Coda from C.S. Lewis: Insights on God and Mothering

As a final illustration of the concerns and conclusions outlined above, I provide an excerpt from Chapter 11 of The Great Divorce. This theological dream vision written by C. S. Lewis in 1946 is a metaphoric reflection on notions of heaven and hell from a Christian perspective.

In this scene, we see a mother (Pam) arriving at the borders of heaven following her own passing, seeking her beloved son (Michael) who preceded her in death. She is met by her brother (Reginald), who now lives as a kind of angel or “Bright Spirit” charged with helping prepare people for heaven. In this scene, he meets his sister Pam in hopes of preparing her to see her son. The observer in C.S. Lewis’s account picks up the narrative here, describing this woman as “Hurting and suffering in account of her son, Michael, who had passed away.”

We enter the conversation right when the Bright Spirit had challenged Pam in a way she disliked, leading her to suggest that “you wouldn’t talk like that if you were a Mother.”

The Spirit responds, “But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer….Listen, Pam!”

[Pam continues to complain at how her boy has been taken away from her]: “I’m sure I did my best to make Michael happy. I gave up my whole life…”

The Spirit says: “Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long.” He goes on to describe to Pam how God “wanted your merely instinctive love for your child (a love, he points out, that even tigresses share, you know!) to turn into something better.  He wanted you to love Michael as He understands love.”

He adds, “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”

Then the Spirit admits to Pam, “But there was, it seems, no chance of that in your case.  The instinct was uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac.”

Pam retorts: “This is all nonsense – cruel and wicked nonsense. What right have you to say things like that about Mother – love? It is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature.”

“Pam, Pam – no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

She retorts, “My love for Michael would never have gone bad.  Not if we’d lived together for millions of years.”

“You are mistaken. And you must know,” says the Spirit in response.  “Haven’t you met down there who have their sons with them, in Hell?  Does their love make them happy?”

“If I had Michael I’d be perfectly happy…”

The Spirit goes on to warn Pam of the ugliness that “natural affection turns to in the end if it will not be converted.”

To that, Pam responds: “It’s a lie. A wicked, cruel lie.  How could anyone love their son more than I did?  Haven’t I lived only for his memory all these years?”

“That was rather a mistake, Pam. In your heart of hearts you know it was.”

“What was a mistake?” Pam asks.

[The Spirit goes on to remind Pam of the ten years of grief she made her family endure, having their whole life dominated by her agony about Michael’s passing].

Pam responds: “You are heartless. Everyone is heartless.  The past was all I had.”

“It was all you chose to have,” he responds: “It was the wrong way to deal with sorrow.”

[At this, Pam takes offense]: “Oh, of course. I’m wrong.  Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you.”

“But of course!” says the Spirit, in a sincere and loving way [“shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled” as the observer puts it]. “That’s what we all find when we reach this country [heaven]. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke.”

The Spirit continues, “There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.”

Pam reacts: “How dare you laugh about it? Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart.  I believe in a God of Love.”

She continues, “No one has a right to come between me and my son.  Not even God.  Tell Him that to His face.  I want my boy, and I mean to have him.  He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, forever and ever.”

The Spirit pleads, “He will be, Pam. Everything will be yours.  God himself will be yours.  But not that way.  Nothing can be yours by nature.”

“What? Not my own son, born out of my own body?” Pam demands.

“And where is your own body now?” the Spirit asks.  “Didn’t you know that Nature draws to an end?”

“Michael is mine.”

“How yours?” The spirit goes on to challenge Pam’s view that she “made” Michael – pointing out that “nature made him to grow in your body without your will,” and reminding her that she wasn’t sure she even wanted a child at the beginning.

To that, Pam responds angrily, “It’s a lie. It’s not true. And it’s no business of yours. I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love.”

“And yet Pam you have no love at this moment.”

[As anger takes Pam over entirely, her existence begins to contract. As the conversation devolves, she shrinks smaller and smaller until she can no longer be seen with the naked eye].

The observer asks his other angel guide [different than the bright spirit talking with Pam]: “Is there any hope for her, Sir?”

The angel responds: “Aye, there’s some. What she calls her love for her son has turned into a poor, prickly, astringent sort of thing. But there’s still a wee spark of something that’s not just herself in it.  That might be blown into a flame.”

The observer reflects, “Then some natural feelings are really better than others – I mean, are a better starting point for the real thing?”

“There’s something in natural affection which will lead it on to eternal love,” notes the angel, “but there’s also something in it which makes it easier to stop at the natural level and mistake it for the heavenly. Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is. And if it finally refuses conversion its corruption will be worse than the corruption of what ye call the lower passions.  It is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”

“I don’t know that I dare repeat this on Earth, Sir,” said I. “They’d say I was inhuman: they’d say I believed in total depravity: they’d say I was attacking the best and the holiest things. They’d call me…”

“It might do you no harm if they did,” said he with (I really thought) a twinkle in his eye.

The angel continues: “Love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and love forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

“The saying is almost too hard for us.”

“Ah, but it’s cruel not to say it.  They that know have grown afraid to speak.”

“You and I must be clear. There is but one good,” says the angel. “That is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.  And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels.  It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels.  The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.”