It was a jarring moment when I realized I didn’t love God. Or, rather, I didn’t love God as I should — simply because of who he is.
The epiphany happened two years ago during a season where I was — once again — becoming frustrated with God’s timing in my life, specifically in regard to my vocation. My heart was inclined toward impatience and comparison — the perfect pairing to steal anyone’s peace and joy — and while I thought I was in a good place with God by being honest with him about what was going on in my heart, I hadn’t been very good at listening for what he wanted to unfold within me. And then he dropped this bombshell of truth right into my lap in the form of a book.
It happened on an otherwise forgettable Saturday night. My social life was a bit quiet during that season, and my roommate and her boyfriend were spending time together. Rather than finding my solace on Netflix or in a tried-and-true favorite movie, I decided to curl up in my bed with a book I had been meaning to read: “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis.
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I read the novella in a single sitting.
If you’ve never read “The Great Divorce,” let me set the scene. An unnamed narrator, who is likely Lewis, finds himself in a landscape of spirits — those who have begun the purgative journey into eternal glory — and ghosts — those who will remain a shadow of who they could have become had they had accepted God’s grace. Here the narrator sees the struggles that keep the ghostly figures from God’s invitation of eternal joy, usually stemming from too strong a love of themself and too little a love of others. Even worse, these figures choose their own unhappiness over heaven.
While the story grabbed me immediately — I could write an entire article based on the introduction alone — it wasn’t until over halfway through the novella that Lewis stopped me in my tracks.
At one point, the narrator overhears a conversation between a spirit and ghost named Pam. Pam eagerly begins asking about her son, Michael, who apparently died years earlier. However, when it is revealed that Michael is not coming — he is too far into eternal glory to come back for her — Pam refuses to move on. She cannot imagine heaven without her idolized view of her son and her idolized role of being his mother.
While I am not a wife and mother, I saw myself in Pam. I saw my idolization of people, of certain relationships. And it scared me.
As I wrote in my journal soon after: “Lord my God, do I love you for you … or do I love you for what you can give me: a good life, spiritual moments, friends, family, vocation?”
Put another way, I had to ask myself: How often have I treated God like a vending machine, waiting for the next transaction to fulfill me instead of looking to the giver himself?
“I think I have fallen in love with the elements of the Faith — the Church, my communities, specific devotions, even hope for the future regarding vocation — but never truly fallen in love with you, Lord,” I wrote. “I have been living in anticipation of my earthly vocation instead of heaven and you.”
In short, I had idolized people who I thought could fill that desire in my heart; I had idolized the vocation I longed for over the one who created that desire in the first place.
Since that first reading, I have reread “The Great Divorce” twice over. Both times allowed me to peel back a new layer of my heart, helping me recognize the raw truth of my failings through seeing myself in Lewis’ characters.
And the crux of Lewis’ story is this: The only one who can keep us from heaven is ourselves. It is by grasping on to our vices instead of surrendering in trust that we cause this divide. And this divide is easy to slip into: The devil takes a good desire and tempts us with a distortion. But these distortions can keep us from the real thing.
As Lewis writes in his introduction to “The Great Divorce,” “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
What souvenir of Earth or hell are we holding on to? What is the main thing that God wants you to surrender to him?
Luckily, I would not be doing Lewis’ work justice if I didn’t at least hint at redemption. And, dear sisters, there is glorious redemption offered to those who let God transform their vice into virtue! Indeed, the Lord allows us to endure these particular struggles so they can be the road to our sanctification. The vice of lust — which Lewis portrays as a slithering lizard sitting on our shoulder — can become a redeemed virtue in chastity, which is as vibrant and strong as a white stallion. Likewise, sloth can be redeemed into diligence, covetousness into generosity, pride into humility.
While “The Great Divorce” is a timeless thought — and heart — experiment, I would highly recommend picking up a copy during the months of November and December: November because it is during this month that the Church remembers the Four Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) and celebrates the feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day; and December, because Advent is a time to begin anew, to renew our hearts for the savior and recognize that he will come again. The question is, are we ready? If not, it’s time to recognize and offer to God whatever is keeping us from heaven.