Amid the Brain Fog of Wartime – Brad Jersak
On Ash Wednesday, 2022, I write from a window-facing easy-chair, glancing over my laptop at the Northern Flicker pecking seed from a feeder, grasping for moments of stillness of heart. As an educator, I’m faced with the challenge of grading book reports and prepping lessons amid the brain fog of wartime, having spent an hour on Zoom on Tuesday, hearing the lament of a Ukrainian priest in Lviv between bomb shelter alarms. It’s hard to recall why what I do matters in the shadow of vacuum bombs and civilian casualties that have the stamp of approval from Christian nationalists. I’m tempted with despondency even as I recline in my place of privilege 5300 miles away. What does one say to students and teachers registered from Lithuania, Latvia, and Germany as Putin’s madness escalates into a nuclear threat? Book reports are due this week? Seriously?
Celebrated author C. S. Lewis’ response came by way of a sermon he preached at Oxford in the autumn of 1939. It was later published under the title “Learning in War-Time.” The message asks how to live as a scholar, student, mechanic or janitor in times of war or any other circumstances that take life, erode hope, or assault meaning.
Then Wednesday morning, before my head left the safety of my pillow, an uplifting text message arrived from my friend, Steve Bell (Canada’s finest troubadour). He asked me to watch a YouTube video from the British poet, Malcolm Guite, titled “Fiddling whilst Rome burns? CS Lewis speaks into our crisis!” [See below]. I hope you’ll watch it. In it, Malcolm recalls how C.S. Lewis directly addressed the emotional malaise and practical problem we face when wartime threatens to tell us that everything else we do is pointless.
In a sermon he preached in August 1939, primarily directed to students at Oxford, Lewis talks about “Learning in Wartime.” His big picture response is that for Christians, the claim on our lives is that “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, in war or in peace, nobly or humbly, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Will we? He then offers three mental exercises that serve as defenses against the triads of sieges against our hearts and minds. He names three enemies:
- Excitement—“the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work.” Lewis feels that our best defense against ‘excitement’ is to realize that a host of pressures always assails us—that our present predicament isn’t abnormal. Unfavorable conditions never subside, even if they fluctuate in intensity, so we must simply do the best we can at all times.
- Frustration—For Lewis, this relates to time pressures and the fear we won’t or can’t complete what we start; “No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me.” This was heavy on the minds of his students as the war would interrupt their studies for some years. Lewis counters, “Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future.” We leave the future to God and live in the grace of today—and this day, we will do what can be done “as to the Lord.”
- Fear—Wartime brings our mortality to the front burner and fear of death is stoked hot. But Lewis would have us remember that the death rate stands at 100% and, in fact, all death—natural or violent, cancer or shrapnel—is preceded by suffering. But in whatever way my life should end, wartime is a sharp reminder of our mortality. And to this, C.S. Lewis counsels an assessment of why we do what we do. He says;
“If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.
But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning [or whatever we’ve been given to do], humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”
If I’ve not shared this clearly enough, I’m grateful to leave you with Malcolm Guite’s beautiful summary: