We are looking at the great writer C.S Lewis and his essay “Learning in War-Time.” This was actually a chapel message he delivered on the campus of Oxford University during World War II. Lewis raises a crucial question: Should we be studying in war? In fact, on the first page he asks, “Why should we? Indeed, how can we continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” He goes on to answer the question, Should we learn in wartime?
He tells us that war does not introduce a new human situation. War is an aggravation of the human situation that exists and that many times we ignore. He says that often in war you hear people speaking of wanting to return to normal life. “Life,” Lewis says, “has never been normal.” As you look over the decades, the centuries, the millennia, you see that “life is full of crises, full of alarms, full of difficulties,” full of challenges. And yet in it all, we human beings learn, we explore, we debate. We carry on that “placid occupation of learning.”
Lewis brings up his own experience in World War I. He left the ivy-covered environs of Oxford University and enlisted on June 8, 1917. Many months later on April 15, 1918, he was wounded in battle, and then he was discharged in December of 1918. He remembers that as he and his brothers-in-arms were sent closer to the front line, they would read books together. They would play cards together. He says being in the army, even right on the front line, did not obliterate his human life. And so as he is looking at his students in the context of World War II, he is telling them they must not neglect their human life.
In this essay he also speaks of our calling. He says, “A mole digs to the glory of God.” So if you are a student, you must be a student to the glory of God. If you are in school and someone has sent you to that school and you have gifts, then you are called to be a student, you need to apply yourself, and you need to be an excellent student.
Lewis does say being a student in war is not without its challenges. He talks about the three enemies. First, there is excitement, that constant consuming of our energies and of our interests. It’s as if we experience a constant adrenaline rush. Times of excitement can offset us. He speaks of frustrations over our circumstances. We wish we could change our circumstances. At one point Lewis writes, “Favorable conditions will never come.” But he also speaks of how war can elicit feelings of fear, bringing them to the surface. He says that ultimately war reminds us that we are afraid of death. Lewis reminds us that war makes death real to us. Though 100 percent of us will die, we sometimes ignore that fact.
Then at the very end of “Learning in War-Time” Lewis writes, “If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we look 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 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 think so still.”
“Learning in War-Time” reminds us of the ultimate reality, the divine reality.