New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “WHEN PHILIA BECAME EROS”

I am displaying my rudimentary grasp of the Classical Greek language as an innovative introduction to the most tender love story I have ever read. “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” by New York Times best-selling author, Patti Callahan (Thomas Nelson, 2020) is a fictionalized version of the real-life romance between two very unlikely lovers.

C.S. Lewis was a renowned scholar, esteemed Oxford professor, creator of the beloved “Chronicles of Narnia” series and his theological bestseller “Mere Christianity.”

Helen Joy Davidman, by her own account, was an ex-atheist, ex-communist, brash New Yorker. He was a studious Irishman transplanted to England and a life-long bachelor; she was a divorced mother of two young boys and seventeen years his junior.

Their trans-Atlantic connection began in 1950 when the unhappily-married Joy Davidman Gresham impulsively wrote a letter to Lewis, whose writing she had long admired. Out of a longing for deeper understanding of her new Christian faith, the American posed troubling theological questions in hopes her world-famous, would-be mentor might respond, yet without believing he would actually bother to do so. He did.

Over the next two years their relationship deepened through correspondence even as her marriage began to disintegrate. In 1952 she sailed to England at Lewis’s invitation and finally met him. At last, she had found someone with whom she wore no mask, a man who respected her intellect and literary giftedness. (She was also a published author and acclaimed poet.) Although she fiercely and protectively loved her sons, with Lewis she could be more than a wife or mother. She was “allowed to be who she was, not supposed to be.” Cast in that 1950s, narrow female role back home, she wrote of having to “Shut your teeth upon your need.” As Callahan describes it: at Oxford, they were two people inexorably drawn together by seeing “the same truth.”

This attraction was fuelled by their long walks together in the English countryside where she initially fell in love with the historic university town of Oxford and then with Lewis himself. Her ardour was initially dampened when he blithely described their relationship as a perfect “Philia,” the Greek word for friendship love. While she gratefully accepted this deep friendship, her heart yearned for his “Eros,” a romantic love.

Lewis resists that dimension of love because, in the eyes of the 1950s Anglican Church, her divorce was not recognized and it would, therefore, be morally wrong to seek sexual intimacy with a still-married woman. He could love Joy but not be in love with her. Eventually, quoting the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, Lewis comes to recognize “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

In 1956, they first marry in a civil ceremony and several months later are joined together with the sacramental blessings of a priest. Lewis becomes a devoted step-father to Davidman’s two sons who are captivated by his fantasy tales.

Perhaps I should have stopped reading at that point … when all was well. Without spoiling the story for future readers, I will only reveal that I literally spilled a trail of tears over the last chapters.

Callahan writes achingly-beautiful descriptions. Wildflowers “bloomed in open-faced eagerness.” She describes “Thunderclouds gathered like gray armies on the horizon.” Those who are open to spirituality will appreciate her comments elicited in nature walks with Lewis and Davidman through the English countryside:

“The beauty that brings us to peace and whispers that there’s something more.” And “I allow nature to bring me to silence.” Perhaps my favourite word picture is that of pond ripples which “reached the shore to dance with tall grasses.”

On this Valentine’s Day, it is timely to celebrate the unforgettable moment when “friendship crosses that borderland into love.” Many of us can recall relationships when Philia surprisingly blossomed into Eros. As C.S. Lewis found out, it sometimes can become ethically complicated. But Pascal already had discovered that the heart has reasons of its own.

PS: In his writings, C.S. Lewis noted two other words used in Classical Greek to describe types of love: Storge refers to familial or kinship love; agape is selfless love focused on the needs of another person.

May you encounter love in which ever form it finds you on this
Valentine’s Day