The Grey Bus to Heaven

The Great Divorce—Falsehoods tricked out as truths assail her in vain: she sees through the lie as if it were glass.

The Great Divorce, Sarah & the Tragedian (Chapters 12 & 13) by C.S. Lewis

Hell will not be allowed to hold Heaven hostage.
Joy will not be eternally subject to misery—
Hell cannot hold heaven hostage.

THE REASON why I asked if there were another river was this. All down one long aisle of the forest the under-sides of the leafy branches had begun to tremble with dancing light; and on earth I knew nothing so likely to produce this appearance as the reflected lights cast upward by moving water. A few moments later I realized my mistake. Some kind of procession was approaching us, and the light came from the persons who composed it.

First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers—soundlessly falling, lightly drifting flowers, though by the standards of the ghost-world each petal would have weighed a hundred-weight and their fall would have been like the crashing of boulders. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.

But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

“Is it? … is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be … well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

“And who are these gigantic people . . . look! They’re like emeralds . . . who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?”

Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand livened angels lackey her,”

So dear to heav’n is saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
And in clear dream and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft converse with heav’nly habitants
Begin to cast a beam on th’ outward shape.

Comus, John Milton, Line 453

“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”

They are her sons and daughters.” “She must have had a very large family, Sir.” “Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”

“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?” “No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”

“And how … but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat—two cats—dozens of cats. And all those dogs . . . why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.” “They are her beasts.” “Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.” I looked at my Teacher in amazement. “Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.

But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

While we spoke the Lady was steadily advancing towards us, but it was not at us she looked. Following the direction of her eyes, I turned and saw an oddly-shaped phantom approaching. Or rather two phantoms: a great tall Ghost, horribly thin and shaky, who seemed to be leading on a chain another Ghost no bigger than an organ-grinder’s monkey. The taller Ghost wore a soft black hat, and he reminded me of something that my memory could not quite recover. Then, when he had come within a few feet of the Lady he spread out his lean, shaky hand flat on his chest with the fingers wide apart, and exclaimed in a hollow voice, “At last!” All at once I realized what it was that he had put me in mind of. He was like a seedy actor of the old school.

The dwarfish figure that held the chain in its hand and the theatrical figure that wore the collar round its neck.

“Darling! At last!” said the Lady. “Good Heavens!” thought I. “Surely she can’t—,” and then I noticed two things. In the first place, I noticed that the little Ghost was not being led by the big one. It was the dwarfish figure that held the chain in its hand and the theatrical figure that wore the collar round its neck. In the second place, I noticed that the Lady was looking solely at the dwarf Ghost. She seemed to think it was the Dwarf who had addressed her, or else she was deliberately ignoring the other. On the poor dwarf she turned her eyes. Love shone not from her face only, but from all her limbs, as if it were some liquid in which she had just been bathing. Then, to my dismay she came nearer. She stooped down and kissed the Dwarf. It made one shudder to see her in such close contact with that cold, damp, shrunken thing. But she did not shudder.

“Frank,” she said, “before anything else, forgive me. For all I ever did wrong and for all I did not do right since the first day we met, I ask your pardon.”

I looked properly at the Dwarf for the first time now: or perhaps, when he received her kiss he became a little more visible. One could just make out the sort of face he must have had when he was a man: a little, oval, freckled face with a weak chin and a tiny wisp of unsuccessful moustache. He gave her a glance, not a full look. He was watching the Tragedian out of the corner of his eyes. Then he gave a jerk to the chain: and it was the Tragedian, not he, who answered the Lady.

“There, there,” said the Tragedian. “We’ll say no more about it. We all make mistakes.” With the words there came over his features a ghastly contortion which, I think, was meant for an indulgently playful smile. “We’ll say no more,” he continued. “It’s not myself I’m thinking about. It is you. That is what has been continually on my mind—all these years. The thought of you—you here alone, breaking your heart about me.”

The Great Divorce, The Victim (Chapters 12 & 13)

“But now,” said the Lady to the Dwarf, “you can set all that aside. Never think like that again. It is all over.”

Her beauty brightened so that I could hardly see anything else, and under that sweet compulsion the Dwarf really looked at her for the first time. For a second I thought he was growing more like a man. He opened his mouth. He himself was going to speak this time. But oh, the disappointment when the words came!

“You missed me?” he croaked in a small, bleating voice.

Yet even then she was not taken aback. Still the love and courtesy flowed from her.

“Dear, you will understand about that very soon,” she said. “But today—.”

What happened next gave me a shock. The Dwarf and the Tragedian spoke in unison, not to her but to one another. “You’ll notice,” they warned one another, “she hasn’t answered our question.” I realised then that they were one person, or rather that both were the remains of what had once been a person. The Dwarf again rattled the chain.

“You missed me?” said the Tragedian to the Lady, throwing a dreadful theatrical tremor into his voice.

“Dear friend,” said the Lady, still attending exclusively to the Dwarf, “you may be happy about that and about everything else. Forget all about it for ever.”

And really, for a moment, I thought the Dwarf was going to obey: partly because the outlines of his face became a little clearer, and partly because the invitation to all joy, singing out of her whole being like a bird’s song on an April evening, seemed to me such that no creature could resist it.

Then he hesitated. And then—once more he and his accomplice spoke in unison.

“Of course it would be rather fine and magnanimous not to press the point,” they said to one another. “But can we be sure she’d notice? We’ve done these sort of things before. There was the time we let her have the last stamp in the house to write to her mother and said nothing although she had known we wanted to write a letter ourself. We’d thought she’d remember and see how unselfish we’d been. But she never did. And there was the time . . . oh, lots and lots of times!” So the Dwarf gave a shake to the chain and—.

“I can’t forget it,” cried the Tragedian. “And I won’t forget it, either. I could forgive them all they’ve done to me. But for your miseries—.”

“Oh, don’t you understand?” said the Lady. “There are no miseries here.”

“Do you mean to say,” answered the Dwarf, as if this new idea had made him quite forget the Tragedian for a moment, “do you mean to say you’ve been happy?”

“Didn’t you want me to be? But no matter. Want it now. Or don’t think about it at all.”

The Dwarf blinked at her. One could see an unheard-of idea trying to enter his little mind: one could see even that there was for him some sweetness in it. For a second he had almost let the chain go: then, as if it were his life-line, he clutched it once more.

“Look here,” said the Tragedian. “We’ve got to face this.” He was using his “manly” bullying tone this time: the one for bringing women to their senses.

“Darling,” said the Lady to the Dwarf, “there’s nothing to face. You don’t want me to have been miserable for misery’s sake. You only think I must have been if I loved you. But if you’ll only wait you’ll see that isn’t so.”

“Love!” said the Tragedian striking his forehead with his hand: then, a few notes deeper, “Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?”

“How should I not?” said the Lady. “I am in love. In love, do you understand? Yes, now I love truly.”

“You mean,” said the Tragedian, “you mean —you did not love me truly in the old days?”

“Only in a poor sort of way,” she answered. “I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.”

“And now!” said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. “Now, you need me no more?” “But of course not!” said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.

“What needs could I have,” she said, “now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.”

But the Tragedian was still striking attitudes.

“She needs me no more—no more. No more!’ he said in a choking voice to no one in particular. “Would to God,” he continued, but he was now pronouncing it Gud—”Would to God I had seen her lying dead at my feet before I heard those words. Lying dead at my feet. Lying dead at my feet.”

I do not know how long the creature intended to go on repeating the phrase, for the Lady put an end to that. “Frank! Frank!” she cried in a voice that made the whole wood ring. “Look at me. Look at me. What are you doing with that great, ugly doll? Let go of the chain. Send it away. It is you I want. Don’t you see what nonsense it’s talking?” Merriment danced in her eyes. She was sharing a joke with the Dwarf, right over the head of the Tragedian. Something not at all unlike a smile struggled to appear on the Dwarfs face. For he was looking at her now. Her laughter was past his first defenses. He was struggling hard to keep it out, but already with imperfect success. Against his will, he was even growing a little bigger. “Oh, you great goose,” said she. “What is the good of talking like that here? You know as well as I do that you did see me lying dead years and years ago. Not ‘at your feet,’ of course, but on a bed in a nursing home. A very good nursing home it was too. Matron would never have dreamed of leaving bodies lying about the floor! It’s ridiculous for that doll to try to be impressive about death here. It just won’t work.”

No people find each other more absurd than lovers.

I DO not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy. For he had almost been overcome. Somewhere, incalculable ages ago, there must have been gleams of humour and reason in him. For one moment, while she looked at him in her love and mirth, he saw the absurdity of the Tragedian. For one moment he did not at all misunderstand her laughter: he too must once have known that no people find each other more absurd than lovers. But the light that reached him, reached him against his will. This was not the meeting he had pictured; he would not accept it. Once more he clutched at his death-line, and at once the Tragedian spoke. “You dare to laugh at it!” it stormed. “To my face? And this is my reward. Very well. It is fortunate that you give yourself no concern about my fate. Otherwise you might be sorry afterwards to think that you had driven me back to Hell. What? Do you think I’d stay now? Thank you. I believe I’m fairly quick at recognizing where I’m not wanted. ‘Not needed’ was the exact expression, if I remember rightly.”

From this time on the Dwarf never spoke again: but still the Lady addressed it.

“Dear, no one sends you back. Here is all joy. Everything bids you stay.” But the Dwarf was growing smaller even while she spoke.

“Yes,” said the Tragedian. “On terms you might offer to a dog. I happen to have some self-respect left, and I see that my going will make no difference to you. It is nothing to you that I go back to the cold and the gloom, the lonely, lonely streets—.”

“Don’t, don’t Frank,” said the Lady. “Don’t let it talk like that.” But the Dwarf was now so small that she had dropped on her knees to speak to it. The Tragedian caught her words greedily as a dog catches a bone.

“Ah, you can’t bear to hear it!” he shouted with miserable triumph. “That was always the way. You must be sheltered. Grim realities must be kept out of your sight. You who can be happy without me, forgetting me! You don’t want even to hear of my sufferings. You say, don’t. Don’t tell you. Don’t make you unhappy. Don’t break in on your sheltered, self-centred little heaven. And this is the reward—.”

She stooped still lower to speak to the Dwarf which was now a figure no bigger than a kitten, hanging on to the end of the chain with his feet off the ground.

“That wasn’t why I said. Don’t,” she answered. “I meant, stop acting. It’s no good. He is killing you. Let go of that chain. Even now.”

“Acting,” screamed the Tragedian. “What do you mean?”

The Dwarf was now so small that I could not distinguish him from the chain to which he was clinging. And now for the first time I could not be certain whether the Lady was addressing him or the Tragedian.

“Quick,” she said. “There is still time. Stop it. Stop it at once.”

“Quick,” she said. “There is still time. Stop it. Stop it at once.”

“Stop what?”

Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery.

“Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see, I know now. Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic . . . because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, ‘I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.’ You used your pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end. And afterwards, when we were married . . . oh, it doesn’t matter, if only you will stop it.”

Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.

“And that,” said the Tragedian, “that is all you have understood of me, after all these years.” I don’t know what had become of the Dwarf Ghost by now. Perhaps it was climbing up the chain like an insect: perhaps it was somehow absorbed into the chain.

“No, Frank, not here,” said the Lady. “Listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness.

Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?”

“Love? How dare you use that sacred word?” said the Tragedian. At the same moment he gathered up the chain which had now for some time been swinging uselessly at his side, and somehow disposed of it. I am not quite sure, but I think he swallowed it. Then for the first time it became clear that the Lady saw and addressed him only.

“Where is Frank?” she said. “And who are you, Sir? I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”

“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place, and a brown bird went hopping past her, bending with its light feet the grasses I could not bend. Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:

“The Happy three is her home:
nothing can trouble her joy.
She is the bird that evades every net:
the wild deer that leaps every pitfall.
Like the mother bird to its chickens or a shield to the arm ‘d knight:
so is the Lord to her mind, in His unchanging lucidity.
Bogies will not scare her in the dark:
bullets will not frighten her in the day.
Falsehoods tricked out as truths assail her in vain:
she sees through the lie as if it were glass.
The invisible germ will not harm her:
nor yet the glittering sun-stroke.
A thousand fail to solve the problem,
ten thousand choose the wrong turning:
but she passes safely rough.
He details immortal gods to attend her:
upon every road where she must travel.
They take her hand at hard places:
she will not stub her toes in the dark.
She may walk among Lions and rattlesnakes:
among dinosaurs and nurseries of lionets.
He fills her brim full with immensity of life:
he leads her to see the world’s desire.”

“And yet. . . and yet… said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, “even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”

“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.”

“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.”

“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”

“What then?”

“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”

“Ye see it does not.”

“I feel in a way that it ought to.”

“That sounds very merciful:
but see what lurks behind it.”

“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”

“What?”

“The demand of the loveless
and the self-imprisoned
that they should be allowed
to blackmail the universe:
that till they consent to be happy
(on their own terms)
no one else shall taste joy:
that theirs should be the final power;
that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

“I don’t know what I want, Sir.”

Either the day must come
when joy prevails
and all the makers of misery
are no longer able to infect it:
or else for ever and ever
the makers of misery
can destroy in others the happiness
they reject for themselves.

“Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”

“But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”

“But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?”

“Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of pity, the pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.”

“And what is the other kind—the action?”

“It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.”

“You say it will go down to the lowest, Sir. But she didn’t go down with him to Hell. She didn’t even see him off by the bus.”

“Where would ye have had her go?”

“Why, where we all came from by that bus. The big gulf, beyond the edge of the cliff. Over there. You can’t see it from here, but you must know the place I mean.”

My Teacher gave a curious smile. “Look,” he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

“I cannot be certain,” he said, “that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.”

“But—but,” I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. “I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.”

“Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.”

“Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?”

“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”

“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”

“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.” “I see,” said I at last. “She couldn’t fit into Hell.”

He nodded. “There’s not room for her,” he said. “Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.”

“And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—
like Alice, you know.”

“And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.”

“Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”

“Then no one can ever reach them?”

“Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathize with a horse but a horse cannot sympathize with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”

“And will He ever do so again?”

“It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

“And some hear him?”

“Aye.”

“In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”

“Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

“Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

“No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. Lor every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?” .

The Lord said we were gods.
How long could ye bear to look
(without Time’s lens)
on the greatness of your own soul
and the eternal reality of her choice?

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