Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Memorial to a good man behind the saintly myth

Honour: Ulster-born writer CS Lewis is to be recognised with a memorial in Westminster Abbey

Rory McIlroy, George Best, Frank Pantridge, Harry Ferguson and several other of our native sons are internationally well-known because of their achievements.

Now another Ulsterman is deservedly being given even more recognition for his outstanding career.

The Christian writer and commentator CS Lewis will be honoured next year by a memorial stone placed at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Lewis wrote some of the most important books in the history of Christianity, as well as the Chronicles of Narnia, with the ever-fresh story of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

His books have sold in millions, his life story has been featured on stage and television and there is a large international library of publications based on his work, with more to come.

Ironically, however, he is being honoured in Poets’ Corner even though he was less acclaimed for his poetry than for the other aspects of his work — a point made to me recently by Sandy Smith, the Belfast man who is completing a book about him.

Lewis is often regarded by those who do not know his life story as a saintly man, who lived in an ivory tower of Christian literature, but with little experience of the tribulations of life.

Undoubtedly he was a good man, but he was no saint. He was immensely gifted, but like the rest of us he had human frailties, which to my mind give his Christian work even more authenticity.

In August this year, I re-traced Lewis’s steps to Oxford, where he was a long-time tutor at Magdalen College, and during the summer I read Michael White’s revealing biography titled CS Lewis — The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia. Lewis was educated for a time at Campbell College and, like many an Old Campbellian and Old Instonian, he was sometimes an intellectual snob.

He did not fully recover emotionally from the early death of his mother and he never got on with his solicitor father.

His brother Warren, an Army officer, later became an alcoholic who regularly travelled to a hospital in Drogheda to be dried out.

For many years, Lewis lived with the mother of a fellow officer who had served with him in the First World War and whom he had gone to see after her son’s death.

No one knows the intimate details of their close personal relationship, but it must have played a significant part in his early life.

After she died Lewis, like many of his academic colleagues at Oxford, could have ended his days as a crusty old bachelor, but he was pursued by a brash American divorcee, whom he came to love deeply and married.

Even this period of happiness was relatively brief and she died of cancer, leaving him bereft.

Then, during his later years, when most of his outstanding work was long behind him, he somehow found the strength to write one of his best books, titled A Grief Observed.

So, far from being a sinless saint in an ivory tower, CS Lewis was a man who knew all about sorrow and loss and who had also witnessed some of the trench savagery of the First World War, which he rarely talked about.

So I hope that, when Lewis is rightly honoured next year in Westminster Abbey, people will remember also the very human man behind the myth who had loved and lost and who still wrote some of the most challenging and inspiring Christian literature of all time.

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