Belfast man who died the same day as JFK continues to fascinate 50 years on
Opinion: Both men inspired ‘an invigorating sense of hope’
CS Lewis: dared his readers to believe that they might be immortal.
C S Lewis died on November 22nd, 1963, the same day president John F Kennedy was assassinated. Both men were known as “Jack” to their families and friends. And just as the Kennedy mystique continues to fascinate millions around the world, so too a half century later, the writings of CS Lewis keep their enduring hold upon the popular imagination.
The Chronicles of Narnia have sold well over 100 million copies. Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, two openly Christian books by Lewis, sell about 300,000 copies each year.
Even 50 years after his death, no one can equal this Irish man’s gift for presenting the essentials of Christian faith in straightforward language. The Belfast-born Lewis paints pictures with his words, so that language comes alive under his pen. Toward the end of his life he stopped writing, not because of illness, but as Lewis explained to a friend, because “the pictures have stopped”.
Sense of hope
John F Kennedy had Irish roots, but CS Lewis was an Ulsterman by birth. Although he spent his whole career teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, for him Co Down was heaven, and the year after marrying the gifted American writer Joy Davidman, they belatedly honeymooned in Crawfordsburn in July 1958.
Unlike the photogenic John F Kennedy, C S Lewis never stood out in a crowd. Neither did Lewis suffer a young and tragic death – he died of kidney failure and heart problems a week before his 65th birthday.
However, one gift both he and JFK brought to the world was an invigorating sense of hope. Hope challenges us to believe that, in spite of difficulties, we can become all we are destined to be. Kennedy helped people believe the world could change and become better.
Lewis dared his readers to believe in an even bigger truth – that they were immortal. “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”
We are not here merely to make ends meet, though we need to do that as well. We are not here simply to be healthy, though we are grateful for physical wellbeing. We are not here only to be decent people, though we admire moral integrity.
These goods, and even bigger joys, “are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited”. We are here for a dream so audacious that we find it hard to believe: we are here to be transformed.
Like Kennedy and Lewis, we are undoubtedly aware of our dark sides, yet God rejoices in all that we can become. We see our caterpillar nature, while God beholds us as butterflies.
It is tempting to trim down our expectations, for: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” (The Weight of Glory)
Kennedy is always associated with Camelot. Lewis, like his fellow Northerner Seamus Heaney, was haunted all his life by Virgil’s Aeneid, a spiritual journey he likened to his own.
What he wrote about this epic poem to the novelist and translator Dorothy L Sayers forms a fitting epitaph for Lewis himself, whose life was not always easy: “The effect is one of the immense costliness of a vocation combined with a complete conviction that it is worth it . . . To follow the vocation does not mean happiness; but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.”