Fifty years ago yesterday marked C.S. Lewis’s death. Fifty years ago today was the first day the world went on without him. The cynical and sarcastic part of me wants to comment, isn’t that a nice way of avoiding the fact you missed the day? As a matter of fact it is, but looking back over this blog I’ve noticed that the cynical and sarcastic part of me has had a pretty fair showing of late. In part this is the way I deal with stress or even express enjoyment—my family jokes sarcasm is our love language—but in this case I think it speaks to a different reality. While I have thought and felt deeply in my schoolwork here, I have allowed myself little time to think and feel what is going on in me—what this experience is doing to my soul, where it is raising challenges in my faith or affecting my heart. I would be a fool to deny these things are happening—I have just refused to give them voice.
I have a professor here who is encouraging me to think of God as feminine, a divine Venus. Initially I thought this would be a useless and futile exercise—as a woman, the metaphor of God as a masculine father and husband had always done its requisite magic in me. I understand the correlation and one of my favorite passages is Paul’s call to a husband in Ephesians to make his wife pure and unblemished as Christ does the church, “without spot or wrinkle or any other defect.” (Ephesians 5: 25-27. Not that it’s a husband’s job to perfect his wife, but that his affection is pure and nurturing.) It is a protective image but it leaves me complacent.
To think of God is Venus is to think of him as a seductress, a wooer. In his rooms at Magdalen College, Lewis hung a print of Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars,’ which was a particular favourite of his. In the painting Venus perches—full-chested, pearly white, lustrous—on the left side. Her orange ringlets are tightly curled, her posture is erect, she is awake and enticing. Beside her on the grass is a reclining man—barely covered, guilelessly relaxed in sleep. His body is unguardedly open towards her, overwhelmed and defenseless against her beauty.
If we think of God as this divinely feminine Venus, our role as humans is that of the wooed and defenseless man. When Venus seduces, she pursues; man is helpless before her charms and his surrender is willing but inescapable—breathless, panicked, hungry. Lewis sees our relationship with God in this way—we do not seek God, He seeks us, and once we are in His sights our surrender is inevitable. So when he is finally converted from his atheism to Christianity he feels God closing in on him like a cat on a mouse, “a steady unrelenting approach” (Surprised by Joy). God is the lover, we are the beloved—overcome, caught up, wooed.
About a year ago, I lost my best friend. I had been losing this person for quite some time without realizing it—chalk it up to blindness, pride or the inevitable phases of life, it hardly matters. The aftermath was miserable. Lewis writes about the death of his wife, “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness…at other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed” (A Grief Observed). It felt like that. I shut off my thoughts and feelings because every thought or feeling was pain. I suppressed my emotions through cynicism and sarcasm that hurt others almost as much as it hurt me.
I read what I have written of time in Oxford so far and it’s possible to see a similar hard veneer. My perky journalistic descriptions and pithy comments read like a travel book and could indicate that my thoughts and emotions are still turned off, that I have successfully edited myself into obscurity.
But this is untrue. For the better part of a year God has wooed my heart through my family and friends. I have been seduced by Him through their compassion, grace and loyalty, been overcome by their forgiveness and intentionality. If the richness of my present life has not seeped into my writing I have only myself and my disinterest in self-awareness to blame. The true story of my time at Oxford is that I have been surprised by love at every turn, wooed by friendship where I looked for it least. I would be naïve to think this anything less than the healing I needed, but I also cannot miss that this is God’s feminine barrage of love on the hard masculinity of my heart. But “my voice falters;”
Rude rime-making wrongs her beauty,
Whose breasts and brow, and her breath’s sweetness
Bewitch the worlds. (“The Planets”)
I can only say I feel the inevitable surrender of the man.
In The Four Loves, Lewis writes “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” In the end of my friendship, vulnerability was the hole in the dyke, talk about love the cracks that had spidered out from it. For a long time, cynicism and sarcasm were the finger in the dam. I saw vulnerability as a female characteristic—it made me weaker, lesser—it was not a virtue.
So it came as an utter surprise last week to hear my male professor comment that one of the most valuable natural traits of a woman is her vulnerability—that it was a strength to open your heart to the possibility it might be broken, that in its exposure men have something not only to honor and protect but to emulate. It was the first time I had heard vulnerability honoured, valued—and in taking my finger away from the dyke, as I write this, I realize it is no longer an open wound. Of course such vulnerability can be taken too far, but the alternative is perhaps worse; as Lewis warns, “wrap [your heart] carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable.”
It might seem paradoxical that the vulnerability so typically associated with women is portrayed in the Botticelli painting by the man—unguarded, open and guileless—but Lewis understands him as a representation of a humanity, male and female, surrendered to the arresting love of a feminine God. The man has been wooed by the goddess as I have been wooed by God through the pursuit of my family and friends and the affirming yet likely offhand words of my professor—both made open and vulnerable to love, largely against our wills. But Venus—God—sits alert and awake over us, pulsing a perfect love that casts out fear.
Is my fear of vulnerability gone? Not yet, and it likely never will be. It will be a victory if I have courage enough to publish this post. But it is a comfort to know that vulnerability, in its truest form, is a gift placed in me that God may reach and woo me, and that through Him others may as well. May I say, like Psyche, “all my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me.” May I know, going to Him, “I am going to my lover.” May I be overcome, like Orual, with “new terror, new joy, overpowering sweetness…pierced through and through with the arrows of it.” May I—in vulnerability, worship, and love—”cast down my eyes.” (Till We Have Faces)