Many Americans look back today to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. I was too young for the event to have any impact on me, although having read about it later, I had a thrill of horrified recognition when Kari and I once took a wrong turn in Dallas years ago and I found myself suddenly looking up at the Texas Book Depository from exactly the spot where JFK took the first bullet.
Many more people around the world, however, have been touched by C. S. Lewis, who died the same day. In his memory, I set out here an edited excerpt from my chapter on “Uncle Jack” Lewis in Making the Best of It:
I grew up in a home in which C. S. Lewis was revered. My parents bought a book that depicted Lewis’s life through photographs and text, and I remember musing over it as a thirteen-year-old already entranced by the idea of “university.” I had moved through school quickly and was already in Grade 10. High school had few intellectual charms for me. But university: that’s where cultivated people sipped tea—or even wine! (I was raised in an abstinent tradition)—and conversed wisely and wittily about great things. The Gilbert and Kilby volume, C. S. Lewis: Images of His World, nicely filled in my mental pictures of such life with photographs of Lewis’s college rooms, exteriors of Magdalen College and the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, and the High Street on which walked the demigods of one of the world’s great universities.
A particular photograph, however, stood out in my mind in regard to C. S. Lewis. It was a shot of Addison’s Walk, the path near the River Cherwell upon which Lewis would stroll with his friends. Along with the building photographs, it nicely impressed upon me the picture of Lewis enjoying the life of the scholar bachelor: his rooms tidied by “scouts,” his meals prepared by the college kitchens, his days filled with reading, writing, walking, conversation, and the pleasure of delivering another brilliant lecture to another adoring audience. And as I went on to read Lewis over the ensuing years, in the back of my mind was a sort of qualification of my admiration for him: He could produce so much, at such a high level, because he enjoyed this life of leisurely intellection, forever strolling on Addison’s Walk with Barfield or Tolkien, between reading in the Bodleian and writing in his Magdalen rooms.
It was A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis—easily the least-favorite biography among Lewis fans, and understandably reviled by their number for its sarcasm and cheap Freudian speculation—that shattered this myth and so helpfully knocked Lewis off his pedestal. Indeed, Wilson’s depiction of Lewis running from his endless tutorial sessions with more-or-less motivated Oxford undergraduates to pick up groceries on his way out to The Kilns and the demanding (we would say “dysfunctional”) quasi-family he maintained with the odd Mrs. Moore, her apparently normal daugher, and his alcoholic brother—this domestic Lewis, this sometimes harried and always busy man with his shirtsleeves rolled up over the day’s dishes in the sink, was the C. S. Lewis who had produced all of that? Lewis’s star shone all the brighter in my mind as I closed Wilson’s biography and thought, He did all that in the real world, not in some misty Oxonian Neverland. C. S. Lewis was, indeed, a common man as well as an uncommon scholar.
The college servants who looked after him at Cambridge in his later career were said to have “respected and admired him” as “a real gentleman” who showed genuine interest in their well-being—in a place in which such interest was, indeed, remarkable. More remarkable indeed was his keeping a wartime commitment to his fellow soldier Paddy Moore, with whom he had a pact to care for the other’s family in the event one was killed. So Lewis cared for Mrs. Moore and her daughter for years. And then he spent his last years with a second family, caring for Joy Davidman and her two sons. Of course domestic life had its rewards for Lewis himself. But those two families featured terrible and extended demands, with Mrs. Moore slowly declining into a bitter, selfish senility while later Joy Davidman slowly succumbed to cancer.
One of Lewis’s former Oxford students testifies, “Most of the time that I was an undergraduate, he went home to his house in Headington in the evenings, though I think he spent all his days in college. He once said how irritating it was that one seemed to get one’s best ideas with both hands in hot water doing the washing up, unable to make notes. One of my friends after the war expressed his regret at his own lack of domesticity. ‘Ah,’ said Lewis. ‘You have too little of it and I have too much.’”
Yet Lewis connected not only his scholarship with his domesticity—if only ironically in this instance—but also his piety. During your prayers, he once counseled, as you pray to be conformed more and more to the likeness of Christ, “you may realize that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash-up. Well, go and do it.”
Uncle Jack, I wish I had more of your wisdom shaping my life. Too often do I grumble about having to leave my prayers or studies to move some boxes or buy some groceries. I confess I fancy myself rather too brilliant and successful and important for such mundane tasks. Instead, alas, I am too stupid to be grateful for the way such work grounds me in reality (I’m not that brilliant or successful or important, and it’s good for me to recall that truth), connects me again with the physical creation (I actually quite enjoy moving my body around from time to time), and strengthens the bonds of family (whom, when I am not so preposterously self-centred, I actually quite like and love).
We miss you. We’ve been trying to find your successor for some time, but we ought to give up. You were unique, and your inspiration lives on–including this edifying image of you standing at the sink with suds up to your elbows.
I’d write more, but my wife needs me to help with the Christmas decorating downstairs…