I’ve begun teaching a class in a local church on The Screwtape Letters every Wednesday evening. What a delight it has been thus far. I’ll probably write some about that in future weeks, but for today, I will just refer to one comment made by an attendee. I don’t recall exactly what I said to elicit the comment, but her response was something about how I was still so young.
At age 66, it’s encouraging to hear someone say I’m young. I’ll take that and savor it. It reminds me, though, of letters Lewis wrote to an American woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He wrote more letters to her than to any American primarily because she bombarded him with letters.
One of Shelburne’s concerns was the approach of old age and death. Lewis’s responses to her fears showcase both his humor and his wisdom. In my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, I give this account of how he counseled her. I trust using an excerpt today will be both acceptable and enlightening.
He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective. His letters become peppered with reminders that all humans have to face this ultimate test, but that Christians have a glorious eternity awaiting them.
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.”
After Joy’s death and the realization that he would no longer be healthy in his final years, he wrote to Shelburne about the hope of the resurrection of the body. 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. In March 1963, he conveyed to Shelburne his lack of concern about moving from this world to the next.
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.”
Lewis’s final word to Shelburne on the subject of death came about two weeks before he fell into a brief coma, followed by his resignation from Cambridge and his death four months after that. This final word showcases once again his facility with phrases that are memorable, as he encouraged her one more time:
“I think the best way to cope with the mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely. . . . Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip. . . . Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. . . . We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”
I’m not expecting an imminent death; most of us aren’t at that point yet. I’m still looking forward to many years of fruitful and productive activity. Yet not one of us can know that for sure. We need to be ready at all times for the final curtain on our earthly existence. Lewis shows us the proper attitude and reminds us that the real world awaits us still. The land of dreams will pass away and we will enter into an eternity that will far exceed our expectations.