The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Initial thoughts on completion:
I didn't like this one quite as well as The Screwtape Letters. Perhaps it was because I read them so closely back to back or perhaps it is because I have come to expect short, quotable bits of wisdom from Lewis and this isn't exactly that. Anyhow, there were some ideas in it that I really liked. Firstly, the entire premise encompassing the idea that Heaven and Hell must be completely separated. In our world, we sometimes get caught up in the idea of tolerance to the point of trying to find the "good" in everything when sometimes there really isn't anything of value in it (homosexuality comes to mind, but let's not open that can of worms). There is a choice to make with everything we encounter in life - whether we are going to accept it and make it a part of us or leave it on the wayside. Many mistakenly believe that their traits and quirks are "just who they are," like there is nothing you can do about it. But we can always reinvent and redefine ourselves. I think that's what I like about the word "Divorce." It implies that we are taking something by which we formerly defined ourselves and are completely separating ourselves from it. It may seem obvious, but opposites cannot exist simultaneously in the same proximity. So of course if our ultimate destination is Heaven, we must leave the pieces of Hell we have picked up behind. Similarly, we cannot simply convert evil into good. We must go back to the point of the original mistake and relinquish everything from that point.
I love the idea that in essence it is our choices which determine whether we end up in "Heaven" or "Hell." I am of the opinion that we have freedom and power to choose and this extends even after death. If we will not be happy in Heaven, our choices will not lead us there. Those who thought they "wanted" to come to Heaven but were uncomfortable there were not forced to return to the Grey Town. They chose to return, and essentially judged themselves. Christ is constantly inviting; it is we who turn away. A line from a Ghost that illustrates this, found on page 31 reads as follows: "I'd rather be damned than go along with you." This to me is incredibly sad, but I know that people feel this way.
Another beautiful section on page 61: "The Ghost made a sound something between a sob and a snarl. 'I wish I'd never been born,' it said. 'What are we born for?' 'For infinite happiness,' said the Spirit. 'You can step out into it at any moment...'" We are never denied an opportunity to accept happiness. It is only when we refuse to make the choice that the opportunity closes. We get what we ask for because we are Loved. If we convert our will to the Lord's, we will get infinite happiness, because that is also what He wants for us; if we maintain our own will, he will give us the fruits of that will also.
Finally, the episode of the Lady and the Tragedian was fascinating to contemplate. Essentially, it is the confrontation of pity and joy. Joy says, "Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed?" The fact that she could be so unaffected by Frank's failure (or what I believe to have been a failure) was incredible to me at first and I had a hard time imagining being able to be happy in Heaven knowing that someone I love is not happy and has chosen eternal misery. But I guess that's what God experiences all the time. His children are constantly choosing their own misery, preferring to be "rulers in Hell than servants in Heaven." Then I came across this passage that explains why misery and the passion of pity cannot prevail: "The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy; that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven."
I did not like reading each of the Ghost's conversations with the Spirits. Their stubbornness was outrageously frustrating for me. I realize that it is necessary to illustrate the vices that keep us from a "Great Divorce," but it irked me. The idea that irked me most was the intellectual stating that Jesus would have altered His teachings had He lived longer. God does not change! That is the true definition of deity. The fact that he was in a way trying to excuse himself for his disbelief, feeling superior for imagining to know what the teachings would have evolved into, is incredibly prideful and blasphemous. Those are traits that I cannot abide in people.
The episode of the lizard was incredibly poignant for me. The Angel could not kill the lizard without the consent of the Ghost, just as our vices cannot be extracted without our consent. The struggle is incredibly familiar. Phrases like "it's so damned embarrassing," "It's gone to sleep of its own accord. I'm sure it will be all right now," "I'm sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I thing the gradual process would be far better than killing it," and "How can I tell you to kill it? You'd kill me if you did" describe very well many experiences I've had with my own vices. In the end, through innumerable prayers and goals and struggles, the answer is always "I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?" Then comes the agonizing extraction. It is really painful to cut out a part of you that you have held so tightly for so long. In the end, the Angel says, "I never said it wouldn't hurt you. I said it wouldn't kill you." That to me is somehow very comforting. Additionally, the transformation of the vice into a virtue sounds a lot like Ether 12:27 - And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness... for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
Overall, it is a great examination of agency, human nature, and eternity.
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