by Devin Brown
Letters to Malcolm was the last book C. S. Lewis finished. Published posthumously in January 1964, three months after his death, it is one of Lewis’s best books though perhaps not one of his best known. Tucked away in letter number eight is one of the most poignant short mediations on Gethsemane and its aftermath to be found in modern writing.
Lewis starts the letter to his fictitious friend by expressing sympathy over the news that Malcolm’s son George must undergo tests for what seems to be a critical health concern. Lewis writes that his first inclination is to try to provide comfort with the standard reminders that a preliminary diagnosis by a non-specialist is often wrong and that people in similar situations sometimes live to “a ripe old age.” But then Lewis recalls his own loss of his wife, Joy, a few years earlier and decides not to, explaining: “If, which God forbid, your suspense ended as terribly as mine did, these assurances would sound like mockeries.”
So instead, Lewis simply offers his hope that “all may yet be well” and recognizes “meanwhile you have the waiting” and also—if Malcolm’s case is anything like Lewis’s was—a large share of anxiety and its “horrible by-products.”
It is here that Lewis seeks to extend comfort. While some people may feel guilty about having anxieties and regard them as a lack of faith, Lewis states it is his belief that anxieties should be viewed as afflictions rather than sins. This distinction is significant, as Lewis explains: “Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ. For the beginning of the Passion—the first move, so to speak—is in Gethsemane. In Gethsemane a very strange and significant thing seems to have happened.”
Lewis suggests that while it is clear from his teachings that Christ “had long foreseen his death,” it is also clear from Christ’s request that the cup might pass that this knowledge must somehow have been taken from him before that night in the garden. Lewis imagines Our Lord’s anguish that evening as he went off by himself to pray:
Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope—of suspense, anxiety—were at the last moment loosed upon Him—the supposed possibility that, after all He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible.“Doubtless He had seen other men crucified,” Lewis points out, “a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.”
Lewis proposes that without this last and mistaken experience of “hope against hope” and its tumult of anxiety, the claim that Christ was not only “very God” but also “very Man” would have been undermined, for, as Lewis tells Malcolm, “To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.”
While in the end, an angel appears with comfort, Lewis speculates that it may have been cold comfort, perhaps merely providing renewed strength to face the renewed certainty that “the thing must be endured and therefore could be.”
“We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive,” Lewis writes Malcolm, “but the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny.” Since the perfect man experienced it, Lewis states, we can expect to as well. In fact, Lewis points out, each of the successive movements in the Passion contain an element common to the sufferings of us all. He explains:
First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every, institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretentions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency…. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood.“You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is,” Lewis tells Malcolm. In Christ’s passion we find “the human situation writ large.”
Lewis also turned to Christ’s Thursday night anguish in a number of letters to real correspondents. To one he wrote, “Fear is horrid, but there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Our Lord was afraid (dreadfully so) in Gethsemane. I always cling to that as a very comforting fact.” To another advice seeker he tenderly counseled, “You needn’t worry about not feeling brave. Our Lord didn’t—see the scene in Gethsemane.”
In one letter written in 1939 on the eve of World War II, Lewis stated that the horrors he had witnessed in battle had haunted his memories for years, and he expressed his gnawing fears about another global conflict. In Gethsemane, he wrote, he found consolation and was “daily thankful that that scene, of all others in Our Lord’s life, did not go unrecorded.” Two decades later, Lewis would again face great anguish during the period surrounding the illness and death of his beloved wife. In the Introduction to
A Grief Observed, Lewis’s record of this time, his step-son Douglas Gresham notes, “This book is a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane. It tells of the agony and the emptiness of a grief such as few of us have to bear.”
As his letter to Malcolm draws to a close, Lewis confesses that Malcolm’s turmoil has brought back all the memories of his own. He worries that instead of bringing light to Malcolm’s dark valley, he has been only a “Job’s comforter.”
“But on second thoughts,” Lewis concludes, “I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.”
Lewis’s reflections serve as an invitation for us to meet Christ in his passion this Holy Week, to share his darkness with Him, as he shares our darkness with us. Lewis’s eighth letter to Malcolm reminds us that when we find ourselves in the dark valley of emotional anguish, we are not without help and abandoned on an untrodden path, though it may well seem like it. Our Savoir also walked this path. He knows it well. And he will walk it alongside us.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).