C. S. Lewis’s Model of Vulnerability in Seasons of Uncertainty
“Since I wrote to you my life has undergone a great change,” C. S. Lewis wrote on October 9th, 1963, mere weeks before his death. Over what can only be described as a summer shadowed by mortality, Lewis corresponded with Thomas Van Osdell, an American chemistry Professor at Ashland University, who reached out to the famed apologist about advice on a book about the impact of science on culture. In the weeks between letters to Van Osdell, Lewis suffered a heart attack and subsequent coma. The trauma left him, as he describes to Van Osdell, an invalid confined to the first floor of his home at The Kilns in Oxford. In the wake of his touch with death, Lewis was forced to resign from his post at Cambridge, hardly able to walk short distances, unable to climb stairs, reduced to a confined existence. Lewis would only write one more letter to Van Osdell.
Coming out of this strange time of social isolation, I’ve come to believe that loneliness incubates in times of grave uncertainty. Stripped of routine, confined from community, I’ve felt a keener longing for connection than I can recall. I don’t think I’m alone. In our quarantined state of indeterminacy, latent with fears of the unknown and compounded by a heightened sense of mortality, we’ve come to cherish what we can get of one another. And as social distancing has deconstructed those places where we gather for community, words have become sources of immeasurable comfort. In sharing them, we gain ourselves, and in receiving them we gain access into the more vulnerable parts of one another.
It’s nothing short of serendipitous, then, that this series of letters by C. S. Lewis about uncertainty and grief written in the last months of his life have emerged when we most need a word or two about how to live in a time of great unknown. This small company of rediscovered letters appear in a recent book, C. S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview by Michael Peterson of Asbury Theological Seminary. Donated to Ashland University and published for the first time by Peterson, the letters contain correspondence between Lewis and Thomas Van Osdell at a time of grief for both men. Despite his rather helpless state of convalescence, Lewis wrote, “this doesn’t prevent my being cheerful or comfortable but it may prevent my being of use to you” (qtd. in 186). We don’t have Van Osdell’s response but something in Lewis’s vulnerability encouraged Van Osdell to open up about something painful in his own life. Lewis responded in kind. Lewis’s last letter to Van Osdell begins, “you tell a most moving story. I too have lost what I most loved.”
We don’t know exactly what Van Osdell wrote to prompt such a poignant expression of grief on Lewis’s part, but it’s very likely that the American scientist shared about the death of his eighteen-year-old son and only child to an automobile accident the year before. Moved by Osdell’s words, Lewis mirrors his vulnerability by sharing his lingering grief over the death of his wife, American poet Joy Davidman. Joy’s relationship with Lewis has become canon as one of the twentieth century’s most endearing literary love stories and her death in 1960 as one of the most heart-rending. Three years removed and corresponding with a stranger, Lewis accesses and shares his grief with vulnerable sympathy.
What makes this epistolary exchange so remarkable isn’t just that it occasions the rediscovery of a handful of Lewis’s lost letters. It’s that in the lingering aftermath of unprecedented grief, in the throes of a new invalid existence, deprived of his gatherings at the Eagle and Child, Lewis does what he can to participate in the communion of relationship.
In a time of unprecedented mortal uncertainties, Lewis puts pen to paper to do the next right thing. His was a working grief, an uncertainty marked by those few things he could, in fact, be certain of, like meeting a fellow griever where he was.
This brief correspondence may seem like a meager example of how we can live in world of certain uncertainty. What power do words really carry, anyway? After all, a sonnet never saved a life. Even Lewis, reduced as he is to writing from his own kind of quarantine, is tempted to think he’s no longer “being of use.” It might be obvious to say but needs saying nonetheless, what makes words so powerful is the inherent value of the people who speak and hear them.
Lewis describes this beautifully in his 1949 sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” where he offers up a principal reason for why we must be diligent in our duties. “There are no ordinary people,” Lewis says. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Words are exchanged when one immortal recognizes the immortality of another. This recognition recasts even the most routine task in a more splendid light. Between two immortals, there can be no banality. Even the tedium of letter writing takes place between immortals. We have to be careful not to mistake the menial for the meaningless.
Words are both veil and vessel. They conceal the grandeur of those for whom they’re meant and carry the weight of those who speak them.
The loneliness we experience in a time when we need to forego one another’s presence is occasion to share in one another’s discourse. We are more inclined to cherish our words if we believe they’re given to those bound for eternity. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis writes. Each of us, even in our fears and our grief, are far more and are made for more than anything our fears or grief can amount to. Being of use might just mean for a time giving and receiving with new vulnerability— remembering, even in our uncertainty, that we’re still a collection of gods and goddesses and that even the triviality of letter writing, or emailing, carries the weight of glory.
 Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 46.
The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden and used with his generous permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Corey is a poet, writer, speaker, and educator. He holds Master’s Degrees in Religion, English, and Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, and the forthcoming The Serve the Work: Stray Thoughts on Christ and Creativity. Corey has written articles and given talks on subjects ranging from C. S. Lewis, the theology of creativity, the neurology of the imagination, and the power of story to heal life’s wounds.