Two weeks with C. S. Lewis: An invitation to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration (+photos)

By James Conlee

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:00 a.m. MST

C.S. Lewis Memorial in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

James Conlee

More than four years ago, I created the CSLewisDaily account on Twitter. It now has more than 1 million followers across multiple social media sites.

I was invited to take part in the commemoration celebration in London and Oxford and I tweeted all the proceedings during the subsequent two weeks in November, but this is my opportunity to use more than 140 characters to tell of this amazing adventure.

On Nov. 22, 1963, C.S. Lewis died. The media coverage of his death was minimal owing to the fact that he died the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. All subsequent anniversaries of this day would inevitably have more attention paid to JFK than to Lewis, and 2013 would be no exception. But the 50th anniversary brought a bit more attention Lewis’ way.

Fifty years later, through the efforts of many Lewis scholars and foundations, and to the delight of his ever-growing legion of fans, Lewis was accorded the rare honor of being commemorated with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. In the South Transept of the Abbey, Lewis would join more than 100 other memorials to famous writers such as Chaucer (the first recipient of this honor), Shakespeare (who was not honored until 124 years after his death), Dickens (who was given a secret early morning burial there because he did not want a grand funeral) and Jane Austen (the first female author to be honored there).

Surrounding the commemoration and celebration was a series of lectures, worship services, new biographies, and media profiles about his life and legacy.

Thursday, Nov. 21, the day before the commemoration, there were lectures from Alister McGrath and Malcom Guite on Lewis' philosophical and fictional approaches to communicating the Christian faith. These lectures were given in St. Margaret’s Church, which is right next to Westminster Abbey.

McGrath’s enthralling lecture was full of insights that he gathered while doing the monumental amount of research that went into his latest book, “C.S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (2013).” After his lecture, he had a short audience Q-and-A session, and I was able to ask about McGrath’s favorite quote of Lewis:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” ("Is Theology Poetry" 1945).

This quote was chosen to be on the Memorial in Poets’ Corner, and my question to McGrath cited my research showing that this is his most popular quote on social media. I asked McGrath why he thought this was so.

McGrath lit up while describing how this quote encapsulated Lewis’ appeal, explaining that by using language that led the audience to visualize a brightly shining sun, Lewis enabled them to connect their imaginations to their faith, much the same way he would with his fictional writings in the “The Chronicles of Narnia."

It was a powerful answer that helped me understand why I have always been drawn to the writings of Lewis, whether fiction or nonfiction. His use of language had the ability to explain faith simply, and yet also left room for the infinite to be pondered and visualized.

A panel discussion was held later that night with novelist Jeanette Sears, theologian Judith Wolfe, and apologists William Lane Craig, Peter S. Williams and Michael Ramsden. It was presided over by Dr. Michael Ward, who was instrumental in getting the memorial from just a spark of an idea to a reality. This was a marvelous opportunity to hear five Christian voices answer questions about Lewis’ legacy and his influence on their own faiths.

The next morning the dedicatory service was held in Westminster Abbey. It was a formal yet moving ceremony complete with songs from the choir, readings from Lewis’ writings, sermons from Lewis luminaries, and the dedication prayer of the memorial.

Tickets were hard to come by, and many international press organizations covered the event. After the service, all in attendance were allowed time to view the memorial. It is a fitting tribute to an author who has not only contributed much to English literature but also to Christianity.

Over the next few days, I was able to attend more Lewis-centric gatherings. Here are a few highlights.

An evensong choral service at Magdalen College Chapel in Oxford. Magdalen is where Lewis taught, and the chapel is where he would worship during the week. The grounds are extensive, and it was in his rooms and on walks through the grounds that J.R R. Tolkien and other friends of Lewis helped him to become converted to Christianity. He described it thus in his autobiography:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” ("Surprised By Joy" 1955)

Perhaps he described his own conversion as fearful because he knew what it meant. He never did anything half way, and if Lewis were to give himself to Christ, he would spend the rest of his life fully in his service and on his errand.

A Sunday morning service at Holy Trinity Church in Headington near Oxford. This is the beautiful country church where Lewis worshipped on Sundays for more than 30 years and where he is buried.

A Thursday-evening lecture given by Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham. It was held at Exeter College, Oxford, and evolved into a Q-and-A storytelling session that yielded amazing insights from someone who spent much of his childhood with Lewis.

A Sunday evening dinner at the Lewis house, The Kilns. This is where Lewis lived for most of his life in Oxford and where he wrote the majority of his books. The house is now owned and preserved by the C.S. Lewis Foundation and is in constant use for its visiting scholars program.

A visit “The Eagle and Child” lovingly referred to by Lewis and Tolkien as “The Bird and Baby." In this pub, Lewis, Tolkien, and a revolving mix of other Oxford professors and writers know as “The Inklings" would meet once or twice a week to preview each others writings and to socialize. It was at these now legendary meetings that the first iterations of “The Hobbit,” “The Chronicles of Narnia" and “The Lord of the Rings” would be read aloud by the authors themselves and then discussed by the group.

It is amazing to think that two of the titans of fantasy literature would read together, encourage and sometimes critique their respective masterpieces over the course of several years. Their social impact can be evidenced by the fact that their books are constant best-sellers, and the movies they spawned have yielded billions in ticket sales.

Perhaps the most moving experience I had while in Oxford was simply walking my favorite path that Lewis often walked. It is on the grounds of Magdalen College, and it is called Addison’s Walk. It's a beautifully quiet trail surrounded by the River Thames and green parks. It is here that you can almost feel Lewis’ thoughts. It is while walking in solitude that you can take a favorite quote from Lewis, let it sink deep into your soul, and then find your own faith enlarging it until it becomes entirely and uniquely yours. For it is in his many writings defining his own faith that you sometimes find your own defined more clearly.

I had one such moment while walking and thinking on this quote: “Now is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It won't last forever. We must take it or leave it.” ("Mere Christianity" 1952)

I realized that I have had many "nows" and many "chances" and that each time I find myself at another "now," it is another merciful "chance" given to me to re-center myself.

Of course these moments of clarity can happen anywhere. You don’t have to travel to Oxford and walk in the footsteps of Lewis to find an affinity for your own beliefs in his. All you need are a few of his well-chosen words, mixed with your own thoughts, and a moment of solitude. You might find that while speaking of his own faith, many times, Lewis was speaking for us all.

James Conlee runs CSLewisDaily and many other Twitter accounts that have over a million combined followers.

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