These words are attributed to the Christian author, C.S. Lewis in the book and film, ‘Shadowlands’. It is the telling of the story of Lewis’ marriage to, and love for Joy Gresham. What began as a marriage of convenience to help Joy and her two sons remain in England, became an incredible encounter with love and with pain. Lewis had previously written what was considered the ultimate study on pain and suffering, ‘The problem of Pain’. However Lewis’ experience of loss when his beloved Joy died of cancer led him to a deep crisis in faith. All his well-reasoned reflections on life, Pain and Loss were of no use to him when he himself entered the darkest valley. He afterwards wrote two powerful books that put aside abstract reflection and delved into the deep loss and loneliness that many of us experience every day. In ‘A Grief Observed’, he wrote openly about his sense of loss in nearly every level of his life. As Lewis is presented as saying at the end of ‘Shadowlands’, ‘Why love if loving hurts so much? I have no answers anymore. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man (Lewis’ mother died when he was very young). The pain now is part of the happiness (Joy) then. That’s the deal’.
While I appreciate the sentiment of our pain being part of a greater joy, I really struggle with the concept. If it were up to me there would be no pain, no suffering, no loss. Having spent untold hours walking a journey with people as their loved ones pass on, I would love to save them from that pain, that primal cry of grief. And yet to do so would deprive the grieving and the broken of the ultimate expression of love. My way would dull the pain, and ease the moment, but it would not allow that true bond of love to find its proper expression and healing.
Pain is necessary. If I felt no pain, the bursting appendix would not be noticed, the broken bone would not be properly mended. Pain is ultimately a warning system, it helps us to fix whatever is wrong. This is as equally true emotionally and spiritually as it is physically. Consider the wise words of an Indian mystic who pointed out that his conscience was like a sharp-pointed triangle that rested within his heart. Any time he did something wrong the triangle would spin, and the pointed corners would cut into him, causing him pain and warning him that he had erred. However, he concluded; ‘over the years I have learned that if I ignore the pain and keep doing what I know to be wrong, the points become blunted and I don’t feel that warning pain anymore!’
If the pain is actually part of the Joy, what does that actually mean for us in these difficult and challenging days? To answer that we need to reflect not just on what pain is, but that Joy really is. Joy is, as I’ve said many times, so much more than happiness. To be happy depends on circumstances, on what is happening within the moment. Happiness can be fleeting and can be gone in an instant. Joy is a constant, it is something we can experience even in the midst of loss and sadness because it does not depend on circumstances or even emotion. Joy is deeper, much deeper. It comes from faith, trust and obedience. I have witnessed such joy even in the darkest times when those who are broken seem to find an inner and hidden strength to reach out and comfort others even as they themselves are completely devastated. I have seen it in the loving laughter in hospital rooms even as hearts are breaking. Joy comes from looking and living beyond the current experience, in recognising that the reason our loss is so painful is because we have loved, and that love sustains us and even strengthens us. None of this is easy, nor is it without challenges, but Joy shows us how much those we have loved and lost awhile mean to us, even though their loss can be so inutterably hard. The greater the love, the greater the sense of loss can seem, and yet, the greater the Joy. When we once again meet them in God’s nearer presence, they are just beyond the veil for now as we await that joyful reunion, our lives are changed by loss and grief, yes, but also by the reality that knowing and loving has changed us, deepened us, opened us to journey towards inexpressible Joy. As the last line of Lewis’ book ‘A grief observed’ puts it, grief is ‘like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape’. As we wend our way through our present sadness, may God’s love and the truth and hope of Jesus’ resurrection, open us to new adventures as we await the ultimate Joy of being with God and our loved ones forever.