Lewis’s Oxford-Cambridge Distinction

I watch from afar (via Facebook posts) those who are participating in the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge conference. I already had my England trip this summer; couldn’t afford this one.

It’s nice to relive, through the posts, some of the spots I visited earlier, especially the Kilns. The conference now moves on from Oxford to Cambridge, where Lewis taught in the last decade of his life. I’ve never been there; my bucket list is not yet emptied.

Moving from Oxford to Cambridge was hard for Lewis, even though he was offered a chair created with him in mind, and despite the poor treatment he received at Oxford, primarily from those who could never forgive him for wading into “religious” writing.

At first, he declined the invitation to teach at Cambridge. He was concerned about moving out of the Kilns after making a life there. At the urging of Tolkien and with the permission of Cambridge, he was able to keep the Kilns as his residence and take the train to Cambridge during the week.

His inaugural lecture created a sensation. In it, he spoke of the loss of the heritage of the past. He famously described himself as a dinosaur from whom others might still learn.

If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! . . .

Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

When he made the actual physical move, transferring all his books to the new university, it took him a while to adjust. Joy Gresham, not yet his wife, helped with the move. As I wrote in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis (accessed here),

To some friends she wrote of how Lewis was adapting to the move, revealing the emotional wrench it was for him at first, even though he handled his uneasiness with his usual sense of humor:

“Poor lamb, he was suffering all the pangs and qualms of a new boy going to a formidable school—went around muttering, ‘Oh, what a fool I am! I had a good home and I left!’ and turning his mouth down at the corners most pathetical. He always makes his distresses into a joke, but of course there’s a genuine grief in leaving a place like Magdalen after thirty years; rather like a divorce, I imagine.”

Lewis, according to those who knew him at Cambridge, came to love the place. As he wrote to another correspondent, Mary Willis Shelburne, about his new Magdalene College,

It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and “old woman” here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

I would be interested in knowing if Lewis’s perception of the distinction between Oxford and Cambridge remains today.

Meanwhile, as I enjoy others’ experiences from my vantage point across the ocean, running through my mind is one thought: Oxbridge 2020.

Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.