While it seems that most people read the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, as a child, I may be a bit of a rarity in that I am reading the Chronicles for the first time as an adult. For a ‘children’s book’, the series has a tremendous amount to say to adults.
In the story, for those that don’t know, four siblings, the Pevensie children, crawl through a wardrobe closet and find themselves in the enchanted world of Narnia, where animals speak and children can become kings and queens. They eventually meet the great lion, Aslan, who reigns over Narnia and is the source of all adventure and wonder. In the Chronicles, Aslan is always both. He is both safe and dangerous. He is patient yet demanding. He is mercy and justice. Aslan appears when and how he chooses and he always appears when the Pevensie children need him most.
Aslan’s Breath and Slaying Dragons
Aslan’s breath is one of the images I love the most. When he breathes on the Pevensie children, they take heart. Two of the children ride the wind of his breath to a distant land. Aslan even spoke Narnia itself into existence.
Four years ago, I encountered ‘Aslan’. More precisely, I felt his breath. I don’t speak of it much because I don’t have the words to do it justice. But the affects have forever changed the course of my life. When I realized I could never un-know what I knew from that experience, both wonder and dread came over me. My only certainty was the certainty that I was heading into the unknown.
The affects of Aslan’s breath are devastatingly creative and beautiful. It’s difficult to explain, but the closest I’ve ever seen, heard, or read is in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this book, two of the Pevensie children, Edmond and Lucy, return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who Lewis describes as a rotten twit of a kid, whose parents were “vegetarians, non-smokers, and teetotalers”.
You see, Eustace only read books for information, not because he loved them. He enjoyed things he could count because it allowed himself to easily compare himself to others. Rarely did he study a subject because of a passion for the material. Where most boys craved adventure, Eustace didn’t, yet he craved the glory that only adventure can provide. Eustace was able to twist all the good things his cousins did for him into bad. He could make a beautiful, sunny sailing day on a boat towards adventure a terrible drag. Eustace was ugly inside but he couldn’t see it.
One day, the group had a great deal of work ahead of them to set up camp. It occurred to Eustace to slip away while no one was looking and go up into the mountains where it was cool and airy and have a good long sleep. The only problem with his plan was that he got lost in the fog and found himself in a totally new valley with no one else in sight. He stumbled across a dragon’s lair. He didn’t know what it was at first, because “he had read none of the right books”.
Soon after, Eustace watched an old sad creature, a dragon, take its last breath and die just as it was about to reach a pool of water to drink. Eustace was frightened, but still needing a place to rest, he entered the dragon’s lair only to find riches beyond his wildest imagination, riches that would dramatically change his life in Narnia.
He fell asleep with the treasure and when he awoke, he was startled to discover he had dragon claws, dragon wings, and that he was in fact a dragon. He was instantly seized with regret and miraculously he began seeing himself for the first time. For the first time, Eustace missed his cousins, who weren’t fiends as he previously thought, but wonderful friends to him. With great regret, he wished to become a boy again. But how?
One night, as Eustace lay awake thinking, “what on earth would become of me?” he looked up and saw a great lion walking toward him. Eustace was terrified but the lion spoke, “follow me.” The lion led him a long way into the mountains where they came upon a well that was more like a big, round bathe. Eustace thought if he could just bathe in it, he could ease his pain, but the lion told him to undress first. It occurred to Eustace that perhaps dragons could shed skins like snakes so he began shedding the ugly skins. But each time, there was yet another layer of dragon skin beneath, all hard and wrinkled, just as before. As he was wondering just how many layers there were, because he just wanted to take his bath, the lion said, “You will have to let me undress you.”
According to Eustace, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I had ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” He goes on to say, “Well he peeled the beastly stuff right off.”
Transformation of the Heart
The heart, which is ultimately a mystery, seeks wholeness, and it will do what it pleases to achieve wholeness whether it is healthy for us or not. For example, some strive for a feeling of wholeness through a relationship or marriage while others pursue money, power, or status. Yet, who can say that any of these satisfies for more than a moment?
The heart can never find wholeness on its own. We need an “other” to undress us and cut away, with supernatural precision, the half-truths we have an endless ability to deceive ourselves with. We can’t be whole if we are hiding, yet we hide from others almost as much as we hide from ourselves. But when Aslan undresses us, there is no hiding, there is only wholeness. Until then, like Eustace, we are stuck peeling off layer upon endless layer.
In regards to Eustace, C.S. Lewis goes on to say that, “It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy. To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days where he could be tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”
I have never identified as strongly with a character as I have with Eustace Scrubb and not because I was mean and cruel, because I wasn’t, but in a way that we should all identify with Eustace Scrubb.
It’s en vogue to say, usually with a degree of arrogance, that everything people do is done from self-interest. For example, people volunteer because it makes them feel good. They go to church because they are afraid to live in a confusing world and need simple answers. They give to charity, because they get a tax deduction or they derive an emotional benefit from it. They give to their community, because they derive safety from the community. In other words, there is always an angle, because people are always jockeying for position and power. However, this isn’t really intellectually honest, because it explains everything but also nothing at all.
I am here to tell you that the stuff of Aslan, the very stuff that binds the world together is pure and unconditional and not only can it be experienced but we are designed to experience it flowing through us. It is the stuff of joy, grace, beauty, love and all the other inexplicable experiences that even the greatest poets scarce do justice.
The reason we are jockeying for control is not that the world demands it. Rather, our hearts demand control, because until they have experienced a different reality, they just don’t know. Eustace didn’t know he was a dragon inside until he was confronted with himself.
The state of our hearts, why we do what we do, is more important than what we do.
It is possible to be pure of heart. Not everything is done out of self-motivation. In fact, we can’t fully experience life until we die to ourselves.
Of course the world is still the way the world is, but the great thing is that we can live in both realities. Sure, fear and scarcity drive people, but we also can have faith that love and kindness have more horsepower, will always win in the end and that we don’t have to play by the world’s rules. It’s the stuff of freedom and transformation.
For me, like Eustace, the cure has begun. There is no going back. What an adventure to be both new and old at the same time, knowing that my soul is being perfected through my own will as well as Aslan’s.