Monday, March 7, 2011

Keep Pedalling: C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves

I don't recall precisely the first time I picked up C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves. I read Lewis a lot in first year at UBC because he was a refreshing change from bullshit and something about his beautifully written, often intensely personal, and easily penetrable prose combined with his good common sense was just what I needed. It made me feel safe and a hell of a lot less confused.

I spent a good portion of my first year at UBC in the atrium at Regent College, the non-denominational Christian college. They boasted a terrific bookstore where I rediscovered the George MacDonald of my early childhood as well as entire Lewis and Tolkien sections. That year Lord of the Rings came out in theatres and I'm sure that was another draw at the time, for while Lord of the Rings cannot truly be among the most important books of my life, it was a part of my youth and reminded me forcibly of my parents. It contained a rich world in which Christianity was made almost epic without being explicit, and most importantly it taught me courage in the face of the outside world. Its popularity and Regent's extensive Tolkien (as well as Lewis) section was my access to my past and my future.

The most stunning part of The Screwtape Letters for me was the part where Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for allowing his patient "two real positive Pleasures" because it would "make him feel as though he was coming home, recovering himself." I cannot count how many times this has happened to me. It is always a little uncanny, but not in an unwholesome way. It is disturbing not for what it is in itself, but always because of what I am in myself in comparison to the reminder of the self God wants me to be: the kind of person those real positive Pleasures reveal to us, the people we used to be before our lives were clouded with nonsense and sin.

The Regent College bookstore was a refuge, a safe haven. Plus their cafe had delicious Lenten soups. I read a lot of Lewis that year, but I'm not certain The Four Loves was among them. My earliest memory of reading that book was when I was in Scotland. By then I had abandoned UBC in frustration, and disgust. I'd abandoned poetry in disappointment and Canada in misery. Love was something I needed to read about by then. I had no direction either at UBC or in my personal life. I was young and lost and far far away from home trying to figure out who the hell I was.

Culture shock is agonising. It is best described as waking up in a foreign country and realising you've been operated on by some anonymous, abstract and menacing power and come out of it with a different face. I literally looked in the mirror one day in a cafe loo on North Bridge and did not recognise myself. I cannot stress enough that this was neither because my actual appearance had changed, nor because I hadn't looked in a mirror for a month. It was because the internal me was radically different and somehow that radically new me was staring back in the mirror.

The only explanation I have for this is that we are what we do and what we do is indefinitely determined by who we interact with. We behave in certain ways with certain people. It's kind of like changing masks, like mimesis, but to call it pure imitation is a little too simple I think. There is give and take, and habit is a powerful personality determinant. Sometimes I wonder if this adapting to one's environment, which has a lot to do with one's ability to read social cues, is not only a more North American thing (Britain has more eccentric people per square inch than any place I've been), but also maybe not a particularly healthy thing. I think it must be a natural process--openness to change is a good thing for the soul, but I think it is sometimes considered an end in itself and prevents any real kernel of individuality to stick. The soul must have some stability as well as flexibility. In any case, I was in a country with no one I'd known much longer than I'd been there. Everything I did was new, everything I said was new. Those who knew me at the time will testify I had a bizarre half-Scots accent and I swear it was unconscious. One day I looked in the mirror and there was a flash of who I was and who I had been.

The new me was not a bad me, I should say. It wasn't the same kind of wake up call one gets when one suddenly realises the Enemy has slowly and silently sucked them into sin. But the sudden shock of realising you don't know quite who you are was very similar. I had been through a tough year. Scotland wasn't the half of it. My personal life had seen more ups and downs that year than any other. I had been a student living with her parents, whose church was English speaking and full of people who loved her and thought she was brilliant, whose ambitions were artistic, drama, poetry, art, who was working her brain and heart to outwit the hounds of the secular university, always single and able to picture herself braving the world alone and winning. Suddenly I was lost, ignorant, untalented, weak, working at a picture-framer's--a trade job. I was dating an Orthodox guy who was more opinionated than I was, that I had nothing on because he was cradle AND his dad was a priest, a priest radically different from mine. Church was like the Tower of Babel--different ethnic factions argued openly during the service about which language they should be using. No one thought I was great if they noticed me at all. I couldn't sing on key, I knew nothing about music, and I couldn't read Cyrillic. And no one took communion. Every week I trudged up to the chalice guiltily with the children and a few old ladies. I had no time to write. No idea who I was or what the heck I was doing.

This is a very grim picture of Edinburgh. It was not as bad as that all the time and it was a fairly young parish at the time. It has since grown into a beautiful little community, very different from St. Herman's in Langley, but most places are and I do not regret the growing pains I experienced in that parish. Nevertheless I was at sea within a month of moving there and church compounded the problem.

There was a terrific bookshop on South Bridge near where I was staying briefly on Drummond
Street and they had a boxed set of C.S. Lewis' apologetic works: Screwtape Letters, Miracles, Surprised By Joy, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and The Four Loves. I had definitely read Screwtape and Surprised by Joy while at UBC, but The Four Loves was, I'm certain, new to me. And for the first time in my life I was actually experiencing love in a real Romantic messy way.

My courtship with Greg is not something I look back on with nostalgic longing. It was hard. It was hard like things that are real are hard. I'm fond of telling people I was only in love with him for two weeks: after that it was work. And it was harder because we'd been "set up" and prompted to expect that we would be great together. Discovering that we drove each other nuts within a couple of weeks was not fun. But we had many important things in common. The night things got complicated was the same night he told me he thought he might like to marry me, but it wasn't the early use of the "m" word that complicated things. I was shocked to discover that I felt the same way even though I told myself it was crazy. What followed was a year of me figuring out who I was while Greg tolerated, begrudgingly, his foreign girlfriend's dramatic mood swings and battle with culture shock. I don't believe in "taking a break" from marriage. But before marriage I think it is a really healthy thing to do and I'm sure if I hadn't left Greg in Edinburgh for 6 months to move to Oxford I never would have figured myself out and we would most definitely not be married.

What does all this have to do with C.S. Lewis and The Four Loves? Well I picked it up during the phase of my life that I was figuring myself out. The book describes four distinct forms of love. The first three, Affection, Friendship, and Eros (romantic love) are earthly, natural loves, and I was experiencing them all intensely in ways I hadn't before.

Affection for Lewis was partly need-love (ie the kind of love that one needs from others) but what it often needs is to give love. It is the domestic love and the love which develops in unlikely places through familiarity. I was near nothing familiar and desperate for Affection. Sometimes people land in strange places and immediately find family. People take you in. Affection was something I needed. I didn't find it till I got to Oxford over a year later.

Friendship is the ideal love for the medieval man-- the love that develops out of common interest. It also has needs. It happens when two people realise that they are doing something together that they like, be it as dull as collecting stamps, and form an attachment over it, over a meeting of minds. Greg and I had nothing in common. He liked riding bikes at a billion miles an hour down mountains and skillfully building picture frames and music. I liked music but by his standards I was a plebeian and he made no secret that he thought so. He was a high school drop-out too. We had led two very different lives before we met. He was smarter than me and more talented and I was good at nothing which interested him. I was a writer, a university student, a poet and a theatre person. I was from a vastly different Orthodox tradition. Sometimes I wonder what the heck we talked about for those first few weeks. I had no other friends in Edinburgh to talk to. Not really. I was busy trying to make myself a "friend" and adopt a passion for his interests.

Then there was Eros. Ah Eros. It fuelled a good two weeks and no it was not about you-know-what. Lewis calls that "Venus" and I will not deny it had its place in our early relationship, as befits a chaste, unmarried Orthodox couple, but Eros is quite different. And for a good two weeks that's what it was about. In love. Soaring, tumbling, stumbling, where-am-I? in love.

One night we had THE TALK. The one where it's not just about the two of you now, but who you have been all of this time and who you want to be: the big step, where you go from enjoying each other to really knowing each other, which includes filling in the gaps, even the ones we'd rather forget. It was uncomfortable, it was painful. Oh dear God, you're not an angel! That was when it got messy.

It got messy because after that we were people, and people, generally, SUCK. After that our relationship had to be about something else. It couldn't be about Affection-- we hadn't been together long enough. It couldn't be about Friendship. I'm not sure it's ever been about Friendship and I'm not sure it ever will be. And Eros can only take you so far. As Lewis points out, all earthly forms of love, if we treat them as gods, they become demons. All love eventually becomes hatred if it is not guarded by the divine form of love: Charity.

I think the majority of my relationship with Greg has been about Charity, the self-sacrificial love. The kind Christ had for us. I say this observing that it has been thus for both sides, because I would not like anyone to think that it has been hard for only one of us the whole way. But our sinful halves have been fighting it tooth and nail and the figuring-out-who-we-really- are has played its part as we struggled with our earthly expectations of Friendship and Affection and lasting romance: our needs, our demands, for affirmation. For when left unchecked by Charity, these demands were vicious, towering, abusive assertions of independence and authority. Charity means letting yourself be nailed to the cross.

Lewis' book put me in my place and reminded me who I was and who I belonged to. When Greg came to Oxford to visit me for a weekend, I knew he was the right one because he spent his afternoon reading it the day before he proposed-- and not at my recommendation.

The night before we signed the papers in Leith I couldn't sleep but I had the most truly spiritual experience I'd ever had before or since. I knew the saints were there and they were telling me to do it. Flying down Leith Walk towards the registrar on the tandem bicycle in our wedding clothes, a fight broke out. We were going too fasting, I felt like I was falling and stopped pedalling. Greg barked at me to pedal and stop trying to counterbalance. It's been like that the whole way, me leaning one way and him the other, him flying on ahead, me screaming at him to slow down. Charity keeps the bike from falling into traffic, but it's a scary unpleasant ride sometimes and all you can do is hang on and keep pedalling. But when you get there, you get to do the nearest thing to a free act you've ever done. "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say 'I am what I do.'"

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