Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23rd March 2014
23 March 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning - I keep swallowing.
That is the opening paragraph of the book “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis, some of whose literature we’ve been looking at during my sermons at Matins this month.
Lewis died just over 50 years ago and he’s now memorialized just over there in Poet’s Corner. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics, Poetry, Fantasy Literature and Children’s books.
So far we’ve looked at Surprised by Joy, the Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity – all of which witness in different ways to his strong convictions about God and his commitment to the Christian faith.
A Grief Observed is rather different – it’s a deeply personal account of his feelings following the death of his wife Joy, in 1960 just three years into their married life. It comprises of thoughts jotted down in four notebooks in the early days of his bereavement and it’s brutally honest in terms of what he’s thinking about God during this period.
It’s said that some of his admirers found the book somewhat troubling when it was first published in 1961 – they were asking themselves; how could this Christian writer who they knew and loved be so close to despair.
So this morning I’d like us to look at the question of whether being a person of faith makes any difference to the process of grieving. And in particular, as we look ahead to Easter, does our Christian understanding of the resurrection really change the way we think about our own death and the death of our loved ones.
First, let’s hear some more descriptions of Lewis’ feelings as he tries to cope with his loss. Can I say at this point, if you are a person who has lost a loved one recently, I hope you’ll find this helpful and not too painful.
Lewis talks in the early part of the book of feeling lazy and of the pointlessness of certain aspects of life.
He writes, “I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving – what does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?”
He’s also acutely aware of being an embarrassment to nearly everyone he meets, saying, “At work, at the club, in the street, I see people as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll say something about it or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t”.
Then he records his worry that he’ll cease to remember his wife – in particular, her voice and her looks.
He says, “I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination. Yet the odd face of a stranger seen in a crowd this morning may come to me in vivid perfection the moment I close my eyes tonight”.
Another thought which troubles him is the question of whether people on the other side of the grave feel the pain of separation. Others assure him that Joy is at peace but he asks, “What makes them so sure of this? …Why are they sure that all anguish ends with death… Why should the + which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?”
In common with many people who are grieving, Lewis describes feelings of guilt; these feelings are particularly strong at times when he realises that he hasn’t thought of Joy for a while. He also describes other moments when everything around him seems colourless, flat and lifeless and poses the question, “Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?”
As the book progresses his notes focus on feeling a little better. However he says how meaningless it is to speak of “Getting over it” and he describes moments when he’s plunged back into the depths of despair, left wondering, “Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if on a spiral, am I going up or down it?”
By the fourth section of the book though, there definitely seems to be light at the end of the tunnel as he reflects on grief not as a state but as a process and likens it to “a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape”.
I think we’ve seen from these short extracts from a “Grief Observed” that being a person of faith does not make any difference to the intensity of the pain experienced after the loss of a loved one. A Christian may feel just as much guilt, loneliness, anger, despair and fear as anyone else who has been bereaved; and ask the question, “Where God is in all this?” Lewis at one stage even contemplates the notion of God being a sadist and somehow deliberately inflicting the torture he’s experiencing.
However he works through these feelings and reaches the point of not wishing his wife back, finishing the book by describing the moment of her death. He writes “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ His final sentence is a quotation from Dante which translates, “Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain”.
So as we approach Holy Week and Easter what difference do the events we are about to re-live make to our understanding of death and bereavement?
I would say, every difference – but point to two things in particular.
Firstly, whatever we suffer, Christ has been there before us. As we think about the desolation described by Lewis, we know that Jesus himself experienced desolation.
We hear his cry from the cross to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I know of many bereaved people have cried out to God, “Why have you let this happen to me?” There is not an easy answer to such a question, but there is some consolation in believing that Christ, who was moved to tears when his close friend Lazarus died, is alongside US in our suffering and feels our pain.
Then secondly, and even more important he’s not only with us, but has gone ahead of us through death – destroying its power. His first disciples were devastated at his death and were themselves left in fear and anguish; but their eyes were gradually opened to his risen presence at the first Easter.
As we gather here today there will be some of us who have suffered a loss in the past, some of us may have recently be bereaved, and others of us will lose a loved one in the future.
Like C.S. Lewis we cannot avoid the pain of bereavement; but hopefully like him we will come to have the assurance that our loved one is in God’s keeping and our faith in Christ will bring us to trust in his promise of resurrection life for them and for us.