The Great Divorce (re-read)

great-divorceOn Good Friday, the day on which Christians remember the death of Jesus, I generally try to take some time out in the middle of the day to be quiet, to say a few prayers, and to meditate a little. Since I am not very good at meditation, however, one of the things I do during that time is to read a book that’s relevant to the purpose of the day. It keeps my mind focused and quiet, and I seem to get more out of it than sweating bullets to do it on my own. In the past, I’ve read books by G.K. Chesterton and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example. But my favorite author for this purpose, one I turn to over and over again, is C.S. Lewis, and this Good Friday I re-read The Great Divorce.

The Great Divorce is written, more or less, from the point of view of a dreaming Lewis, who finds himself at the beginning of the book in an ugly, shabby town, full of shabby, quarrelsome, unpleasant people. No matter how far he walks, he never gets to the nicer parts of town, and it never seems to get any lighter — but he does run across people who seem to be lining up at a bus stop, so despite the fact that he doesn’t know where the bus is going, he lines up, too. 

As it turns out, the bus is going to Heaven, and the day-trippers (as it were) have the opportunity to see the realms of endless day, and then choose whether or not they’d like to stay. Why on earth (or, rather, why the hell) wouldn’t they stay, you ask yourself? That choice is the heart of Lewis’s book, because most of the Ghosts, as they’re called because of their unsubstantial nature in the face of the eternal, choose to go back to the dark town below. One Ghost “only wants his rights,” not the joy of heaven. Another, who in life was a progressive bishop, wants to be assured that he will have scope for intellectual inquiry there. When told that this is the land of answers, not questions, he objects that this is all very narrow-minded, and disappears. Still another, a woman, only wants to be in heaven because her son is there, not because God is. 

Lewis’s point, finally, is that compromise is not always possible. “Not all luggage can be taken on all journeys,” he writes. “On one journey, even your right eye and your right hand may be among the things you must leave behind.” But the book is not harsh in its tone. Far from it. Instead, there is a pervasive sense not just of joy so great it is incomprehensible to the human mind (though there is that), but also that sin is so small that it is very nearly nothing at all. Our earthly wrongs and misunderstandings and pettiness can be taken merely as a joke. They never were so great as we believed them to be. And what a relief that is.

Some of this work may seem dated to modern readers. Some of it, however, is ageless and beautiful, and also helpful to think about in a spiritual sense. It’s a short treatise on choice and on joy, lucidly written. I’d recommend it to anyone.

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4 Responses to The Great Divorce (re-read)

  1. Rebecca Reid says:

    What a great book to read for the season! I read this years ago!

  2. Steph says:

    I haven’t read much C.S. Lewis (I’ve always been intrigued by The Screwtape Letters, but I’ve only read The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe), and I’m not really one for prose with religious sensibilities, but this sounds really thought provoking and interesting. Given the title, I never would have thought this book would be about this topic! It sounds like a Raymond Chandler novel, doesn’t it? ;)

  3. Jenny says:

    Rebecca — yes, it was wonderful. I’ve read it several times now, but it never fails to provide insight.

    Steph — Lewis is one of my favorite authors. I would definitely recommend The Screwtape Letters, which has a lovely ironic sense of humor as well as Lewis’s trademark thought-provoking style. And yes, I agree that the title of The Great Divorce can be a bit misleading! :)

  4. Lisa says:

    I absolutely fell in love with C. S. Lewis and all of his writing — fiction and non-fiction, his letters. etc. He is a great writer. I would recommend him to anyone. I think sometimes he gets labeled as a religious writer, which turns some off. He is never preachy and always seems open-minded. I think anyone who enjoys good writing and likes to be challenged in their thinking would do well to pick up C. S. Lewis.

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