about his own particular agony—the title is A Grief Observed—he articulates for all of us, as only C.S. Lewis could, how a heart can shatter but not kill its owner.
Encountering people soon after the tragedy, C.S. describes the doubt every reader has experienced on what to say to someone in new grief: “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t…Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.
A contented bachelor until he was 58, C.S. cries out to Joy—H in the book—at the unfairness of losing her only four years after they were married. Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom (his old bachelorhood) away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back—to be sucked back—into it?
While the opening chapters ring with pain and anger and challenges to God Himself, the book, like his grief, gradually becomes more “observed” than reactive. He stops obsessing on his pain, and begins to think about Joy’s. He worries that her anguish might not be over. He tells God,
Already month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whilst she still wore it…The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist…but is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us?…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. Either way, we’re in for it.
He ends his own debate with a bit of humor when he wonders why people ever say they’re not afraid of God because they know he is good. C.S. quips, “Have they never been to a dentist?”
By the book’s end, C.S. moves to closure acknowledging he’s been wrong to write about himself, H, and God in that order without a thought to praising them. “Yet that would have been best for me. Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift. Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise…By praising I can still in some degree, enjoy her and already, in some degree, enjoy Him.
C.S. Lewis’s “observed” grief has brought him to a healing place beyond his paralyzing grief. And he discovers the praise “mode of love” actually brings Joy closer to him. “The less I mourn her, the nearer I seem to her.” Yet still he notes that in grief “nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs….How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment? The same leg is cut off time after time?
In the end, it is Joy whose last words give back to her beloved Jack the faith they shared. Lewis writes, “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.”
And then the academic Christian C.W. Lewis responds to his Joy’s final testimony by confirming his own faith with a quote from Dante. “Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.”