Archives For Joy Davidman

C.S. Lewis as a Stepfather

September 8, 2020 — 14 Comments

Step-parenting well can be a challenge. In many cases it brings great joy to both parent and child. But in some unfortunate cases, parenting the biological child of another can seem nearly impossible.

If you needed another reason to respect C.S. Lewis—and I recognize most readers of Mere Inkling don’t—consider the case of his stepsons. I’ll refer you in a moment to an informative column by Jonathon Van Maren, but first, some background.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor. He anticipated living out his senior years in the fraternal company of his brother and close friends. God, however, had other plans. His marriage to Joy Davidman is familiar, in part because of the 1993 film, Shadowlands.

Curiously, the film itself raised a question in my mind that has not been satisfactorily answered until now. Where is David Gresham? Joy had two sons Lewis helped raise. Only David is portrayed in the film. At the time I attributed the absence to cinematic convenience. After all, since the son(s) were not the primary focus of the drama, one could easily suffice for the pair.

Some years later I corresponded (too briefly) with Doug Gresham, who has admirably championed the legacy of his stepfather’s faith and work. When I asked about his brother, Doug shared that he had elected to follow Judaism, and chosen not to be directly involved in the workings of C.S. Lewis Co. Ltd. and associated projects.

Now, following David’s death, Doug is free to share with us another insight into the patience and compassion of C.S. Lewis. The great author did not flinch from the duty he had accepted when he married Joy and brought his bride, and her children, into his home. Doug has previously written about their family in his wonderful book, Lenten Lands. He describes the adjustments.

We became a family. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly and surely Jack and Warnie and I were building some sort of relationship. I could never claim to have been anywhere near as important to Jack [Lewis] as he was to me, but I really do believe that I did become important to him. In addition, I began to understand a little about Jack and began to be able to see the enormous wealth of compassion in him.

The marriage was too brief, lasting from March 1957* until Joy’s death in July 1960. After that, Lewis was diligent in establishing the best future for his sons. Douglas’ life has been a testimony to that commitment. David’s sadly, was not.

The Curse of Psychosis

Schizophrenia is an ugly affliction. Psychotic episodes, where a person is unable to discern between reality and illusion, can create chaos. While modern medications are helpful, in severe cases, long term hospitalization may be required. In David’s case, his life ended several years ago in just such an institution, in Switzerland. 

While schizophrenia often first manifests between the late teens and early thirties, in some cases its onset begins earlier. Such was the case in the Davidman family. And it was during these turbulent years that Lewis did his best to protect and nurture his new sons. Doug relates a shocking example of how his elder brother “was continually trying to get rid of me.” From the aforementioned column:

“I came out of the kitchen [at The Kilns] one afternoon, for example. . . As I walked out the brick arch doorway, there was a splash, and I was covered in gasoline. My brother was standing there trying to strike a match to throw at me.

I kicked his wrist so hard I nearly broke it. The matches went flying, and I took off.” Douglas told me that this sort of thing was not uncommon. “It was a difficult childhood for me,” he said. “Jack tried his very hardest for David all the time. He tried to help in every way he could—he was kind and gentle and wonderful with him.”

Those of us whose families have been scarred by the scourge of schizophrenia understand how one’s compassion and patience can be tested to their limits. C.S. Lewis passed that test. He neither surrendered to the challenge, nor shirked the burden he had willingly assumed.

After reading “C.S. Lewis and His Stepsons” at First Things, my respect for the man continues to grow. I suspect that yours will, as well.


* Their true marriage took place while Joy was hospitalized on 21 March 1957. Lewis had entered into a civil marriage with Joy a year earlier, to allow her to remain in the United Kingdom.

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

February 12, 2019 — 11 Comments

scrabble

It’s not uncommon for people who love words to also enjoy the game Scrabble.

The word game, born in 1933, is quite popular. In fact, the Hasbro company claims “today the SCRABBLE game is found in three of every five American homes.”

The game made enough of an impact in New York City, that the neighborhood where it was conceived is adorned with the distinctive Scrabblesque street sign shown above.

C.S. Lewis was also a fan of the game. He and his wife Joy played the game regularly. But they modified the rules, to allow for their particular intellects. Doug Gresham, their son, describes this in The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.

They played word games with each other. They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

Jack, Joy & Their Love of Words

The third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes two references to the way Scrabble became a familiar feature of their married life. In the first, written in July of 1957, he describes the situation at the beginning of Joy’s remission.

It is fascinating in several ways. It describes Lewis’ own declining health and the manner in which God had used it to be a blessing in their relationship. The shock, however, comes in Lewis’ confession about who was the Scrabble champion at The Kilns.

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 men 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–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.

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.

The fact that Jack and Joy were truly “crazily in love,” made the brevity of their life together all the more poignant and precious. In July of 1960, Lewis wrote to inform a friend of Joy’s passing.

Dear Mrs Gebbert, Alas, you will never send anything ‘for the three of us’ again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be.

Last week she had been complaining of muscular pains in her shoulders, but by Monday 11th seemed much better, and on Tuesday, though keeping her bed, said she felt a great improvement; on that day she was in good spirits, did her ‘crossword puzzle’ with me, and in the evening played a game of Scrabble.

At quarter past six on Wednesday morning, the 13th, my brother, who slept over her, was wakened by her screaming and ran down to her. I got the doctor, who fortunately was at home, and he arrived before seven and gave her a heavy shot.

At half past one I took her into hospital in an ambulance. She was conscious for the short remainder of her life, and in very little pain, thanks to drugs; and died peacefully in my company about 10.15 the same night.

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared.

You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

This letter suggests that Joy’s final evening in this world was a happy one. It was filled with warm and family domesticity. Under the circumstances, who could hope for more. As Lewis writes, it would only be for our own selfishness that we would wish to prolong the suffering of those we love.

I would be curious to learn whether Lewis ever again played Scrabble during those final few years of his own life. I suspect that it would have been too painful. Best to recall the game in light of the affectionate competition the two of them shared.

Nursing Those We Love

August 1, 2012 — 13 Comments

This week I became a nurse. No, I didn’t complete a degreed or certificated program, I simply assumed the duties of being my wife’s post-surgical caregiver.

She had very serious knee surgery, which will require her to place no weight at all on her right leg for at least a month and a half. This first week she’s required an escort and assistance for virtually everything. And I’ve offered this service gladly, and lovingly . . . even when it’s interrupted my sleep apnea crippled rest.

Obviously, over three and a half decades of marriage, she has needed modest nursing in the past. But this is more serious. It is sustained. She has seen me through a number of serious illnesses and surgeries, but then she (like so many other women I’ve been privileged to know) is a natural nurse and caregiver.

C.S. Lewis was a man not vastly different from me. He was not terribly comfortable when placed in such a role . . . yet he too discovered great meaning in caring for the needs of his wife during her illness. His precious Joy was dying, so the intensity of his labors, and their corresponding emotional investment dwarf my own. And yet the “framework” of our circumstances bears a marked similarity.

In his wonderful book Lenten Lands, Lewis’ son Douglas Gresham relates how Lewis and his brother Warnie provided exceptional care to his mother during her illness. He writes:

[Lewis] spent most of each day with [Joy] at the hospital, but they both agreed Mother should be brought home to The Kilns to die—in Jack’s home—her husband’s home—with him at her side. The “common room” was converted to a hospital ward, complete with a system of bells by which Mother would summon a nurse, or later Jack, if she needed help, as she often did.

I’ll make a confession. Although most men can adequately perform familial nursing duties when there is no alternative caregiver, most of us are quite content to step aside and let our wives or sisters attend to whatever nursing procedures are called for. Actually, I was quite gifted at removing slivers, but when it comes to bodily discharges, I’m no sexist to admit I and most of my gender display a serious weakness.

And yet, even in these cases, when changing the soiled diaper of an infant (or someone old enough to feel shame for having such needs) . . . even such unpleasant acts are possible for us to do for those we love. So the key to being able to care for others is not to pinch our nose and do it as quickly as humanly possible. The key, instead, is to learn to love those placed in our care.

In our grandparents day, it wasn’t uncommon for an elderly great-grandparent to reside with the family of one of their children. My father, for example, grew up with his blind grandfather as a member of their household. Similarly, my mother enjoyed the daily presence of her grandmother in her own home throughout her life. Not only was it expected that children would “take in” their elderly parents, it was natural. After all, they were family.

But, how does one transfer this familial affection to the stranger? After all, as Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (John 6).

Mother Teresa and the many thousands of saints throughout history who have cared for the leper, the outcasts, and the dying know this truth. They do everything as though they were caring for the Lord himself, just as he asked his disciples to do. Medicines are not their only balms—nor their most important. Their compassionate touch and tender encouragements are often far more healing.

When I compare myself to these caregivers, I realize just how inadequate a nurse I am. As a pastor, a core aspect of my vocation has been to bind the injuries of the sheep entrusted to my care. But I do this in a “spiritual” manner, and it has been rare to ever help one of them replace a bloodied bandage. Spiritual, emotional and social wounds are those that most pastors feel comfortable treating. Providing for the “baser” physical needs of the diseased is quite another matter.

And this brings us to the end of today’s reflection. When next I write, I’ll carry this final thought a bit farther forward.

C.S. Lewis the Poet

June 27, 2012 — 19 Comments

Many of us desire to write. And yet, we often consider ourselves “failed” writers because the novel buried within us is never published. Print on Demand technology has addressed this to a degree . . . but the fact remains that few of us are destined to receive accolades for our work.

And that, simply, is life. We cannot all be “successful,” especially as the world defines the concept.

It is good to have family and friends who remind us of what does truly make us precious, especially if we are enslaved by our passion to write, and discouraged by the meager fruits of our efforts.

In the writers group in which I participate, we enjoy that sort of supportive “family.” While we encourage everyone to refine their skills, expand their horizons and pursue their dreams . . . we are also realistic in our expectations. One of the most important things we can do for novice writers, in my humble opinion, is to help them discover the particular fields in which their literary labors will be most effective.

For example, many writers compose memoirs that prove invaluable to family members. When these stories capture the flavor of a bypast locale, their value extends to others who are interested in that beloved community. Likewise, I’ve known people whose gift for writing was most radiant in terms of letters. Their personal correspondence was glorious. Like radiant gems carved to perfection for each of the individual persons to whom they were addressed. In past eras, such correspondence was highly esteemed. Gifted writers such as these owe no apology for not writing best-selling fiction.

Still, we often judge ourselves by our failures, rather than our successes.

C.S. Lewis was no different. He was quite successful as a writer, and was certainly in high demand as a professor and adviser at Oxford and Cambridge. He received international praise for his work, and yet he was despondent about at least one aspect of his writing.

Lewis had longed from his adolescence to become a respected poet. This was partly due to the age in which he was reared. Poetry was viewed as the most cultured and elegant form of writing. Much more so than is true today. (Although I assume today’s poets still regard Euterpe, pictured above, as the most wondrous of Greece’s Muses. Her domain was Music and Poetry.)

Lewis’ poetry did not receive much critical praise. We’ll consider the subject more in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this fact caused him much grief. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary writes in his C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide: “The most noticeable effect of Lewis’ conversion [to Christianity] was the death of his old ambition as a poet and the emergence of a man never thereafter at a loss for the right words.”

Lewis still wrote poetry, of course, but he no longer sought his identity in it. The following love poem, inspired by his deep affection for his wife Joy, is quite powerful. As they faced her illnesses and death, I believe his words reach heights rarely attained by many a poet laureate.

As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

If you find this poem moving, it is well worth taking a moment to listen to Phil Keaggy’s musical treatment of Lewis’ lyrics.