1904) The Difference War Makes

These two readings are from the conclusion to sermon preached by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England on October 22, 1939, just as World War II was beginning.  The title of the sermon was “Learning in War-Time.”  It is found in Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.  

As a 19 year-old Lewis spent six months in the front-line trenches in World War I, until he was wounded in a bomb attack.  He was then hospitalized for several weeks.  He was, at the time, an atheist.  But his experience in the war inspired a spiritual search that resulted in his conversion to Christianity ten years later.

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     War threatens us with death and pain…  But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that — of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.  What does war do to death?  It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.  It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear.  Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.  Does it increase our chance of a painful death?  I doubt it.  As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.  Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God?  I cannot believe it.  If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable circumstances would?

     Yet war does do something to death.  It forces us to remember it.  The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them.  War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.  They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality.  I am inclined to think they were right.  All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration.  In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it.  Now the stupidest of us know.

     We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.

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     (Another problem is the) frustration that we shall not have time to finish…  (But even) the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner…  You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether:  of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say “No time for that”, “Too late now”, and “Not for me…”  A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving the future in God’s hands.  We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not.  Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future.  Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.”  It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.  The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

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Romans 14:7-9 — For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Psalm 90:12 — Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

James 4:13-15 — Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

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From dying suddenly and unprepared, good Lord, deliver us…

–from The Great Litany in The Book of Common Prayer

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“Well, I have to go now, dear God.  Good Bye.  But now that I’ve met you I’m not scared to die.”   –Author unknown. The words of this brief prayer were found on the body of an American soldier killed in North Africa in WW II, 1944.

Related image

A Landing Craft disembarks troops of the U.S. Army’s First Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach.