This is our last installment from C. S. Lewis’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress. After speaking and lodging in a cave with a hermit named History, John has come to understand that there is no other way to his beloved, heavenly Island except via Mother Kirk–the church. That night, during a thunderstorm, he sneaks out of History’s cave and seeks to abandon his entire enterprise and reverse course. I mean, who wants to go back to the church of their childhood, right? But along this dangerous canyon path he soon comes face to face with Reason, a female knight clad in armor with a long sword. Knowing he cannot combat her and win, he reverses himself again.
…It was no longer a question of plans or of ultimate escape. The hunted animal’s impulse to prolong the chase kept him ragingly on the move. The [lightning] flashes were growing rarer and a star or two showed ahead. Then all of a sudden a wind shook the last raindrops fiercely in his face and there was moonlight all about him. But he drew back with a groan.
Within an inch of him he had seen a face. Now a cloud crossed the moon and the face was no longer visible, but he knew that it was still looking at him–an aged, appalling face, crumbling and chaotic, larger than human. Presently its voice began:
“Do you still think it is the black hole* you fear? Do you not know even now the deeper fear whereof the black hole is but the veil? Do you not know know why they would all persuade you that there is nothing beyond the brook** and that when a man’s lease is out his story is done?
“Because, if this were true, they could in their reckoning make me equal to nought, therefore not dreadful: could say that where I am they are not, that while they are, I am not. They have prophesied soft things to you.
“I am no negation, and the deepest of your heart acknowledges it. Else why have you buried the memory of your uncle’s face*** so carefully that it has needed all these things to bring it up? Do not think that you can escape me; do not think you can call me Nothing.
“To you I am not Nothing; I am the being blindfolded, the losing all power of self-defense, the surrender, not because any terms are offered, but because resistance is gone: the step into the dark: the defeat of all precautions: utter helplessness turned out to utter risk: the final loss of liberty. The Landlord’s Son**** who feared nothing, feared me.”
“What am I to do?” said John.
“Which you choose,” said the voice, “Jump, or be thrown. Shut your eyes or have them bandaged by force. Give in or struggle.”
“I would sooner do the first, if I could.”
“Then I am your servant and no more your master. The cure of death is dying. He who lays down his liberty in that act receives it back. Go down to Mother Kirk.”
**The division between life and afterlife
***As a child, John had seen his dead uncle being prepared for burial and was especially scared of the corpse’s face.
****The Son of God
Whose face is this? And what could such a nightmarish encounter have to do with the subject of this supposedly inspiring blog, Mystical Wonder?
It’s clear to me that there is only one answer to the first question. This is the face of Death, appallingly ugly, “crumbling and chaotic.” Can you imagine what it would be like to see the face of one of your loved ones two weeks after he or she died? There is one thing so horrible that every single culture on earth, in their native wisdoms, ensure their people do not see.
Some readers have surmised the face is the devil’s. But the face says, “The Landlord’s Son who feared nothing, feared me.” This is not the face of the devil, for the Son of God demonstrated quite clearly he didn’t fear him. But in the garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, the Son of God sweat drops of blood, asking God to take “this cup” away. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).
Why did I put this passage here, among Mystical Wonders? Because one does not get very far on the path of Christian spirituality without confronting death: the old self must die to make way for the new self, which lives forever. But when death to self becomes real and not just an ideal that we concede the truth of, it is incomparably awful, the one thing we want to avoid at all costs. It is like shivering, shrinking, and being punched in the stomach at the same. No, it’s worse. I’ve had a lot of it in the past year. And it is a step into the unknown and we cannot see where our outstretched foot might land, if anywhere. We are in Someone Else’s hands now.
Frankly, I don’t think anyone ever does this, chooses to die before they die, until they have to. But another reason I included it is that Lewis’s power to describe the indescribable is so great, his insight about our feelings regarding Death so revealing, that the passage is somewhat a mystical experience in and of itself. “Utter risk turned out to utter helplessness.” Is not that what is in the back of our minds when we really contemplate dying?