Dan DeWitt on the Chronicles of Cancer in the
Life of C. S. Lewis
Well, at any rate, we now have less chance of dying of cancer," quipped C. S. Lewis in response to learning of Hitler's invasion of Poland, knowing that his own country was on the brink of joining the war. As a World War I veteran, he knew the ugliness of combat. And for a man seldom without a pipe or cigarette, he also understood the risks of cancer. His droll response to the Nazi campaign illustrates that his life was indelibly marked by both war and cancer. And it's difficult to tell which had the greater impact.
In battle during the First World War, Lewis was hit by shrapnel, the injury from which would trouble him the rest of his life. But the wounds inflicted by the dark disease of cancer would prove even more painful and devastating. In one letter Lewis summarized this sad reality: "The disease is of course cancer: by which I lost my mother, my father, and my favorite aunt." He would later add his wife to this list of causalities. Lewis had to grow up, seemingly overnight, at the age of nine, when his mother died. His father, struggling to cope with the loss, disconnected from his sons. Lewis and his older brother Warren were thus fated to spend many of the subsequent years in boarding schools. It seemed that cancer had taken from them both mother and father. And in time, it actually would.
Conversion & Cancer: The Vanaukens
Cancer chased Lewis through the years. The merciless malady left its mark on many with whom Lewis maintained contact, from distant fans to close friends and family members. Like a kudzu vine, it seemed to overtake the landscape of his life. On one occasion, a medical exam even suggested that Lewis might have cancer himself, though that proved to be a false alarm. But like his war wound from shrapnel, he would suffer indirect hits from cancer that threatened to cripple him throughout the rest of his life.
Though cancer never laid its cruel hands directly on the beloved creator of Narnia, many of his friends and family took the full impact of the disease's fury. One American couple crossed paths with Lewis while studying at Oxford, and, like many others who met the personable scholar, their lives would never be the same. The wife's conversion to Christianity was followed by resistance and even resentment from her husband. But the couple had struck up a correspondence with Lewis, whose pen helped bridge the growing divide between them, and eventually the husband also embraced the gospel.
This couple was Sheldon and Jean Vanauken, and their moving story is recorded in the best-selling book A Severe Mercy. Shortly after Sheldon's conversion, his wife Davy was diagnosed with a rare disease that attacked her liver. The two were a joyfully eclectic couple who had once taken a vow they called the "Shining Barrier," a commitment to share everything in life with each other without exception. But sickness laid down a burden that—though lightened by their love—could ultimately be carried only by one.
On a winter day in 1955, Jean entered eternity, leaving Sheldon, at 41 years of age, to carry on alone. The next day Sheldon spread her ashes amidst falling snow in the churchyard of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Forest, Virginia. Over four decades later Sheldon's ashes were scattered in this same churchyard after he passed away from lung cancer. He never remarried.
Friendship with Joy
Lewis was destined to walk a similar path. He somewhat naively began a relationship that would change the rest of his life when he agreed to meet Joy Davidman for dinner during her visit to Britain in 1952. Joy was an American author in the middle of marital problems spiraling toward divorce. She moved to London with her two sons not long after their first encounter, and a friendship quickly developed. Lewis helped her make ends meet by providing financial assistance for her rent and her sons' school fees.
In what Lewis's biographer Alister McGrath describes as a "Trojan Horse," the two entered into a civil marriage to ensure that Joy and her sons would not be deported. Lewis's brother Warren worried that, in time, Joy would demand more from Lewis. And so she did. In short order, she insisted on her marital privileges, moved into the Kilns, and began redecorating the neglected home.
She even tried to gain legal ownership of the house from Maureen Moore, whose mother Lewis had cared for until her death in fulfillment of a promise he had made to her son, who fell in combat in World War I. Joy asked Maureen to defer her legal right to the house so that it could be willed to her sons. Maureen refused. Though one biographer, A. N. Wilson, suggests that Lewis patterned the White Witch of Narnia after G.E.M. Anscombe, a philosopher who allegedly beat him in a public debate, it would seem that Joy was emerging as the better candidate. But things soon changed.
Love Emerges & Cancer Returns
Lewis fell in love with Joy the day she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a result, he sought to marry her, not simply by means of a civil ceremony this time, but through sacred vows administered by a member of the clergy—what Lewis considered necessary for a true union before God. This proved difficult because of Joy's previous divorce, but Lewis was able to enlist a former student, the Reverend Peter Bide, to officiate a bedside ceremony in Joy's hospital room.
Bide did more than lead them in vows. He was known to have once successfully prayed for healing over a boy dying from cerebral meningitis. Lewis asked Peter to pray for Joy in the hope of a similar result. In a recovery that her doctors considered miraculous, she revived, the cancer went into remission, and the bones that were corroded again grew strong. But in an unfortunate twist of fate, Peter Bide's own wife was diagnosed with cancer shortly after this event, and she died within a couple of years.
Nor did the menacing disease long stay away from Lewis's wife. Even as the Bides struggled to beat the odds, Joy's cancer came back with a vengeance. And Lewis, the man who had provided a theology of suffering for so many, once again came face to face with the problem of pain. The woman who first stole his house had now also stolen his heart. In the summer of 1960, while admitted at Radcliffe Infirmary, Joy passed away with Lewis by her side.
A Testament of Faith
A letter Lewis penned in the midst of Joy's struggle illustrates his trust in God's providence throughout those painful times: "I am sure Aslan knows best, and whether He leaves her with me or takes her to His own country, He will do what is right." Two of Joy's final comments to Lewis were, "You have made me happy," and "I'm at peace with God." Perhaps there are no two higher goals that a Christian husband may attain for his wife.
The chronicles of cancer in the life of C. S. Lewis are filled with contrasts: pain and hope, darkness and light, raw emotion and clarity of mind, and episodes of doubt that do not overcome a faith permeated with steadfast longing for the Creator of the cosmos to make all things new in Christ. What emerges from these chronicles is a beautiful picture of an ugly disease being overshadowed by a God big enough to turn water into wine, ashes into beauty, and death into life. It is a testament to the power of the gospel to take the pilgrim further up and further in. It is the story of a man who was surprised by joy. •
This article has been revised from the original print version.
Dan DeWitt is the dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also teaches courses on worldview, philosophy, and apologetics. He is the author of Jesus or Nothing (Crossway, 2014) and posts regularly on his blog Theolatte.com. Dan and his wife April have four children and reside in Louisville, Kentucky.
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