Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent, I was at home to allow Anthony to attend Great Compline with the Great Canon of St. Andrew alone. The kids were ready for bed and I was reading them a few chapters from Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. I had read this book several times before, but as I read Chapters 6 and 7 again, “The Adventures of Eustace” and “How the Adventure Ended”, I was struck by the poignancy of this part of the story. I had never read these chapters during the first week of Great Lent and as I read tears came to my eyes as I considered the story’s pertinence to this week’s focus on repentance and renewal – turning away from our sinful self-absorption to refocus on our relationship with each other and with God.
I had always been puzzled why when Eustace is transformed into a dragon after “sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart,” he momentarily relishes the idea of getting even with Edmund and Caspian, but then realizes that “he wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things.” However, when I read this during this first week of Great Lent, it became clear to me that this is exactly what sin does to us; it separates us from each other – each of us becoming islands, or dragons as the case may be, of our own making; each of us ruling over and interested only in our own treasure. It would have been very easy for Eustace to become dragonish in his heart and mind, relishing his power over others. However, despite his previous behavior, which showed him to be a boy who trusted completely in his own ideas and feelings as the ultimate truth, when “he realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race … He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.” He realized, as we are reminded during Lent, that we are human beings – beings made in the image and likeness of God – to be in communion with each other and with Him; when we separate ourselves through our selfishness and sinfulness, we become less than human – less than what we were made to be.
Eustace’s repentance begins with a realization of his sins and of his sinfulness, and continues as he, though still in dragon-form, becomes a helpful and caring member of his community. Had he not realized this and began to bear the fruit of his repentance, he would not have been able to be cleansed. The following is a long and beautiful excerpt from Chapter 7, “How the Adventure Ended.”
And I knew I’d have to do what [the lion] told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden – trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.
…The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. …
I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
But just as I was going to put my foot into the water I looked down and saw that it was all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as it had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
Then the lion said – but I don’t know it spoke – You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off …
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself all the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms … but I was so glad to see them.
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me … in new clothes … And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.
Of course, it wasn’t a dream, as evidenced by his restoration. As he regained and retained his boyish (human) heart through his repentance, Eustace was able to become a boy again.
Rereading this chapter the other day I noticed many things that hadn’t occurred to me before. Eustace’s three attempts to undress, as commanded by Aslan, by shedding his dragonish skin, scratching at his scales and peeling back the upper most layers of his sinfulness, are very much like the three ascetic labors that we undertake especially during Great Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These labors are given to us to pull us back from our selfish passions that keep us captive and separate us from each other and from God. They encourage us, in abstaining from certain foods, to hunger for God and to seek communion with Him in increased quietness and prayer; in being mindful of what we put into our mouths, to be mindful of what we say and do; in giving to those who are in need – feeding the hungry and clothing the naked – to free us from our dependence on and trust in earthly treasure, and to reach beyond ourselves to care for – to love – our neighbor.
I think it is incredibly important, and this is what made me cry, that though he “successfully” sheds three dragon skins so that he sees them “lying there beside me, looking rather nasty,” Eustace through his own labors cannot fully “undress” himself. Each time he sheds a skin and is about to enter the pool, he sees that his foot is “all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as it had been before.” How often have I done just this; having said my prayers or gone to confession, I find myself snapping at my children – my hand that impatiently grasps my son’s arm all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly. Just as Aslan, as he represents Christ in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, must peel off the last skin before Eustace can be fully free from his dragonish form, we cannot save ourselves through our labors, though they do prepare us and our hearts for God. As is often the case when Christ blesses us with a difficult struggle, the process can be quite painful since it often cuts deeper through our self-preserving scales than we could (or would) do ourselves. Ultimately, if we allow it, as Eustace does lying “flat down on [his] back to let him do it,” this process, though it may “hurt worse than anything [we’ve] ever felt,” cleanses us so that we may come forth “smooth and soft”, having cast off the old man and been baptized into Christ.
Of course, even then, we, like Eustace in the following chapter, will begin “to get rather like our old disagreeable self again.” But through God’s grace, our baptisms and Chrismations, which are what is represented in this scene when Aslan picks Eustace up and throws him into the well-spring and then clothes him (as the newly illumined are clothed with the robe of light), can be renewed through repentance and Confession.
I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’s Chronicles this Lent with my children and to discovering more of these hidden jewels.