John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
The Great Divorce: A Reread
…the bus was full of
light. It was cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were
all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some
glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or
another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the
light grew much stronger. Then-there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus-I caught sight of my
And still the light grew.
I consider him a friend, this man who wrote prodigiously and magnificently about faith. Perhaps because we share the miraculous journey from atheism to the final all-out certainty of the convert: How did I get here..Truth?
CS Lewis is an inexhaustible source of wisdom for me. Whether reading his science fiction, fantasy, or his imaginative meditations on our Lord, Heaven, Hell and the Christian life, I find each replete with gentle humor and clear-eyed truth. A few years ago, I read Lewis’s The Great Divorce and reread it for a second time this past week.
Where my first read evoked delight and laughter at Lewis’s quips and clever, imaginative dialogue, this one called forth darker, tenebrous imagery. He is writing, after all, about purgatory and hell. Two places that our increasingly secular world, along with many Catholics and Christians mostly deny.
With this second read, CS Lewis’s ‘simple’ fantasy evokes sadness and a peculiar foreboding as I read about the ghostly inhabitants of hell. Unaware of just where they are living and wholly unwilling to alter their cynicism and certainty. These characters from Lewis’s life in 1940’s Great Britain seem drearily similar people I have met. Faces I have seen in the mirror.
Why the switch from considering The Great Divorce a fun read to a far darker one?
Good question. And one that begs for some thought because there are several reasons, I’ll start with the easy ones:
- A few weeks before Easter, my oldest sister died following a several year long stint of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Leaving me the sole survivor of our immediate family that once numbered five.
- As I write this piece, I am looking out at grayness…mists, rain and clouds. This spring seems reluctant to give up winter; the forecast is rain, sleet and snow in the higher elevations throughout Memorial weekend and several days after.
- For these two reasons alone, thinking about death: heaven, hell and purgatory makes sense, fits. But there’s more.
- For some time now, I have observed the change in the way we view death and the afterlife. Generally she or he has “passed,” rather than “died.” And followed by statements that “so and so” is happily reunited in heaven with family members that went before him or her.
- I have heard and read more than one Catholic priest state that he thought the mercy of God brought everyone to heaven.
- I wonder about this certainty…about just when we started using euphemisms for death too.
- And last, this time, I when reading Lewis’s own comments about his book, I find them serious, even grave.
Upon researching just why Lewis titled his fantasy, The Great Divorce,
this whimsical little story developed legs. A number of them. Lewis chose his title to rebut William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s prose rambles and reads at times to me as incoherent. But his seventy “Proverbs of Hell” intended as satire, seem strangely 21st century :
|Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.|
|Where man is not, nature is barren.|
|Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d|
Arguing against the dichotomy of heaven and hell, this 17th century essayist, William Blake, reasons that since all men are a combination of good and evil, there should be no such division in the afterlife.
But Lewis explains in the preface of his “little” book,
The attempt [to divorce heaven and hell] is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or’; that granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.
This belief I take to be a disastrous error…[Italics mine]
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road… Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”-or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere. But we, at this end of the road, must not try to anticipate that retrospective vision. If we do, we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven.
Lewis takes us on a vision-
we find at the end, that it was a dream- of Purgatory, Heaven and Hell that is both humorous and heart- breaking. We witness ‘conversations’ between souls and citizens of heaven as seen through the eyes of the narrator or dreamer.
The book begins in a dismal, wholly depressing place, appropriately called Gray Town. Our tour guide takes us on a bus ride which we soon realize is heading to heaven or maybe the foyer to heaven. We learn quickly of former earthly relationships between the ghost souls and the celestial spirits sent to persuade their friend, brother or spouse to make the seemingly trivial sacrifice necessary to enter heaven.
Although Lewis wrote and published The Great Divorce in 1945, the personalities of those who prefer to remain in purgatory or hell are distressingly familiar. Perhaps our own shadowy selves are mirrored by a few of the persons still hungering for fame or a perverted notion of love. Time after time, the notion of letting go of the lingering anger or ambition is simply too much and the ‘ghosts’ trudge back to the bus and Gray Town.
Here is a snippet of an especially poignant conversation between a heavenly spouse and her former husband:
“Quick,” she said. “There is still time. Stop it. Stop it at once.”
“Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity….”
The narrator comments about the whole interaction: “I do not know if I have seen anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy.”
And then there is this:
“Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”The Great Divorce