Since I started working at Family Theater Productions, I acquired a daily commute, so I resonate with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron’s reliance on the company of audiobooks while navigating the L.A. area’s interminable traffic.
I’ve been working my way through some purchases from Franciscan Media during the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, while Bishop Barron — formerly Father Barron of Chicago, the founder of media apostolate Word on Fire — has been matriculating through C.S. Lewis’ religious fantasy work, “The Great Divorce.”
Today, he wrote an essay about why he recommends it.
It follows several ghosts that get a respite from Hell and take a bus trip to Heaven, where, apparently, they have an option to stay. Surprisingly, many don’t take it.
A 2014 essay in Crisis Magazine on “The Great Divorce” explains:
The majority of the characters in Lewis’s novel—given the choice after they visit the Bright World and learn of its conditions—prefer the Grey City to the Bright World for a variety of motives but ultimately for one main reason. A heretical bishop rejects the invitation because “I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little theological society down there.” To the cynic called “the hard-bitten ghost” the Bright World offers the same old thing: “A human being couldn’t live here. All that idea of staying is only an advertisement stunt.” To enter the Bright World the ghosts must surrender their attachments, opinions, addictions, and pride.
The narrator (C.S. Lewis), one of the ghosts who desires to enter the heavenly kingdom and not return to the city, enjoys a conversation with the Spirit addressed as Teacher, George Macdonald, one of Lewis’s mentors in the art of fantasy literature. The Teacher explains the strange psychology of the Ghosts as the mentality of Milton’s Satan who boasted, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Macdonald compares these ghosts to a petulant child who “would sooner miss its play and supper than say it was sorry and be friends.” Of course Macdonald is defining the deadly sin of pride in all is many expressions, whether it assumes the form of Achilles’ wrath or Satan’s sense of “injured merit.”
In his essay, Bishop Barron observes that, while Hell seems immense to those entombed there:
However, when the narrator, in dialogue with a heavenly spirit, wonders where precisely Hell is in relation to the heavenly realm, the spirit bends down, pulls a single blade of grass and uses its tip to indicate a tiny, barely perceptible, fissure in the ground. “That’s where you came in,” he explains. All of Hell, which seemed so immense to the narrator, would fit into a practically microscopic space in Heaven. Lewis is illustrating here the Augustinian principle that sin is the state of being incurvatus in se (curved in around oneself). It is the reduction of reality to the infinitely small space of the ego’s concerns and preoccupations. Love, on the contrary, which is the very life of Heaven, is the opening to reality in its fullness; it amounts to a breaking through of the buffered and claustrophobic self; it is the activity of the magna anima (the great soul). We think our own little ego-centric worlds are so impressive, but to those who are truly open to reality, they are less than nothing.
In regard to another chapter, he says:
What I especially appreciate in this episode is Lewis’ spot-on representation of how the soul clings desperately to what is actually killing it, preferring, in W.H. Auden’s phrase, “to be ruined rather than changed.”
In my former life as a journalist covering television, I’ve seen any number of episodes of home and personal makeover shows — from “What Not to Wear” to “Clean House” — in which people desperately want to different lives, but just as desperately don’t want to change anything to achieve them.
I saw it so often that I’ve concluded it’s a fixture of human nature. It’s like wanting to have been a marathon runner while never going further than from the front door to the mailbox.
Here’s a peek at a stage production of “The Great Divorce”:
Image: HarperCollins Edition cover