"The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world." (C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce)
One wonders if Lewis was being tongue-in-cheek because, of course, The Great Divorce, like The Last Battle or any book dealing with what lies ahead, speculates about the factual details of Heaven. Lewis makes this statement at the end of the Preface to his fantasy, reminding the readers that "[t]he trans-mortal conditions" of the story are "solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us." His point is a moral one, to be certain, and yet however fantastical, his is an imagination rooted in an actual belief in the factuality of Heaven, and so what he imagines is bounded by the truth he does know about that place. Thus, The Great Divorce is worth reading not just for its moral import but also for the vision it gives of what we might find in Heaven.
Our narrator is just off the bus from Hell. His fellow passengers do not find this "vacation" to their liking. The grass is more grass than the grass they remember. It hurts their feet. It is more substantial. In fact everything is more of what it essentially is. The colors are richer; the music, indescribable; the beings they encounter, more human. It is, in sum, the really Real, more real than anything they have known. However, our visitors find it unbearable. Most of them even want to return to Hell, to their own petty concerns, to a lonely and gray existence. For sure, Lewis has a point to make: the condemned choose Hell, and keep choosing it, unable because of their pride and arrogance to give up their cause, whether vanity, self-importance, or whatever. Yet I'm more interested in the fascinating glimpse of what they were rejecting and what Lewis is suggesting about Heaven's nature even here on the edge of Heaven.
Have you ever caught a glimpse or heard from a distance the sound of the Really Real, something beyond what is here? I suspect you have had what Lewis elsewhere called “patches of God-light on the woodlands of our experience.”
It’s a beautiful, crisp Fall day and you’re watching your children play on a playground, the breeze blowing the leaves, the sunlight falling in mottled patches on the adjacent forest floor and warming your face, laughter settling in on you, and you close your eyes and think it doesn’t get much better than this.
You’re listening to some haunting bit of music from a movie soundtrack, something that stirs emotion and fills your mind with images from the movie, of a peaceable homeplace someplace, a family gathered with each other around a table, and it seems as if Home has come over you, and you’re completely at rest.
You're standing at a music festival at the back of a large open air circus tent, watching and listening to a succession of singer-songwriters take the stage, each song like a message to just you, and you might as well have been floating just above the scene you're so entranced by the sound and words.
You just walked in someone's old home and the smell of the place --- a musty mix of lived-in-ed-ness --- and you're home again, back to your first home, that small stick-built post-war bay boomer cottage on a quite street in then suburbia, and the people and places of that home, for a moment, crash in on you, tangible as the present life in front of you, and you smile.
Or maybe it's just the robin that just turned and met your eyes straight on in some extraordinary avian-human mind-meld. (Maybe that one's just for extreme birders.)
And yet every experience like this also has in it the sense of loss, of unfulfillment, of some unrequited need, a sense that there must be more and a knowledge that the experience will, sooner rather than later, end.
Compared to Heaven, to the really Real, Lewis said that our life here was a life in shadows, every experience, even the worst, holding in it something of Heaven, our souls being molded now to receive the greater substantiality of that place. Seeing a tree, a scenic vista, or children playing, or hearing great music, whether Mozart, Yes, or Johnny Cash, we see potentialities, or at least a glimpse of what is possible in a place where blue is really Blue, or a C chord is fuller and richer than we can imagine, or the smell of fresh brewed coffee or homemade bread so rich and full that in our present state we might be overcome (like if we had the nose of a bloodhound, even now).
Seen this way, reality is iconic. With the Spirit's help, we see through it to a greater Reality.
Now . . .God help me pay attention.
[The Great Divorce is the first book in the Great Books series sponsored by Breakpoint.org. Every month you read a different classic book, and you receive a CD that interprets the book, giving background on the author and important themes. If you're interested, check it out here.]