Visiting the dentist for a regular check-up is one thing. Going there to address a painful problem is quite another. That is a truth everyone – including Oxford’s great scholar, C.S. Lewis – understands.
Occasional comments in his letters reflect on his mixed attitude toward dentistry. In 1914 he related to his father this balanced attitude. Many readers will identify with his ironic opening.
This week I have enjoyed the doubtful privilege of having two teeth extracted, both of which had been bothering me a good deal off and on this term. The dentist, who is a thoroughly competent official, pronounced his verdict that as they had been tinkered with over and over again, and were now hopelessly rotten, they had better come out. So out they came, with gas, and I think it was a good job.
I too have “enjoyed the doubtful privilege.” Like Lewis, I appreciate the skill and care of dentists, but hold an aversion to the more painful of their interventions.
Typically, C.S. Lewis was able to use our complex attitudes toward dental work, one of the “necessary evils of life” (Surprised by Joy), to teach about larger truths. An interesting piece on the subject can be seen here.
Lewis says when we move toward God, it will be like going to the dentist. If we dodge and hesitate to move, our aches will only increase.
Lewis wouldn’t tell his mother about his toothache because he knew it meant fixing it, and that likely meant the pokes and prods of the dentist on other infected teeth. So he hid and endured the pain for a time. It didn’t help. And it doesn’t help when we hesitate to be upturn our lives for Jesus. “Our Lord is like the dentists,” Lewis says. “He will give you the full treatment.”
As Lewis learned from experience during his extractions, healthy teeth are inseparable from bone, which forms the “tooth sockets.”
Which segues into a subject of even more significance to C.S. Lewis and every other lifeform with a skeleton: bones. But before we discuss that subject, allow me to share a personal note.
A Patient’s Dilemma
The reason dentistry is on my mind comes from the fact that I recently endured the extraction of one of my molars. That initiated the involved (and expensive) process of getting a “dental implant.”
The molar had served me well for decades, even after having a root canal many years ago. Its full golden crown still shines radiantly. Sadly, one of its roots fractured, and an endodontist determined removal is the only option.
For those who will someday follow this regrettable path, we no longer have to resort to human (or animal) bone to restore our jaws after the extraction of the renegade teeth.
Yes, that’s right. The most common “grafting material” has historically been bone. While it’s possible to transplant some of your own, it usually comes from another source.
Autograft Tissue is from your own body. Allograft Tissue is donated by another – typically deceased – individual. I wonder if others find the thought of having cadaver bone added to one’s personal physiology unsettling.
I’ve been an organ donor since I was first able to sign up. Sadly, being stationed in England during the spread of the Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) has reduced any future value for my redundant body parts.
The seriousness of the danger is revealed in the story of Sergeant Major James Alford, a Green Beret who contracted it during his military service.
Speaking of the armed forces, the military is on the leading edge of medical advances. Shortly before I required my own bone graft, I read a fascinating press release from the Veterans Affairs Health Care System. It describes a new system for using 3D printers to create “3-dimensional bioprinting of vascularized bone tissue.” This breakthrough promises to relieve the suffering of countless people with bone injuries and ailments.
For VA Ventures, the future of using 3D printing to build constructs from each patient’s own cells, matched to their anatomy and defect geometry will soon be a reality, offering customized bone tissue grafts at the point of care.
The connection between teeth and bones is one thing, but there are far more important bones in the human body than the sockets in our jaw bones.
C.S. Lewis & Bone Disease
C.S. Lewis died young; he was nearing his sixty-fifth birthday. Toward the end of his life, he suffered from osteoporosis. He describes his diagnosis in a 1957 letter.
My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis – a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure.
It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.
As vividly as C.S. Lewis describes the pain created by his bone disease, it diminished to nothing in comparison to the suffering of his wife, Joy. She was dying of cancer resident primarily in her bones, when Lewis married her at her hospital bedside.
Although she would eventually succumb to the disease, she experienced a miraculous respite after an Anglican priest prayed for her healing as he laid his hands upon her frail, pain-racked body.
Peter Bide had laid hands on Joy and prayed for her healing because, some years earlier, he had discovered that when he did this people often were indeed healed: he possessed, it appears, what the Church calls the gift of healing.
In January 1959 an essay by Lewis appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; it was called “The Efficacy of Prayer,” and one of its early paragraphs goes like this: I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thigh-bone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of disease in many other bones as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life, the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last x-rays was saying, “These bones are solid as rock. It’s miraculous.” (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis).
Sadly, Joy’s remission was only that. She did, however, live for several years. Her relative health even allowed the couple to take a bona fide honeymoon.
During her terminal illness, Lewis resorted to a questionable practice to which many of us can personally relate. He prayed that God might spare his wife, and transfer her pain to him instead. This common prayer is fueled by the desperation and helplessness we feel as we witness the suffering of our loved ones.
On these grounds Lewis began [after her release from the hospital] to pray for Joy’s sufferings to be transferred to him. Soon thereafter, Joy’s bones began to heal, and Lewis’s began to weaken. He did not get cancer but rather osteoporosis; nevertheless, as the pain in her bones decreased, his increased.
To Sister Penelope he wrote about his worst period: “I was losing calcium just about as fast as Joy was gaining it, and a bargain (if it were one) for which I’m very thankful.” In the same conversation in which he told Coghill of his unexpected happiness, he explained that he believed that God had allowed him to accept in his body her pain: the way of exchange.
These were for him very strange times. When he still thought that, despite his osteoporosis, Joy was dying, he wrote to Dorothy Sayers . . . “Indeed the situation is not easy to describe. My heart is breaking and I was never so happy before; at any rate there is more in life than I knew about.”
But at this point he still had little hope, though he noticed that she seemed much better than the doctors told him she really was, despite her bedridden status. By November he could tell Sister Penelope that Joy was walking with a cane; a month later he could tell a godson that she “has made an almost miraculous, certainly an unexpected, recovery.”
In August 1958 he wrote to a friend to say that “my wife walks up the wooded hill behind our house”; it seems likely that the image of her doing so was what went into the Atlantic essay. “All goes amazingly well with us.” (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis).
In the previously cited 1957 correspondence, C.S. Lewis describes a curious interplay between their two ailments. It notes a practical benefit to his own osteoporosis.
Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.
She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of women not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another. We are crazily in love. . . .
My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis . . . Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me – I’m in pain and sit it out – and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.
To recognize the grace in being the one “in need,” is a wonderful gift. Something only the mature can ever possess.
So, once again we see just how much we have in common with the creator of Narnia. We may lack his brilliance, and fall shy of his skills as a communicator . . . but his willingness to lay bare his own life, offers encouragement to us as we experience the same challenges – and joys.
9 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis, Dentistry & Bones”
It’s funny to humanize our heroes because they do ordinary things we all would do.
That reminds me of a potty training book we had when our kids were tiny. Did you realize that police officers, pilots, and even Santa Claus all go potty?
Almost all of us must wrestle w/ the loss of a loved one during our lives. It is the greatest consolation to believers that we will see our loved ones again in heaven, where their pain and sorrow are no more.
Yes it truly is. God has spared us from one of life’s cruelest blows, the dead of a child, but I believe the resurrection would be especially comforting then.
I knew Peter Bide when he was chaplain of LMH – he was an outstanding pastor. But I hadn’t heard till now that he had the gift of healing and had played a role in Joy Davidman’s remission. What an extraordinary man he was.
What a wonderfully small world. That would be Lady Margaret Hall, the college at Oxford.
I loved this quote: “Then came the opportunity to return to Oxford as chaplain and tutor in Theology at Lady Margaret Hall. Although he was in no sense a professional theologian, he had a good mind, was widely read and brought to his teaching an infectious enthusiasm that made Theology seem important. He was also a first-class pastor” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1444205/The-Reverend-Peter-Bide.html).
I have prayed for a loved one’s suffering to be transferred to me, but timidly because it always seemed like poor theology, as though a loving God needed “somebody” to suffer. But Lewis’s heart and viewpoint are so pure, I’m inclined to rethink the matter.
Your experience has been similar to my own. “Timidly” is a good word for it, because, as you astutely point out, it’s based on faulty theology.
Nevertheless, I think God approves of the compassionate sentiment behind such prayers.
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