Parables for Pilgrims

From the Chronicles of Narnia alone, C. S. Lewis has gained an enduring reputation as a master story teller. But Lewis’s lively imagination and his knack for story-telling are no less evident in his non-fiction works—lectures, essays, even in his personal correspondence. From his Christian meditations to his weighty tomes of literary scholarship, Lewis often provided memorable metaphors or stories to illustrate his key points. Sometimes his analogies consist of only a sentence or two; others run to a full paragraph, unfolding into mini-parables for the reader to ponder.

Many of Lewis’s most unforgettable narrative gems are tucked away in his less familiar essays or in hefty volumes of letters that might be overlooked by casual readers. In order that these might be more widely known, I hope I might be allowed to take a few of Lewis’s casual metaphors and amplify on them a bit, so that each story or illustration can stand alone, without the need for extensive commentary about context. My source for each parable is cited, though ideas have been paraphrased and details added to help each story stand more fully on its own.

An Obedience Lesson
The dog eagerly scampered down the sidewalk, followed by his master holding his leash. The dog sniffed all the way around a sign-post, then tried to continue on ahead, not realizing he’d looped his leash around the post. His master gently pulled back on the leash, trying to get his dog to retrace his steps and get the leash unsnarled. The dog strained forward with all its might, wanting to move on ahead and not understanding why he was being asked to halt.

Now this was a dutiful dog, and he soon realized he must submit his will to his master, even though it made no sense to him. If the dog had any theological training, he might have even labeled his desire to go forward as a “sin,” and to yield himself to the inscrutable will of his master. The owner, if he knew how, might wish to expose this as false dogma, to explain that he too wanted to continue moving forward. He might add that he had to deny his dog’s will to pull forward on the leash in order to grant him his true wish, to resume their walk together.

Faith in the Face of Peril
Two travelers came to a rickety bridge over a deep, rocky ravine. The first man thought about the goodness of God and convinced himself that the bridge would hold up till they had crossed over safely. He called this assurance Faith.

The second man looked at the bridge and thought to himself, It might hold up and it might not. But whether my life ends today or at some other time, whether here or somewhere else, I am always in God’s hands.

The two men started across. The bridge did give way and neither man survived. The first man’s faith was unfulfilled; the second man’s was not.

The Overwhelming Invisible
“Science is constantly pushing back the frontiers of knowledge,” explained the skeptic. “Our telescopes are gazing at the outer reaches of the universe. Our microscopes are laying bare the very structure and shape of individual atoms. Our physicists and mathematicians can carry us back to the first fraction of a second after the creation of the cosmos. And yet in all this, we have found not a trace of God.”

I know exactly what you mean,” replied the teacher. He took down a thick volume of collected plays and poems and plopped it on the table. “You know, I’ve read every work in this bulky collection a dozen times. I’ve met unforgettable characters like King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. I’ve explored the heights of nobility to which humans can reach and witnessed the depths of their depravity. I’ve laughed at witty dialogues, wept at stirring orations, and read poetry so beautiful it creates a certain flutter in my breast. But in all this I’ve never discovered a trace of this fellow Shakespeare everyone is talking about.”

The End as the Beginning
The man of faith could see his own death on the near horizon. He faced it calmly, feeling he had done his best with the time given to him. As he came closer to the end, though, it seemed to him the usual ways of looking at death stated the case backwards.

For one thing, he didn’t feel that he was facing a great and final sleep. Rather it seemed to him in those last days that his whole life was a dreamy doze. He was looking forward to finally waking up. He could almost hear a cock crowing, welcoming him to a new morning.

He had been to many funerals before and seen bodies laid into the ground. But in his weakened body, he felt like a sprout already planted in the ground. His spirit yearned to expand and stretch upward, to break out of the dark earth into the light and air of eternity.

1. An Obedience Lesson (Based on Collected Letters of CSL, Vol 2, 122)
2. Faith in the Face of Peril (Based on Collected Letters of CSL, Vol 3, 448.)
3. The Overwhelming Invisible (Based on an illustration in “The Seeing Eye” in Christian Reflections, pp. 167-168.)
4. The End as the Beginning (Based on Collected Letters of CSL, Vol 3, 1434.)

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Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis. He currently serves as a consulting editor for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. His most recent book is A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy (Cumberland Press, 2007). His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)

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