We took an unexpected trip to the book store this morning (unexpected by me anyway, the boys had it planned while I was in the shower). Indulged a little by my husband, I bought three great fiber-arts magazines and two books by C.S. Lewis: "Miracles" and "The Great Divorce." I read "The Great Divorce" this afternoon, over a couple hours of intermittent attention, while fending off my husband's increasingly-desperate bids for attention. (He tried to distract me by putting "Baby Mama" in the dvd player.)
The urge to peruse the Christian section at Borders is one I often resist, because I have a long track record of reading the first two chapters of any book on spirituality or religion. Before sticking a place-marker in it and leaving it to gather dust in the growing pile. Writing style can be a huge turn-off for me, and to be wise one would sit down and skim at least one chapter before buying; which I seldom have time to do. What, get a library card you say? Yes, that would be very mature and resource-conscious of me, wouldn't it.
Anyway, today I gave the section a fleeting glance from at least eight feet away, and immediately caught site of the Lewis books. Knowing Lewis is supposed to be among the more accessible Christian writers (and certainly one of the best known), and hearing some distant bell related to a recent conversation with who-knows-whom about Lewis' great style, I got sucked in. The flyleaf for "The Great Divorce" promised to take me on a trip through moral and theological landscapes that occupy my thoughts regularly. I accepted the offer. "Miracles" just looked like something I'd enjoy, and I suppose I've been wanting some antidote to the shades of skepticism I routinely encounter; several of my good friends are Christians who really struggle with the supernatural elements of Christianity. (Virgin birth, Resurrection, Jesus as God.) And I'm married to an avowed agnostic.
"Divorce" reminds me just a little of Richard Matheson's 1978 novel "What Dreams May Come," and a quick Google search confirms that Matheson and Lewis both read Swedenborg (though it's as likely that Matheson read Lewis and just doesn't cite him.) There's a basic premise at work: Hell is a state of mind, a direct reflection of one's life-reality and the burdens of the soul that one clings to. Lewis' Heaven is, by contrast, the only true Reality, and never mere "state of mind," a direct manifestation of God in all things. Unlike Matheson, who apparently felt more comfortable with Eastern religion, reincarnation and many dream-like afterlife levels, Lewis in "Divorce" strives from the Introduction to make it clear that there IS such a thing as eternal damnation, that the one true Heaven is not won without sacrifice -- "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." There is a disclaimer of course, "The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world."
Well. Be that as it may, I find I must have absorbed at some point some of those mushy, poorly-considered and liberal concepts of Heaven and Hell as I've gone along: notions like perhaps there's no Hell at all, certainly no place like the vivid horror described of old, and not a place God assigns to gays and babies who die before they are baptized. I've even been willing to believe that we make our own Hells in life, and that afterward we all retire to Heaven, forgiven regardless of our crimes. That notion never really rang true however, though my doubt there comes as much from a vague cultural fear of heresy as from any contact with the Old Testament. So Lewis' Heaven and Hell make some sense to me, acknowledging his disclaimer the while. Hell is a choice we make, and consists chiefly of our worst moral and personal baggage. Heaven is letting go of those burdens, as well as our successes, letting go of our hubris and fear, and any affection for the material; once freed, we receive Joy and begin our final journey to God.
And so I think about those burdens I might be reluctant, surprisingly, to put aside: bitterness and envy, as well as a love for the material reality of this Earth, the beauty of creation as I see it. Lust, and worse: yearning for what I do not have, desiring what I do not possess; coveting what can never be truly mine, and desiring to possess another. My feelings of thwarted romantic entitlement, and whatever else prods me to toss and turn at night and to feel anger towards my God. As if, as if. It sounds like God will forgive me, if I want to be forgiven, AND if I will agree to give up the sins themselves -- which must be much harder than it sounds at first. We define ourselves as much by our failings and sorrows as by our beliefs and joys. Leave everything behind, and follow me, says Christ.
Who would I be, without my insistence on being "in love?" At almost any cost?
And what about the pleasures of Earth, the trees and the water and the birds, the rocks and the boots and the handbags, the children and the adults and the smell of the rain? Lewis' Heaven seems to contain all of these things in a state of resounding perfection, could it be so? Lewis also seems to say that sensuality might be a lesser crime... do I see myself in the ghost who belittled her husband to death with constant bitter perfectionism? Do I see myself in the ghost who writhes and poses as if to tempt the angels, and shuffles back to Hell in disgust when no one is moved by her lust? Do I see my situation in the woman whose former lover returns to her in Heaven as a ghost, only to try one last time to coerce her into some greater adoration with guilt and self-pity? Am I the man who makes the mistake of thinking that we can, somehow, attain blamelessness on Earth?
All uncomfortable questions. I want to think I wouldn't resist, when the time came; would lay down my inconsequential affectations and embrace Joy. But I know Pride is a stumbling block.
And so I go on thinking. I've heard the Voice before, and I don't want to mess with my Maker, though every day I do it anyway.