‘Here We May Love Truly’

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis paints what is perhaps one of the most captivating visions of heaven in the Christian imagination. The story follows Lewis, the narrator, and his companions as they travel from purgatory to heaven on a day trip. When they arrive, heaven is preeminently desirable, flooded with light and a sense of limitless freedom. At the same time, the travelers do not find exactly what they expect. Lewis’s heaven, for all its beauty, does not feature pearly gates or streets of gold, nor does it engender vaguely warm and fuzzy feelings. Instead, Lewis and his companions are filled with fear. Against the bright, heavenly landscape, they are “fully transparent,” merely “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air”: “Ghosts.”[1] Their insubstantiality contrasts with the solid country around them. The Ghosts’ tread does not bend a single blade of the heavenly grass beneath their feet, and Lewis finds it near impossible to pluck a daisy or pick up a leaf. All of this is deeply uncomfortable and perhaps even threatening. Thus in Lewis’s fantasy, the Ghosts’ understanding of paradise – flawed and made in their own image – is confronted and shattered by the real and solid heaven around them.

Instead, the real heaven is made and shaped by Christ. The Solid People, who belong to the heavenly country, experience the joy of knowing Christ and living in the reality of heaven. Lewis calls the Solid People “Bright Spirits,” and indeed they are bright in countenance as well as spirit. Their joy is so brilliant that it is infectious. The Spirit Jack, for instance, makes Lewis “want to dance,” for his face “was so jocund, so established in its youthfulness.”[2] “Mirth [dances] in his eyes.”[3] The goddess-like Lady Spirit is “clothed” by “the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy,” producing “the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass.”[4] The Spirits possess real joy because it is derived not from their insubstantial selves but from their relationship with Christ. The real, heavenly country is similarly characterized by joy. The first thing we are told is about heaven’s wonderful light and brightness, a visual representation of joy. Later, Lewis stumbles upon “two velvet-footed lions” “playing some solemn romp.”[5] A waterfall in the heavenly country sounds “like the revelry of a whole college of giants together laughing, dancing, singing, roaring.”[6] Indeed, joy permeates all of Lewis’s descriptions of heaven.

The Spirits earnestly desire that the Ghosts might have the joy of heaven too. They come to welcome the Ghosts, who were once the Spirits’ friends or loved ones during their former lives on earth. The Bright Spirits invite, indeed implore the Ghosts to stay in heaven.[7] Yet most of the Spirits’ efforts to persuade are in vain. Astonishingly, almost all of the Ghosts refuse to stay in heaven. One woman, immediately after arriving, declares hysterically, “I don’t like it! I don’t like it,” and flees to the bus back to purgatory.[8] Many of the other Ghosts, too, feeling threatened, choose to reject heaven in “bitter… triumph.”[9] In the face of such opposition, the Spirits perhaps do not only invite and implore the Ghosts to stay. Rather, they eagerly compel the Ghosts, pressing them on every front, to stay in heaven so that they might find joy in Christ. If the Ghosts will only consent to try, the Spirits promise their feet will “grow hard enough to walk on the grass,” and eventually they will reach the far-off mountains of “Deep Heaven.”[10] Indeed, Lewis catalogues many episodes where a Spirit attempts to persuade a Ghost to stay.

In one such story, the Lady Spirit invites the Dwarf Ghost to “Come and see… Love Himself.”[11] The Dwarf, once her husband Frank, is now hardly a man but a “cold, damp, shrunken thing.”[12] Even so, the Lady welcomes him with a “kiss”: “Darling! At last!”[13] She promises him that “[here] we may love truly,” “for we have no need for one another now.”[14] Previously, they loved each other for their own sakes, because they needed the other.[15] Now that they may love truly, it becomes apparent that the Dwarf does not love the Lady: he merely loves the idea that she needs him. Indeed, the Dwarf does not truly love at all, because his love is not about the Lady but entirely selfish and deformed. He perhaps even wishes that she were miserable without him.[16] The Dwarf, in his self-constructed misery, hopes to drag the Lady with him down into hell, too.

The Lady, however, will not be moved and instead confronts the Dwarf about his selfishness and absurdity. She continually invites him to see reality. In order to point out his foolishness, the Lady laughs at him, calling him a “great goose” and his talk about love “nonsense.”[17] She compels him, “merriment dancing in her eyes,” to stop pretending to be miserable and join her in “Love Himself.” The Lady’s joy is so contagious that it almost enacts a change in the Dwarf: “For one moment, while she looked at him in her love and mirth, he saw [his] absurdity.”[18] If only he would smile – if only he would laugh along with her and recognize reality – he might become real, too.

But the Dwarf – and almost all the Ghosts – refuse to stay in heaven unless they may do so on their own terms. Their terms are, however, a kind of hell for themselves and all those around them. When they find that they cannot change heaven, the Ghosts would rather return to purgatory, an endless grey town where they may imagine everything they want into existence. Thus they contend, along with Milton’s fallen angels, that it is “better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,”[19] and accordingly choose misery instead of bliss. Tragically, the Dwarf refuses to allow heaven to intercept his self-made hell. The problem, then, is not with heaven per se but with the Ghosts. It precisely as the woman exclaims: the Ghosts don’t like the heaven they find. They refuse to give up their own insubstantial lives in which they are the center and where the entire world revolves around them. The reality of heaven feels harsh and unkind to the Dwarf’s selfcentered claims for love. He refuses to laugh at himself and see reality, for it is too painful to his pride. In the end, even all of the Lady’s “sweet compulsion” is ineffectual.[20] The Dwarf, having made up his mind to “struggle… against joy,”[21] grows smaller and smaller and finally disappears.

Thus Lewis’s fantasy confronts and undermines the very concept of hell itself. All of our illusions about hell are made void, because hell is “nearly Nothing.”[22] Lewis exclaims to find that the purgatory from whence they came is but “a crack in the soil [Lewis] could not have identified it without [the Spirit’s] aid.”[23] In physical size, then, hell spans almost nothing: “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of [Lewis’] earthly world, but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.”[24] The Ghosts’ vivid sensory and emotional experience in purgatory is also unreal. In comparison to reality, it is hardly worth considering: “all the loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that [Hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that can be registered at all.”[25] Thus the ever-expanding grey town is the ultimate unreality of self-constructed and imagined misery.

In contrast, the Spirits’ overarching claim throughout the story is that “Heaven is reality itself.”[26] It is not, then, as the Ghosts believe, a point of preference as to whether heaven or hell is better. Instead, the Spirits understand that to choose heaven is to live in reality, whereas to choose hell is to live within what is unreal – namely, a self-constructed lie. Although never explicitly stated, it is Christ the Maker who establishes and upholds all that is real. He is central to the fabric of the story: for “in him all things hold together.”[27] Thus heaven’s reality is fixed upon the only one who is real and unchanging: Christ Himself.

Christ’s preeminence is especially clear if we examine the Bright Spirits. They are, to Lewis’s envy, fully real, because they live wholly for the sake of Christ. One Spirit, Jack, was once a murderer on earth. Yet when confronted with his evil, he explains that he is no longer concerned with his shame. In fact, he is no longer concerned with himself: “I do not look at myself. I have given up myself… And that was how everything began.”[28] The implication here is at the heart of the Christian life. The Spirit Jack, having put aside himself, now fixes his gaze upon Christ. In looking upon Christ, he looks upon the one fixed and eternal person, from whom all of reality is measured. This point is made clearer when we encounter the Lady Spirit, who is so beautiful that she is like a goddess. The Lady declares that she has everything in Christ: “‘What needs could I have, now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak.’”[29]

Thus heaven and hell, one real and the other not, seem utterly irreconcilable to each other. The physical size of each perhaps helps us to grasp this concept: Lewis notes that the Lady, bright and solid, simply could not fit into hell.[30] Yet how, then, can any be saved? The answer lies at the very center of the Christian gospel. Lewis’s Spirit guide explains that only Christ, who is the greatest, was – and is – able to make himself small enough to enter into hell. Apart from the fixed reality of Christ, we cannot help but live in our self-constructed unrealities. Yet to find Christ is to find heaven itself. Even now, he is near to us, compelling us, with all the Lady’s sweet compulsion, to enter into Love himself. If we will but consent to “come and see,” our feet too will begin to grow hard enough to walk on heaven’s grass.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 28.

[2] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 33.

[3] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 35.

[4] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 105.

[5] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 38.

[6] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 49.

[7] Jerry L. Walls, “The Great Divorce,” The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 251.

[8] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 29.

[9] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 36.

[10] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 35.

[11] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 111.

[12] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 107.

[13] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 107.

[14] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 112.

[15] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 111.

[16] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 110.

[17] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 112.

[18] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 113.

[19] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 69. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2007), I.263.

[20] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 108.

[21] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 113.

[22] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 74.

[23] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 119.

[24] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 120.

[25] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 120.

[26] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 68.

[27] Colossians 1:17 (ESV).

[28] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 33.

[29] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 111.

[30] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 120.

 

Shirley Li ’13 is a math and English major from Cranbury, N.J. She wants to join heavenly lions in solemn romp someday.

Image: Lion by Richard Friese.

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