A couple of weeks ago, I corresponded with my friend and fellow scribbler Kelly Belmonte (http://allninemuses.blogspot.com/) about changing the direction for this blog. I felt that my inspiration was running dry, a side effect of juggling work and life. I have been fascinated by the poetry of C.S. Lewis for some time, and thus wished to dive more deeply into his verse. Many are unaware that Lewis aspired to be a poet as a young man. Just recently, Dr. Holly Ordway of Houston Baptist University posted a fantastic reflection of Lewis’ “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” (located on Kelly’s site mentioned above).
For the next few weeks, I wish to examine more of Lewis’ poetry. This week, the first post will discuss a popular poem by Lewis utilized by author Donald Miller, who penned such spiritually-imbued works as Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Some have spectulated that Miller is the Lewis of our generation, a man who accurately records his impressions of culture, capturing the spiritual zeitgeist with honesty and vulnerability. In his autobiographical exploration Blue Like Jazz, Miller borrows some verses from Lewis’ “As the Ruin Falls”:
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.
One of the traits I most admire about Lewis is his humility. He spoke at length about the unbridled pride which infects like a disease; it is the root of arrogance and condescension. In the first few lines, Lewis dissolves the pretentious nature of spiritual “rhetoric”. How often have the age-old rhymes sprang from our lips, stirred more by tradition than passion? Do we mutter these phrases in earnest praise or from spiritual obligation? Some may ask, “What is the difference?” Everything. The difference is everything. Love, as Lewis illuminates, is hollow here. The only love present is love for the self. The truth, Lewis states, is in the pudding. Actions, motivations, and decisions reveal what is truly adored – “me”. In fact, the theme of “I” has been a motif since birth, creating mercenaries who will conquer with fierce enthusiasm for the laurel and crowns of self-achievement. Our focus is exclusionary; only topics of great personal concern are noteworthy.
That narrow perspective can be confining, using relationships (even one with a benevolent God) to simply acquire more for ourselves (“I want God, you , all friends, merely to serve my turn”). Lewis once wrote to a correspondent that humanity has two basic motivations for completing a task: 1) because it is compulsory or 2) because it brings pleasure and joy. Basically, we “have to” or we “want to”. We seek “peace, re-assurance, and pleasure” because we desire them, and will forsake all others to achieve them. However, there is something deeply troubling about this aspect of our nature. Why can’t we extend our concern for ourselves to each other? What will we lose/gain in the transaction? Often many seek opportunities to destroy rather than to build. We understand that our salvation is a gift, and yet, we are often guilty of indulging a nagging self-righteousness. We lie, we gossip, we steal, we judge…and we all understand that we are flawed. And so settles our passion into a stew of spiritual mediocrity and contradiction.
Lewis’ message here: Do not be comfortable with your brokenness. Strive for something better.
Perpetual brokenness is Lewis’ theme. I will always end where I begin, in a fog of my own selfishness. I am consumed with myself. It is difficult to “crawl one inch outside my proper skin” because I am narcissistic and hopelessly unsatisfied. It is, as Lewis describes, a “self-prison”, locked up within the shallow perimeter of my understanding. I proudly construct my ideal, and watch hopelessly as it crumbles. Today, in a writing exercise, I contemplated how Shakespeare’s characters always blamed Fortuna (the mythological goddess of fortune and luck) for their poor circumstance. However, the characters were only experiencing the consequences of their decisions. “Oh, I am Fortune’s Fool”, cries Romeo. But Romeo, in his naivety, does not understand that “falling in love” with a new acquaintance who happens to be an adversary is an improbable reality. Fortune is not to blame.
In the third stanza, clarity arrives at last. God reveals to Lewis his “lack” and he acknowledges the wide separation. God is constructing a “bridge” to help us return to him, a bridge that will rescue us from self-exile. Once Lewis and all of us are free from ourselves, we will gradually develop into who God wants us to be. And yet, we prevent it. We get in our own way. “The bridge is breaking”, Lewis writes. We dismantle the work God performed on us, lifting the planks and pulling out nails. Piece by piece we come apart again.
And when the ruin falls, the poet utters a blessing. The pain is one of holy recognition. Our brokenness is an ever-present obstacle. Blame Adam and Eve (like Shakespeare’s protagonists blamed Fortuna) but ultimately Eden is forbidden. We lost it long ago and in its absence, we were introduced to the long struggle which haunts us infinitely. The cycle continues uninterrupted. We fall, we stagger, we stand, we fall again. Thank God for his mercy.
No matter how many consecutive weeks you have attended a church service or elderly ladies you have assisted across a busy street, we are all broken. We all possess a sinful nature. Brokenness cannot be cured by a pill or extinguished by therapy. One can learn to cope with the consequences of being broken. For example, one can attend therapy to move through a rough time or seek counseling in order to receive healing. But understand this: we will always fall short of God’s glory. We can never earn it. There should never come a moment when we are comfortable with God enough to be convinced that He simply ignores our transgressions. Do not abuse his grace. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. God does not use a scale to weigh our worth; His justice and mercy eliminate the need for one. We are sons and daughters, but servants still. We should continually be in awe of God, of the sacrifice that grants us freedom and eternity. The grace and mercy of our Father should never become commonplace. As He renews your mind, renew your devotion.
So as the ruin falls, praise the One who consistently begins to repair the mess. Watch Him create something wonderful and appreciate the wisdom of each experience.
Can’t wait for you to tackle Spirits in Bondage. 🙂
That is what I planned to do next Bruce! 😉
Thanks so much for your generous comments!
Have you heard the song Phil Keaggy made of this poem?