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CS Lewis | Emptiness

October 8, 2022 — 9 Comments

Deep Thoughts from the Quill of the Other C.S. Lewis

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of fictitious quotations from a fabricated contemporary of the great Oxbridge professor, Clive Staples Lewis.

The C.S. Lewis who authored these questionable observations, Clyde Scissors Lewis, possessed a worldview enigmatically different from that of the esteemed Christian author. Despite the fact that their two lives overlapped in a variety of ways, the similarities were superficial.

A brief biography of the lesser Lewis is available at this link.

The Other C.S. Lewis: A Brief Biography

By all means, do not confuse the wisdom of the genuine article with his shadowy counterfeit. Despite any cursory similarities between the two men, this is most definitely not the C.S. Lewis readers have come to know and love.

I clearly remember my mother preparing to attend her fortieth high school reunion. I was struck by the thought wow, my mom is really old!

A few days ago, I attended my own fiftieth reunion. Needless to say, the milestone was sobering.

Read on and I’ll share two insights – the first of which is widely recognized, the second thought is a personal insight to the emotional trauma that can accompany these gatherings.

As the decades advance, most such events add a moment where the names of classmates who are deceased are read. Naturally, the list continues to grow. From my class of 220, 38 are no longer alive. One can only imagine how many of the 74 graduates the steering committee couldn’t reach belong on that list as well.

Seeing the names of people you remember as energetic teenagers, who have already perished, reminds us of our own mortality. Not a single person can be sure their own name won’t appear on that memorial roster, when next the class of 1972 gathers.

Death is rarely a welcome specter, but as a Christian who is confident of the resurrection, reading those names does not elicit fear. True, I do feel some sadness, knowing that each of their families and friends have suffered deep personal loss. But I am resigned to the brevity of life in this world.

I’ve arrived at peace with the fact that we “do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . for [we] are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4).

King David declared our utter dependence on God for everything, and the short duration of our earthly life.

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39).

Fortunately, however, as most people have at least heard, if not (yet) believed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3).

This aspect of class reunions is self-evident. The next, less so.

The Legacy of Isolation

Why is it that so many of my classmates opted to skip the reunion – when I know for a fact that a number of them still live in the local area? I suppose the cost may have discouraged some. But I recognize the most significant reason for the majority who were absent.

They felt they were never part of “the In Crowd.” They watched other people standing in the limelight, getting all of the attention, and pretending to be happy and carefree.

The truth is that adolescence is a challenge for everyone. And it’s quite possible that the most “popular” kids are actually the most angst-ridden. The people we considered safely nestled in the popular cliques were frequently stressed by their insecurities about continuing to be perceived as winners.

In many cases, the years after high school are great equalizers. And, it’s not uncommon for the people who appeared to have the easiest social paths during their teens to be the least equipped to live successful adult lives.

So far, what I’ve said is not too surprising. But here I am going to take a bit of a leap. I make no claims to being a psychologist, but as a dedicated student of humanity, and a pastor who has heard many private, personal stories, I believe this observation to be true.

While we were teenagers attending school, nearly all of us felt like we were on the fringe of our school’s social core. And the handful who didn’t could well have been nascent narcissists. Trust me, the few who experienced actual delusions of grandeur at that time, were destined to take the greatest falls as they left that insulated environment.

So, this is what I think. Most of those who choose not to attend their class reunions, lacked a feeling of truly belonging. But, on the other side of the very same coin, most of those who choose to attend those very same gatherings also felt like they were insignificant people on the periphery of what was “happening.”

The Lord of this world (Lucifer) invests a great deal of energy trying to destroy the self-image of women and men who were created in the very image of God. My prayer is that if you have read this far, you consider what I’ve written. You are precious. You have always been precious, even when you considered yourself most ugly.

Attending your next class reunion may not be something you desire to do. But, don’t allow a false perception that you are unimportant be the reason you skip the event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a superb essay on the subject of “The Inner Ring,” and the temptation people have to compromise their integrity trying to fit in. He presented it as a lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. In his words, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

If you read the essay, which I heartily recommend, recognize that he was speaking to a student audience which consisted only of men. The truths he describes are applicable, of course, to both genders. Lewis’ observations certainly ring true with me.

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

This column has been written backwards. Not sdrawkcab literally, but in the opposite direction of its natural order. Usually I find something illuminating (most commonly in C.S. Lewis’ work), and then I offer some reflections on that insight. Occasionally, the post’s subject arises from a different source, and in my subsequent thoughts, I consciously consider what Lewis might have thought about the matter.

This is the first time when something utterly bizarre struck me as a valid starting point. And, only later did I find a suitable “proof text” or two from Lewis to validate discussing the odiferous subject at hand.

There’s a show I’ve been enjoying called “Parks and Recreation.” While I can’t recommend it to others, due to the casual portrayal of promiscuity which is endemic to American “entertainment.” Nevertheless, they often have quite witty writing that satirizes the crazy nature of life in our world today. This episode features a political debate between candidates for mayor of a small town.

One of the candidates responds to a question with, “No, I’m not a Vegan. I’m an Onionarian. I only eat onions and onion-based juices.”

I wonder how many other cultures can garb their dietary preferences in the robes of religious faith and devotion? Now, I love an onion more than the average person, but the notion of narrowing our diet down from God’s vast table to a single item just strikes me as a bit humorous (see Acts 10:9f).

As I enjoyed a chuckle, the thought flashed that I might relate this dialog for others who share my peculiar sense of humor . . . and I immediately wondered whether or not a Lewisian connection would be possible. Oh me of little faith. Lewis was so prolific that it doesn’t even require me to stretch.

You see, onions can teach us many lessons.

For example, look at this demonic advice offered by Screwtape to his protégé Wormword. He says Tempters should persuade human beings to care overly about what others think of them. The entire advertising world seems to be established on this principle. And how terribly vulnerable we are to this whisper. But, by the grace of God, it appears some are immune.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters)

Thus we see that onions can, in some contexts, possess salvific influences. (Well, that might be pushing the lesson just a wee bit . . . but there is an important truth to be found in this epistle.)

Lewis’ arguably most famous discussion of onions is found in his discussion of concentric rings of secrecy, power, intimacy and knowledge described in his 1944 address entitled “The Inner Ring.” Rather than paraphrase his fine argument, I shall allow the following portions of his talk to speak eloquently for themselves.

Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognized the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the Russian Army or perhaps in any army. But you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion. And here, too, at your university-shall I be wrong in assuming that at this very moment, invisible to me, there are several rings-independent systems or concentric rings-present in this room? And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems. . . .

Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain. . . .

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organization should quite coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people invariably held the highest posts, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. In that way the second, unwritten system is bound to grow up. It is necessary; and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.

While I have no doubt a number of other worthwhile onion-lessons are waiting to be found in the Inklings corpus, I would like to close now with my personal favorite. In the following passage, Lewis reverses the analogy, with each peeling away of a layer revealing ever more of reality.

In the closing paragraphs of the final Narnia Chronicle, The Last Battle, Lewis transforms the savory bulb into a metaphor for never ending epiphany.

[Lucy said:] “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia. . . .”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

What a glorious description. And, like our Lord who elevated the humble mustard seed to literary immortality, Lewis has lifted the modest genus Allium, and secured for it a lasting place in English literature.