The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Ordinary Saint in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce

This past weekend a “worship leader” from out of town came to Portland, where I live, to hold a big open air praise and worship service (for those not from the Christian culture, this mostly means singing and some prayer). Before the event he posted a note on Twitter about how he had a big volunteer security team (there was a lot of noise about how the evil people of Portland were supposedly going to come and threaten them). There was an American flag emoji and a strong arm emoji for emphasis. The security were described as “ex-military, ex-police, private security” and also “lovers of Jesus and freedom.” And, most disturbingly, the tweet ended with the words, “If you mess with them or our 1st amendment right to worship God—you’ll meet Jesus one way or another.” An actual threat of violence against those who would oppose them…the polar opposite of how Jesus, who this person claims to follow, would interact with anyone.

I couldn’t help but think about the two chapters of The Great Divorce we’re going to look at this week. It’s when we see at last what it looks like to meet a soul that has turned itself over to God… someone who has inhabited Heaven truly and is coming to greet one of her beloved from Earth (her husband, as it turns out). Her husband is a grotesque little spirit with a chain attached to a sort of gigantic puppet that Lewis calls The Tragedian. An actor, always trying to make the most dramatic responses to small things, a sort of mask for the person it represents.

Chapter twelve begins with what appears to be a river of light wending its way toward where Lewis stands. As it comes closer he realizes it’s not a river at all, but rather that each individual being in the procession is emitting a sort of heavenly light around them. There are Spirits (not human ones) at the front of the procession, dancing and throwing flower petals. Then there came the spirits of boys and girls, and musicians were moving among them all. This was all being done in the honor of the woman who came behind them.

Lewis immediately wonders if it’s someone important—presumably Mary, the mother of Jesus—but his teacher, George MacDonald corrects him before Lewis can even get the words out. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of,” MacDonald tells him. An ordinary woman. No megachurch pastor or Instagram influencer. She’s not the author of any famous book, not a politician or actor, not someone who stopped a war or saved children from a burning bus. She didn’t travel the country leading worship events or denouncing the politics of the day. She’s ordinary Sarah Smith, from Golders Green. She was a good woman, though far from perfect. This is why the angels dance and throw petals in front of her. She’s an ordinary saint, a normal citizen of Heaven.

Lewis, confused, asks who the giant Spirits are who dance in her honor, and MacDonald says, “Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand livened angels lackey her.” This is a quote from John Milton’s Comus, a rather strange masque that was written to honor chastity, first published in 1637. In Comus, The Lady (representing chastity) is deceived away from her brothers and then tempted with a variety of physical temptations, mostly gluttony- and lust-based, and she keeps pushing back that she will rely on rational self-control…that even if the natural desires of her body should want one thing, it need not be answered should that thing be evil or immoral in effect. There’s a strong undercurrent of physical versus spiritual desire. But The Lady has discovered what is better, and her desires turn more and more toward spiritual things.

It may be of benefit—though Lewis mentions just the one phrase—to look for a moment at the stanza the phrase is plucked from. As always, Lewis expects we’ll be familiar enough with Milton that the phrase will bring the greater bit to mind, and here it is:

So dear to heaven is saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
And in clear dream, and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft converse with heavenly habitants
Begin to cast a beam on the outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind,
And turns it by degrees to the soul’s essence,
Till all be made immortal.

Lewis is telling us a few things here. One, Sarah Smith is “sincerely chaste.” The meaning here is most often related to sexual morality…the idea that one does not follow whatever sexual whims one experiences, but rather bends those desires toward something greater. He’s telling us, essentially, that she has been faithful to her husband…something that he will question shortly. In Milton, angels surround such a person so that sin and guilt can’t get anywhere near them. He says that as a person grows that the interaction with the inhabitants of heaven will cause them to glow from within, and slowly the internal reality of changed character begins to transform the external body, until the essence of the holy characteristic within transforms the whole person—even the body—into something incorruptible and immortal. (This is of particular interest as we think about the previous article, in which we see Lust transformed into something holy…healthy Desire.)

As Lewis starts in describing the earthly life of Sarah Smith, the celebrated saint of Heaven, it’s decidedly mundane but meaningful things that she did: she loved children. She was kind to people. She cared about animals.

And yet children left her care loving their own parents more. Though men often loved her, something about it made them love their wives more, not less, as a result. And it’s not just that she loved them, it’s that as she loved them they became more themselves: “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

In other words, her love was transformative. It made them more creatures of Heaven (where things that are Real exist) and burned away those things that were false in them. Lewis describes her love as a rock thrown into a pool: “…the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.” Even who she is now may not be the totality of what she will become. The effects of her loving action on Earth, and, indeed, here in Heaven, have not stopped causing ripples in the universe.

This ordinary woman is causing universal transformation. She is literally changing not just the world but the entire creation because of her simple, ordinary acts of love. MacDonald goes on to tell Lewis, “… already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.” She has not come into her full glory, and yet even now she could transform the universe.

Then we come upon Sarah’s Earthly husband. We aren’t going to spend a long time on this bit, though it’s interesting…this is an article about our ordinary saint. Still, there are a few instructive things we see in their interaction.

One, she’s come down to this place in the hopes of being his guide. She’s offering him the choice to come into the Heavenlies and be with her. But he can’t see a way to that. He keeps pushing on whether she misses him, and she keeps trying to explain that Heaven isn’t a place where that question quite makes sense.

He makes quite a racket about the whole thing.

But let’s take a minute to look at the first thing Sarah says to him: “Before anything else, forgive me. For all I ever did wrong and for all I did not do right since the first day we met, I ask your pardon.”

She’s one of the most beautiful, celebrated creatures in creation—or so it seems now—but her first words to her former husband are an admission of her shortcomings and a request for forgiveness. And what was her great sin? She tells us that she tried to love him, as best as she could at that time. Did she love him? “Only in a poor sort of way. I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.”

That’s the same love, by the way, that has transformed her now into this other being, who is sending reverberations out into the universe. The love starts small and transforms people, makes them something more.

She tells him that one of the great problems was that her love was all wrapped up in her needs. But now she is beyond need. She is full, strong, well-cared for. Needs are a thing of the past. Now she can love him, she says, out of want…desire, not need. But even love is not something she needs for, “I am in Love Himself, not lonely.” She tells him he can be the same. “Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.”

She keeps trying to push him away from his self-focus, telling him that if he can only see himself truly for a moment that he can be transformed and then become something better, more whole, more free. Lewis says that the poor soul of her husband was wrestling “against joy.”

Sarah tries one more time, telling him that he’s using pity to try to ransom joy, but that it doesn’t work that way. That even when he was a child he would—instead of apologizing—go sulk in the attic until his sisters would come apologize to him. But, she says, she is Love now and as her husband dwindles away and leaves behind his strange puppet self she says, “I cannot love a lie. I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

Note the statement “I cannot love the thing which is not.” Heaven is all about what is Real. A lie is a thing that does not exist, not in the Heavenly economy. She can’t love it because it is not a thing that intersects with Reality in any meaningful way.

Which brings us back to that key question of the book: “Who goes home?” We saw in the last article that the word home is used, over and over, to describe Hell. But here we see that the angels attending Sarah say that “the Trinity is her home.” She is living fully within the presence of God, and there she finds joy, peace, fullness of being.

And who goes home?

Those who set aside illusions about themselves. Those who see their own brokenness and seek forgiveness and healing. Those who enter into the Reality of Love, leaving aside their own theatrical protestations designed to cause pity. Leaving aside those public dramatic utterances of how they have been wronged, how their rights are being trampled, and instead embracing the light which overcomes darkness.

Lewis talks about chastity—and growing in the virtues generally—in Mere Christianity. He says this:

“We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.” [Emphasis mine.]

We must acknowledge where we need help, ask for it, try again. We must remove illusions of ourselves, and trust that the process over time is making us someone better… more ourselves.


And that, I think, is a fitting place to leave our Great Divorce exploration.

Let’s move on to the Space Trilogy! We’ll begin in three weeks with Into the Silent Planet!

As always, peace to all of you, and thank you for the excellent and informative comments on this series.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.


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