Books by revered white Christian men haven’t been much comfort to me lately. A Grief Observed is the only Lewis book I can stand to read anymore. Here we see the great apologist, one of our finest and most beloved spiritual writers, stripped of his convictions and openly, viciously angry at God. The Oxford don is confused, hopeless and utterly bereft. His wife has died, and nothing makes sense anymore. He is disgusted by the platitudes of well-meaning religious friends and the sympathy cards—he calls them “pitiable cant.” He can’t even pray for the dead anymore. He confesses that when he tries to pray for his wife, “bewilderment and amazement come over me. I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity.” His confidence in the reality and nature of God has been destroyed: “Apparently the faith—I thought it faith—which enables me to pray for the dead has seemed strong only because I have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not.”
The rubber has met the road, and he has found that all the theology in his world cannot fix a blown out tire.
A Grief Observed remains powerful precisely because Lewis does not come to lovely conclusions about his God or his religion or his suffering. He asks many more questions than he answers. He rants, questions, weeps and feels terrible, deservedly sorry for himself and for the woman he loved so much and has now lost. And in doing so, he renders in prose what it really feels like to grieve.
But there’s another reason I like it so much. The book is so raw, and gives such vivid expression to the challenge of belief in a time of suffering, that even the pedigreed C. S. Lewis, already a respected spiritual writer, published it under a pen name.
When I picked up my copy of the book recently, leafing through it idly while preparing to teach, I realized this is what I’ve been feeling. Grief. I know grief, don’t I? I’d easily recognize the real animal pain of losing one’s beloved. My mother died when I was 14 and took my whole world with her. But this feels different. I am grieving not a single person but the pain of others—literally thousands of abuse victims—while I adjust to the loss of all the conventional markers of my identity. I am no longer a married Catholic writer and stay-at-home mom. I no longer trust the rails I was riding, the institutions that I once so firmly believed in, to be my guides.
Read more about my struggles to find my footing as a spiritual writer after further revelations of abuse in the church in America’s Spring Literary Review.