Henry Kissinger described life as “a journey across the meadows.” C. S. Lewis also saw meadows but understood better why so few take this trek.
I just finished volume one of Niall Ferguson’s two-part biography of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger is 92. His life experiences are extensive. Fought in WWII. Harvard faculty. Served as National Security Advisor under Nixon. But Kissinger doesn’t see life as a series of ever-expanding opportunities. He writes that “the seemingly limitless possibilities” of youth narrow as we age. Life is more “a journey across the meadows.”1
Kissinger is right about meadows. They do narrow as we age. But he overlooks direction and destiny. That’s likely due to Kissinger being an agnostic. He characterizes himself as Jewish by ethnicity rather than by faith. C. S. Lewis, a convert to Christianity from atheism, understood how these meadows work and where they lead.
“I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast,” wrote Lewis. He was Irish. In a letter of 1915, he fondly recalls his memories of Belfast, including the little glens, meadows, and hills around the city.2 Lewis never forgot the Emerald Isle’s beauty. It would later shape his imagination, including how we mature as followers of Christ.
Lewis’ imagination was first stirred reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes in February of 1916. He writes how the book powerfully “baptized his imagination” with a deep sense of the holy (even though Lewis was an atheist at that time). A few years later, at Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis became a theist: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God…” In 1931, Lewis became a Christian.
Lewis was familiar with works of antiquity. That likely included Isaac the Syrian. “The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.”3 Lewis learned that we go further into the Kingdom by finding a pathway further up.
Remembering the hills and meadows of Ireland, Lewis depicted the journey of faith as an ascent through meadows. In The Great Divorce, he depicts hell as the depressing Grey Town. Heaven is a glorious sunlit meadow. We must ascend to it. That’s not easy.
We see the difficulty in the dim souls seated on a bus headed for hell. They’re shadowy wisps given an opportunity to get off the bus and ascend to heaven. The ghosts take tentative steps in meadows. But the blades of grass hurt. They’re not used to reality. The heavenly spirits try to encourage them to keep going. “It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.”4 The ghosts give up.
In Heaven, the travelers depicted in The Great Divorce—those who traverse the meadows—become full and complete people. This is similar to what happens in Lewis’ The Last Battle. Those who make it to the highest elevation, trekking though seemingly narrowing meadows, end up at the biggest one. Mr. Tumnus the Faun told young Lucy about this. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets.”
Prince Tirian discovers this at the end of The Last Battle. He’s thrown through a stable door where he assumes enemy soldiers are inside, waiting to kill him. He instead finds himself in a vast green meadow. Before him stand High King Peter and Queen Lucy, now older and wiser. They are smiling at him.
Smiling back in wonder, Tirian exclaims: “It seems that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.” “Yes,” says Peter. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.” Queen Lucy says this is how the world below also works. “A stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
This is how we grow up. Meadows that seem to taper actually lead to the widest and most beautiful one of all. The further up and the further in we go, the bigger everything gets. Why then do so few people, including Christians, ascend to the higher meadows?
In “A Slip of the Tongue,” Lewis confessed that his “endlessly recurrent temptation” is “to go down to that Sea . . . and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding onto the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal.”5 Worldly concerns often cause to us to remain in overly familiar lower meadows. We never enjoy the abundant life before us.
I began reading Lewis’ fiction after coming to faith. No doubt his meadows lurked subconsciously in my imagination when I began meeting restless folks. They didn’t know, but they were at the end of their meadow. Time to climb. Some did. Many did not. Next week I’ll describe a series of meadows and suggest why so few make the ascent.
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1 As quoted by Niall Ferguson in Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 238.
2 Letter to Arthur Greeves, 30 March 1915; Letters, vol. 1, 114.
3 The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), p. 11.
4 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 42.
5 “A Slip of the Tongue,” in Screwtape Proposes a Toast and other Pieces (New York: Collins Books, 1965), p. 122.