By Julien Smith
“What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?” C. S. Lewis posed that question to a packed crowd at Evensong in the Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on October 22, 1939. Only the month prior, France and Great Britain had declared war on Germany, and for the second time in that century the world had plunged again into the horror of war. Many among those gathered for worship that evening had devoted themselves to the life of learning, but on the precipice of war this kind of life no doubt seemed rather pointless.
Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in War-time” (collected with eight of his other sermons in The Weight of Glory [New York: HarperOne, 2001]), speaks to the seeming foolishness of pursuing a scholarly vocation in the midst of a worldwide crisis. His words are no less relevant to us, in whatever vocation to which we find ourselves called, as we endure a crisis whose end is not in sight and whose cost in lives and livelihood is still beyond reckoning.
Although Lewis does not discount the gravity of war, he insists that war, like any calamity, must be put into perspective: “Human life has always lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. . . . We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.” If we put off the things that really matter until life is normal, we put off really living.
There are, of course, times when we may have to set aside our vocation for a time to meet an urgent need. Lewis admits that if you live on a dangerous coast, you may need to learn lifesaving. But, he adds, if you devote yourself entirely to lifesaving at the exclusion of all else, you will become a monomaniac. “The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worthy dying for, but not worth living for.”
It may well seem to us that going to school, taking care of children, teaching students, or whatever task we have been given in the present time, seems woefully insignificant in the face of a crisis as large as the world itself. But as the Apostle Paul reminds us, the daily actions of living are not trivial: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
Lewis concludes by suggesting how we might persevere in the midst of distraction, frustration, and fear, the three “enemies” to carrying on with life in the midst of crisis. His thoughts on responding to fear are particularly apposite in our own context. Looming behind all our fears is the fear of death. Yet neither war nor a viral pandemic actually increase the chance of death; 100% of us will die at some point, Lewis observes. Nevertheless such a crisis “does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.”
At first blush, remembering death might seem neither pleasant nor good. And yet, for one who lives in the hope of the resurrection, awareness of mortality is the root of wisdom. Recall the words of the psalmist: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps 90:12). Neither Lewis nor the psalmist are giving us license to indulge in morbid fascination. Rather they encourage us to live with the kind of wisdom that comes from squarely facing the fact that our mortal lives are short, but also that on the other side of death we shall be greeted by a God who loves us more than we can fathom.
“In ordinary times,” Lewis reflects, “only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.”
May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ give us grace in the present hour to receive the gift of this wisdom.