CS Lewis is an inexhaustible source of wisdom for me. Whether reading his science fiction, fantasy, or his imaginative meditations on our Lord, Heaven, Hell and the Christian life, I find each replete with gentle humor and clear-eyed truths. Although I had made use of quotations from The Great Divorce in my writing, I had never read the book. This Holy Week seemed an excellent time to do so. It is a delightful read, filled with pithy exchanges like this one:
"Oh, of course. I'm wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you."
"But of course!" said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. "That's what we all find when we reach this country. We've all been wrong! That's the great joke. There's no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living."
Lewis takes us on a vision- we find at the end, that it was a dream- of Purgatory, Heaven and Hell that is both humorous and heart- breaking. We witness 'conversations' between souls and citizens of heaven as seen through the eyes of the narrator or dreamer.
The book begins in a dismal, wholly depressing place, appropriately called Gray Town. Our tour guide takes us on a bus ride which we soon realize is heading to heaven or maybe the foyer to heaven. We learn quickly of former earthly relationships between the ghost souls and the celestial spirits sent to persuade their friend, brother or spouse to make the seemingly trivial sacrifice necessary to enter heaven.
Although Lewis wrote and published The Great Divorce in 1945, the personalities of those who prefer to remain in purgatory or hell are distressingly familiar. Perhaps our own shadowy selves are mirrored by a few of the persons still hungering for fame or a perverted notion of love. Time after time, the notion of letting go of the lingering anger or ambition is simply too much and the 'ghosts' trudge back to the bus and Gray Town. Here is a snippet of an especially poignant conversation between a heavenly spouse and her former husband:
"Quick," she said. "There is still time. Stop it. Stop it at once."
"Using pity, other people's pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity...."
The narrator comments about the whole interaction: "I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy."
It wasn't until I wondered about the title, The Great Divorce, that this straightforward fantasy developed legs. Lewis apparently chose the title as a rebuttal to William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. After seeking some help in understanding the poet's rambling and at times incoherent prose, I understood that Blake was arguing against the dichotomy of heaven and hell. After all, he reasoned, all men are a combination of good and evil, therefore there should be no such division in the afterlife. A couple of hundred years before the sexual revolution, Blake was a lover of women, marriage notwithstanding. A painter, sculptor as well as poet, here are some of the somewhat surrealistic images which accompanied his poem.
Lewis, a convert to Christianity and Christian apologist after many decades of atheism, writes The Great Divorce in reply to Blake's esoteric poem- in defense, if you will, of the chasm between heaven and hell.
I have inserted the link to the PDF form of Lewis's disarming meditation should you decide to read it for yourself, if you have not done so already. Here is one last quote to whet your appetite:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.