In our second session we continued by looking at several of the conversations between one ghost and the heavenly being who comes to meet him or her.
The Big Ghost
The first ghost Lewis observes is the Big Ghost, a man who has come for his “Rights.” We have already seen him bully ghosts in the bus queue, yet he is convinced he is a “decent man.” This Ghost is met by Jack, a murderer and the Big Ghost is incensed by him being in Heaven. This interaction raises questions about judgement. Jack is adamant that the Big Ghost “Doesn’t need to bother about all of that now.” Is Lewis saying that sins on Earth are irrelevant in Heaven, only our choices matter? This seems unlikely in the light of what he writes elsewhere. So what might be going on here? Jack lays bare the truth. He is a murderer but killing Len physically was only a little of what he did towards the Big Ghost. But the shade also has to face the truth. He wasn’t a ‘decent man.’ He was a hard man, a man who inspired hatred and resentment.
The interaction about “Don’t bother about it” maybe an invitation to let go of ‘bothering’ about other people’s sins, to let go of the delusion of being a decent chap, who has earned certain rights (one of them being his place in heaven.) Sin is a great leveller and we all need to recognise our need of salvation. For Jack, murdering Len was that point where he faced the truth about himself and realised his need of God’s justice and mercy. Only when we recognise our sinful nature can we begin to be compassionate.
The Big Ghost can’t, in the end let go and he refuses to start the journey to the mountains.
A change begins.
After the departure of the Big Ghost, Lewis’ character continues to carefully investigate this part of heaven. This section of the story feels like a point of transition. Lewis notices more about heaven. First he noticed its vastness, now he begins to notice details: birds, lions and cedars.
The arrival of the lions is an interesting episode in between two conversations. It is surprising. The lions bound in, play and romp in the clearing. They are soaking wet from having been in the river. Then they leave. It is an event that Lewis’ ghost finds unnerving.
Lions are majestic creatures and are symbolic in literature of kingship. Of course, when reading thoughts go to Aslan, the Jesus figure in the Narnia books. Lions are also untamed and wild. In Narnia Mr Beaver remarks that Aslan is Wild “He’s not a tame lion, you know.” Here the untamed playfulness is too much for a ghost and he moves away.
Another change is in the identity of the Ghosts. In “The Town” the ghosts were refers to as he and she. Here in Heaven they are referred to as ‘it.’ There is something about the light of heaven that shows what the ghosts have lost and part of it is their individuality as people.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful light touch of humour all the way through the book and this is seen in this conversation involving the Bishop. Some of this humour, which also gives a sense of pathos, is the fact that he refuses to accept where he is or where he has been. He is offended by his solid companion’s use of the word Hell, despite rejecting the concept or reality of it.
The Bishop has rejected anything that made his faith real and had replaced it with a belief that his opinions are honest ones. This is dashed by Dick, the heavenly being:
“Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modem and successful.”
Somewhere along the line the Bishop’s search for God became and end in itself. Debate and discussion are what he lives for. Any sense of actually find truth, reality and love has withered away.
“ You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth.”
as the Dick tells him.
The Bishop’s objections to heaven, however are not about his belief in his own free thought and intellect. He puts conditions on his staying. He wants to be “useful” and to use the talents “God” (although he does not believe in the reality of God) has given him. There is no such option however. There are no conditions a ghost can demand.
“No,” ‘said the other. “I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”
In the end the Bishop does not want answers and certainly does not want God if it means giving up his image of himself as an honest, free thinker and a talented intellectual. He remains oblivious to heaven and returns to the bus.
Ikey and the Apple
Lewis’ character then leaves the glade and tries walking on water, which is fine, until his drift down stream takes him to a rockier part where the drop of water and unpredictable currents threaten his insubstantial form. Returning to the bank he watches a ghost, Ikey, try and take some apples from the tree, which is surrounded by lilies. In this scene there is the language of the story of the fall, and salvation. There is an apple tree, full of fruit. Lilies are a symbol of Mary, who responded totally freely to God’s request.
Ikey just has to have an apple (his attempts to carry several fail.) There is also, an angel, standing in the waterfall near by. The angel stands in a position of one crucified. Eden, Golgotha and the place of baptism are all images woven into the fabric of this passage. Ikey is unaware of the booming voice of the angel, who tell him
“Fool”, he said, “put it down you cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blade of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.”
The apples are a free gift, part of the generous abundance of the land, but Ikey cannot eat, or even barely carry one as he is. If he would only stay he would grow a little more solid and then he could share in the joy. However he will not stay. He wants to possess the apple now and his desire to possess it means he will be robbed of it in the end. He too cannot break from the habits developed over a lifetime on Earth.
Finally, in chapter 7 we come across a “hard-bitten man.” He is a ‘worm-tongue;’ everything he talks about he taints with his tough, uncompromising cynicism. He is a ghost who embodies the rejection of hope and Lewis’ character takes a while to shake off the negativity that flows out from this ghost. His determination to ‘not be caught out’ means he rejects everything. Even his marriage failed to impress him. After only a month he was disappointed. Here is an individual who has never persevered through difficulty but despises all to avoid being disappointed.
There is plenty of humour in all the encounters so far, but these encounters are also deeply sad. And in these ghosts we might recognise something of ourselves. Overcoming our own habits, selfishness and shortsightedness is a struggle, even for those who are motivated. The book has a somewhat depressing air for it forces us to see that God will honour our choices and give us our desire. What if our desire turns our to be our desire to be right, to focus only on our intellectual life or to possess that which would be ours if we would wait for it. What if our desire is to spoil all that we see and pass that negativity to others? It is a sobering thought.