Shadowlands and the magic lantern…

Every so often, I need a break from whatever is currently occupying my attention. Occasionally, I will watch a film. These are usually whatever I can find online and I seldom have a clear idea of what I fancy until something catches my eye.

Now, I freely admit that I am useless where films are concerned. I have neither been a movie buff, nor followed fashion. I’ve never… except for one brief period in Paris… had access to a cinema that showed arthouse films and even many of the cultural and cinematic classics escaped me, including those popular movies counted as old favourites by many.

Most movies aimed primarily at women have never really attracted me; Gone with the Wind was fifty years old before I saw it, I never did see Grease and I only watched Dirty Dancing only because it was a Christmas present. Anything more modern than that has probably escaped my notice until recently. Most of the films I know well are the black and white ones that hit the TV screen during my childhood. Stuart, who has excellent taste in films, has stopped asking ‘if I have seen’ and merely assumes, quite rightly, that I probably haven’t.

Wandering through what is available free online, I can be drawn by some weird and wonderful things. It may be a name or a screenshot, a title or a premise. I have watched some appallingly bad films… some so bad I just had to keep watching… as well as finding some real gems. Just because everyone else has seen them, doesn’t stop them being new to me… and within those gems are sometimes odd details that set me off thinking.

One such detail was a moment in Shadowlands, a biographical film by Richard Attenborough, based upon the marriage of C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia stories to American author Joy Davidman. Having read much of his work and being completely unaware of this film, I felt almost duty-bound to take a couple of hours off to watch Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lewis. The dialogue was well written, his performance as well crafted as always, and it is a very moving film. There is a moment within the film when the grief-stricken ‘Lewis’ cries out, and it stopped me in my tracks…

“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

For one, brief and fleeting instant, I understood something I have always known. ‘It doesn’t change God – it changes me.’

Prayer can take many forms, prayers are offered for many reasons… but prayer, as I personally understand it, need not always be religious.

As a child at Sunday-school, we were taught a very simplistic idea of prayer. Given that our world was but a pale shadow of the heaven to which we were supposed to aspire, we were taught how to pray in the hope of getting there. I could never quite get my head around the idea that by kneeling humbly in prayer we would be able to convince any god to give us what we want. I was never convinced, either, that a god big enough to create the entire universe was just waiting for my rote-learned praise and/or apologies and requests. The way we were being taught to pray made me feel as if we were treating God like a pick ‘n’ mix counter.

Didn’t ‘He’ get fed up listening to ‘bless Mummy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandad and…’ ad nauseum? Why should ‘He’ make me a good girl? If ‘He’d’ already made me, shouldn’t I at least be doing that on my own?

So I fell out with prayer for a while. Or with religious dogma. Or both. But the conviction of some vast and cosmic Intellect, the guiding Principle behind Creation, never left and, as I grew up a little more, I began to seek a new way to pray.

I found it in the land… in the way the heather covers the hills in summer, in beech woods carpeted with bluebells, in the sparkle of minerals in rocks and the chorus of birds that greets the rising and going down of the sun. Prayer was not about mouthing a few platitudes to a god, abasing oneself or presenting him with a shopping list. I felt it should be a continual celebration of the life we have and share. Prayer was not something to do at all… it was something to be.

With that revelation came the beginnings of joy and an inner freedom that remains to this day. That was why the phrase from the film had struck home; I recognised it… “because I can’t help myself.” And seeing life as the prayer has certainly changed me.

I am not sure I agree with the rest of the quote though. ‘It doesn’t change God’… I think it might, though not in the way we were taught as children, when we were given to understand that our supplications might change the mind of God and convince ‘Him’ to grant our wishes, like the genie in a magic lantern.

I no longer believe this world to be a pale shadow of anything… I believe it to be itself, just as it is and, that, if we are here, it is for, and with, a purpose.

If we, and all we know as life are part of one universal Life, do we not ‘change God’ through the essence of our experience? And, if we see life itself as the prayer, and live our lives within it, then we are adding to a well of understanding from which we may all drink.

Aslan, Egypt and the surgeon’s knife

The writer, Clive Staples Lewis, is best known as the creator of the Narnia books, much loved by several generations of children. It may pass unnoticed to the eyes of a child that the story of Aslan, the great Lion, bears a striking resemblance to that of Jesus. It matters little whether the child makes that connection in their mind, to those who fall in love with the landscape of Narnia, Aslan will hold a special place in their heart and children of all faiths can learn the basic lessons of honesty, kindness, courage and, above all, love from these stories. Children see no religious separateness until they learn it from the world or their own experience.

Cover art by Pauline Baynes, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Cover art by Pauline Baynes, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Raised in the Christian faith, Lewis had become an atheist in his teens, believing, like many others, that a world created by any God he could conceive would have been less imperfect. Yet he said that even then, he was “angry with God for not existing”. He was to come back to Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape,” and many of his later works reflect a faith built upon a deeper understanding of how the world moves.

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That Lewis was no stranger to the concept of necessary evil is evident, even at the very birth of the world of Narnia, when Jadis, a witch from another world, comes into the fledgling land, brought via the streets of London from her own decaying world. It is centuries later in the life of Narnia when four children wander through the back of a wardrobe and find the perpetual winter of the White Witch… once known as Jadis. It is because of the introduction of this evil at the birth of the world that Aslan is slain and comes back to life. Without the presence of evil, that sacrifice and resurrection would not have been possible.

Yet the essence of that story is far older than Christianity. In ancient Egypt the gods Set and Osiris were brothers. Set, the darker twin, was responsible for the death of Osiris… a death which permitted the green god of fertility to be ‘reborn’ as king of the Underworld. The fratricide was also the direct cause of the mystical conception and birth of Horus and the subsequent Contending between the young Horus and Set was what allowed the Child to assume his true place as the Hawk of the Sun.

Set is seen as the embodiment of evil… yet paradoxically, he was also the Protector of the Boat of Ra, defending it against the elder and monstrous creature that swallowed the sun each night, as well as Defender of Maat… Truth. A statue showing the coronation of Rameses III has Set and Horus standing, on equal terms, to bless the pharaoh.

image source:
Horus and Set blessing the pharaoh. image source

Here too, Set is not true evil, only a perception of evil… a force that has the potential to both destroy… and enable. Without his presence in the story, the story, and thus the creation of the mythos of Egypt… a complex and sophisticated vision of the creation of the universe and all it holds… could not have come into being.

“What had my brother (Set) hoped to prove, the mastery over my golden Hawk… or revenge for his own mutilation? Or was he perhaps once again the unwitting Right Arm? These things deserve thought… for from the eyes came sun and moon and the lotus of rebirth … and from Horus’ seed Set brought forth the disc of the Sun from his crown, a Light for the crown of Wisdom. There is meaning to this for those who seek it.” The Osiriad

Dion Fortune, the Qabalist, wrote of the concepts of positive and negative evil… defining the latter as being ‘the thrust-block of Good’ as well as the catabolic principle, the ‘Scavenger of the Gods’ that ‘clears up behind the advancing tide of evolution’.

In our own lives, we see the force of necessary evil in action… usually in retrospect. Just as the surgeon’s knife may hurt when it cuts, so too it can excise the tumour that threatens our lives. At the time, as we are beset by problems, contending with all manner of challenges and feeling as if our world is falling apart, it is difficult to see any deeper than the ‘evil’ that we perceive. Yet, once we are through the dark time and out on the other side, we may begin to see many bright consequences that have grown from our choices and reactions.

The challenges we face may be dire as we traverse them, walking through a black tunnel full of fear that drags at our limbs like cold tendrils. When we look back, we may see other routes we could have taken, we may see the things we have now ‘lost’ and left behind… but we see them from a place we have reached through the courage to walk onwards and face our fears. In order to grow we must always leave behind those things that no longer serve. We have a choice… to cower and stay still or to walk forward… and eventually reach a place of light.