This past Christmas season at a young adult event, I made the sly move of “stealing” a C.S. Lewis book during the white elephant gift exchange. The rules had been set, after two steals the gift was locked and could no longer be stolen. At first, I found myself with slight guilt for having secured the second steal from the young adult minster, but my conscience quickly moved on. The C.S. Lewis book was The Great Divorce, one of several C.S. Lewis books I had been wanting to read.
Sometime after the first of the New Year, I found time to sit down with the book. Surprised the book was only slightly over 100 pages, I anticipated a short read. At first, the reading was brisk as a majority of the story seemed anecdotal - void of any “ah ha” moments. In all fairness, there may have been “ah ha” moments but my heart was too guarded to be receptive. However, around page 70 my heart of stone came to life. Unsure if I was encountering a moment of grace or an onset of sheer terror, my reading stopped. I saw myself in the story. I was caught between the touches of grace and the blunders of hell.
Without ruining too much of the book, The Great Divorce is a theological fiction in which C.S. Lewis writes about a bus traveling between heaven and hell. Citizens of hell can choose to travel to the valleys of heaven to “test the waters”. Spirits in heaven try to convince the citizens of hell to stay. While intrigued, most citizens of hell freely choose to return to hell having convinced themselves out of eternal joy.
In one such instance, a famous painter is on the verge of committing to heaven, but quickly turns back upon learning he is no longer famous on earth. He chooses to abandon heaven in order to work towards his own gain. The narrative between the painter and the Spirit of Heaven goes as follows, starting with the Spirit of Heaven.
“’Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.’
‘But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.’
‘No. You’re forgetting’, said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’
‘Oh, that’s ages ago.’ said the Ghost. ‘One grows out of that, of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’
‘One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’”
A chord in me was struck and I sat reflecting on my own soul. For me to explain further, I need to share some background.
Several years ago, I found myself the sponsor of a close friend who had transitioned, first from an atheist to a Protestant, and eventually a Catholic. In becoming Catholic he secured my own conversion to Catholicism. While raised in the faith, I never took the time to learn what we believed. Once I began learning, my thirst for theology, Catholicism, and Christ became palpable and unrestrained. I started leading prayer groups and speaking on the nature of Christ and Catholicism. This enthusiasm was born of a genuine love for Christ.
Over the course of the next several years I dove deeper into what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Sharing the Good News took root in my heart. I started a faith based blog and erected a routine prayer life. Eventually I was led to entertain the idea of the priesthood and left a good paying job to discern God’s will. As a precursor to seminary, I committed to doing a year of service at the same ministry where I sponsored my friend. The year of service started by attending an incredible retreat immersed in the mission of evangelization. It was life changing and I anticipated the remainder of my year of service to be just as enthralling. Long story short, it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.
Upon returning from the retreat, I expected the idea of evangelism to be widely accepted and understood within my ministry. It wasn’t that the idea of evangelism wasn’t widely accepted, evangelism just looked a lot different in the ministry I was serving than it did on my retreat. I refused to accept that evangelism could look different to others than the way I experienced it. Armed with the right way to evangelize, I began a crusade to ensure hearts changed. A few months in to my year of service I grew tired and overwhelmed. Looking back, there were great people who loved Christ in the ministry and they had given the idea of a new way to evangelize much consideration. My heart was just expecting something different than what I got. I began to grow bitter, bitterness in the form of self-righteousness. “If only x, y and z happened… Catholicism would finally thrive”, became a popular narrative in my mind, heart, and prayer life.
It wasn’t long before I began to hurt those I loved and served. And even sooner, I fell into old habits of sin. This spiral continued until the end of my year of service. While a lot of good came out of this year and I saw hearts transformed by Christ, I could have composed myself more gracefully. My year of service ended but the bitter spiral in my heart did not.
No longer considering a vocation to the priesthood I headed to graduate school. Transplanted into a new community, I was no longer “the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy who knows theology”. I was just another guy in the pews - I preferred it this way. I wanted time to sort through my dissonance. Expecting my faith to heal without the formal responsibility of serving others, I was surprised when my faith actually suffered. It appeared I had fallen from grace and some of my choices were evidence of this. I felt I was hanging by a thread, but on the rare occasion I stopped to pray, I could see God holding me - refusing to let me fall. No matter how unfaithful I was to God, He was always faithful to me. Even knowing this reality, I still felt empty and my faith was dry. I could not figure out why.
Upon reading the quote I shared from C.S Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, I understood the reason my faith was faltering. I had become infatuated with the “paint” instead of the “light I was painting”. I was infatuated with the details of evangelism, rather than the God who was behind it all. So much of my faith depended on “being the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy with the theological answers”. In the words of C.S. Lewis, I had become… “drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him”.
While doing all the evangelizing I failed to realize I too need to be evangelized. While evangelization may be the act of sharing the Good News, it is sustained by entering into relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with God. Without this relationship, the Good News becomes empty air, something to be said rather than lived. Pope Francis recently shared this sentiment saying, “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
It is cleaner and easier to serve ideas. Ideas are void of the emotions they evoke in people. Though not true, I tend to believe my ideas have never betrayed me, only the people I have shared them with. I may not like it, but those people hold the key to my salvation. For they instructed my heart more about faith, hope and love, than my ideas ever did. For my ideas were just a pallet and some paint, but those people were showered in reality and light. People give me the opportunity to act like a Christian and not just think like one. Lord lead me back to your love. Lord lead me back to you.