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The Great Divorce

By Bren Dubay
September 2020

In the preface of The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has, of course — or I intended it to have — a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal …” Lewis is one of my favorite writers, but I had not read this particular book until recently. In it, he gives a vision of heaven and hell. It is an imaginative telling and, like any good story, though it may not be true, it contains truth.

In the story, people residing in hell are able to take trips to heaven. They appear there as ghosts and are met by spirits whose home is heaven, a place where the light does not go unnoticed whether it draws or repels. The ghosts have a chance to come home. It’s their choice.

There are many memorable moments in the story, but the one I still carry with me days after reading the book is about the splendid woman who comes across the plain surrounded by all sorts of other spirits. They dance, sing and scatter flowers in her path. She is beautiful. Perhaps she wears a robe and a crown — “For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.” There are many cats and dogs scampering with the retinue and there are birds and horses, too. The narrator knows this is a person of great importance. For a moment, he thinks the woman is the Virgin Mary. She wasn’t. She is Sarah Smith. Though she carried no fame on earth, she touched lives. She was not someone the narrator had ever heard of. “Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country [heaven] and fame on earth are two quite different things.”

It made me think about the Sarah Smiths I have come to know. It made me hope for more Sarah Smiths. It made me wonder how many of us are being asked to be Sarah Smiths. What’s our answer?

If you haven’t read The Great Divorce, I invite you to do so. If you have, I urge you to read it again. There is something in it for our times. The coronavirus is not a fantasy. It has shed a light on hellish aspects of our lives — healthcare, systemic racism, division, unhealthy food, environmental degradation. What are we to do? Likely, we are not going to create a heaven on earth, but we have heard it a great deal, “Let’s not return to the old normal. What will the new normal be.” Good art, good literature, helps us imagine what a new normal and a new world can be. It is vital in times like these to seek out that which helps us imagine a better world and encourages us to work together, perhaps in small ways like Sarah Smith, to build this new world now.

I close with a few passages which I hope will whet your appetite for the book. Though they may not be literally true, there are nuggets of truth contained in each one.

Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.

There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.

We know nothing of religion here: we only think of Christ.

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’ –or else not.

That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.

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. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth.

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