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When you get to a certain age, most writers will consider, at least momentarily, penning an autobiography. Often, aware the effort will invite charges of vanity, they will opt to call it a memoir. Whatever the label, the result is the same.

Writers are faced with the question—and they alone can answer it—as to whether or not there is any value in the preservation of notes about their life journey.

I would argue that there is a clear benefit, even when no one else will read it. Self-reflection, in and of itself, enriches one’s life. Even if it is painful, it can be therapeutic. And, since we’re still alive as we examine our past, time remains to rectify some of the mistakes we have made.

This very process of looking at our lives invites us to question our motives for recording these stories. And, if we’re considering merely to praise ourselves, it would be best to abstain.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many “normal” lives can validly serve as an inspiration to others. (I don’t presume my own effort would fit into this category.)

Here is the reason why I’m actually contemplating assembling some notes for a near-the-end-of-my-earthly-sojourn document. It just might be of interest to some of my descendants. I have often wished to have just such a jewel written by my own ancestors.

Putting myself in the place of my great-grandchildren, etc., I suspect some of them and their own grandchildren might be curious about an ancient progenitor. In fact, the more such records, the fuller the picture they stand to gain of their lineage.

The key, I think, to writing a worthwhile memoir is honesty. If we share our challenges and failures, the volume will not only be more interesting, if may offer our descendants encouragement in their own struggles.

As a man vulnerable to the sin of pride, I’m cautious about proceeding. I pulled this disarming contrast from a book review written several years ago by theologian Carl Trueman.

Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this.

One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.

Autobiography need not be so, as this volume [A Change of Heart] by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several people during my life whose names would be familiar to you. But, God be merciful, I prefer to be an Oden rather than a Küng.

C.S. Lewis was a man like the former, “humble, fascinating and important.” Yet, despite the accolades he received from some quarters, he remained blissfully unaware of the fact that God would continue using his words to inspire others so many decades after he joined his Lord in Paradise.

A Worthy Exemplar

Lewis resisted writing about himself. Not out of a false modesty, but due to a desire to maintain personal privacy and a genuine sense that his life was neither particularly inspirational nor unique. Nevertheless, if it were possible that sharing about his life could help others, he was willing to do so.

His works are sprinkled with autobiographical commentary. His vast correspondence also provides great insight into his life. In 1955, he wrote a traditional autobiography, primarily to explain his conversion.

He entitled it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. As he begins in the Preface:

This book is written partly in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity and partly to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about.

He describes his approach, noting how it differs from what readers might expect.

The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less “Confessions” like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau.

This means in practice that it gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on. In the earlier chapters the net has to be spread pretty wide in order that, when the explicitly spiritual crisis arrives, the reader may understand what sort of person my childhood and adolescence had made me.

When the “build-up” is complete, I confine myself strictly to business and omit everything (however important by ordinary biographical standards) which seems, at that stage, irrelevant.

I do not think there is much loss; I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting. The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never written before and shall probably never write again.

I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.

A Naked Autobiography

As fascinating as Surprised by Joy is, there exists another volume in which the mature Lewis bared his soul as have few others. When he lost his wife, Lewis experienced a profound sorrow that he described in A Grief Observed. So vulnerable was his writing, that Lewis published it under a pseudonym.

In 1988, Madeleine L’Engle penned a Foreword to the book, which now appears under Lewis’ own name.

In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.

No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love.

Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.

Lewis was an exceptional writer, but I daresay that his life was little more amazing than your own. Certainly, Lewis’ life was no more precious to God than yours is.

I encourage you to consider writing (at the appropriate moment) your own memoir. This is particularly important if you have family who may be interested. But even if you don’t, consider writing.

Just remember to follow Lewis’ example and try “to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.”

Who is Your Muse?

August 8, 2015 — 18 Comments

reposeWhich Muse provides your inspiration? Poetry, history, music, dance, epic?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek & Roman concept of the Muse. While I don’t regard these personifications as true “beings,” they provide wonderful insight into the multifaceted nature of inspiration.

The Muses were personifications (representations of abstract concepts in human form). It’s not the same thing as believing in a “god,” although devotional exercises could be offered in “their” honor. (The simple people, in fact, may have regarded them as minor deities.)

The number of Muses—who represented the arts and fields of knowledge—varied in the ancient world. However, nine constituted the final Roman tabulation.

Possessing a historical nature, my “matron” Muse would necessarily be Clio (History).

Sadly, I’ve learned Muses don’t always fulfill their promises. At my suggestion, my wife agreed to name our puppy Calli, abbreviated from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Unfortunately, at ten months her raucous barking sounds anything but poetic.

In his biography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis includes an interesting reference to Muses. It relates to one of their secondary qualities, civility. In the following passage, Lewis had been sent to the Headmaster of his school for review due to “bad work” (i.e. inadequate academic performance).

The Headmaster misunderstood Smewgy’s report and thought there had been some complaint about my manners. Afterward Smewgy got wind of the Head’s actual words and at once corrected the mistake, drawing me aside and saying, “There has been some curious misunderstanding. I said nothing of the sort about you. You will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”

The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum. “Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.

For Lewis’ instructor, the concept of the Muse meant more than simply inspiring some form of art or literature. The influence of the Muses flowed into the broader culture. In a sense, it reflected the distinction the Greeks held between themselves and the barbarians. Surely the uncivilized savages had no Muses of their own!

Sources of Inspiration

It isn’t uncommon today for people to use muse (lower case) as a shorthand for a person who inspires them. Pablo Picasso, for example, considered his favorite model (and mistress) to be his muse. The portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter above, entitled “Repose,” surely conveys the profound vision she provided him.

In cinema, there was the 1999 movie aptly named The Muse, which posits a deflated screenwriter seeking the aid of the supposed “daughter of Zeus.”

Speaking of Christians . . . they too identify a source for their inspiration. In addition to other human beings, who may offer wisdom, insight or encouragement, the preeminent source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

There is a danger in considering God himself to be the source of one’s inspiration. When taken to an extreme, it results in God being blamed for a lot of maudlin prose and gross violations of grammar.

Fortunately, few Christians believe their own writing is infallible. That divine quality is reserved for the Scriptures themselves.

Editors at Christian publishing houses would probably argue with my statement that few Christian authors are so presumptuous as to claim God “breathed” into them every word found in their manuscripts.

So, who is your Muse? When I said Clio is mine, it is because History—the story of humanity and especially God’s hand in it—fascinates me more intensely than any other subject. For you, it could be music or poetry.

Even astronomy has its own Muse, Urania. And, gazing at the boundless heavens God spoke into existence, it is no wonder that many would find their inspiration there.

A Classical Lewisian Poem

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of poems that are satires of Greek and Roman poetry. Some of them are quite witty.

For those interested in reading one such poem, I am pleased to offer “A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage.” In C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, Bruce Edwards describes it as “a sharp attack upon moderns who believe they are heralds of a return to the ‘golden age’ of paganism.” Included in his critique are F.R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell whose philosophy he rejected.

A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism.’
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And [F.R.] Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers,
heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

_____

You can read about my true Muse here.