In folklore, the widow was often a witch. I’m unsure whether the assumption was that, without a husband’s restraining influence, a woman was bound to fall into bad ways, or whether there is just something unsettling about a woman who is isolated from the mainstream. Despite living in the reputed witchcraft capital of Lewis, and being a youngish widow, however, I have somehow managed to resist the lure of the darkness thus far.
Gaelic tradition records an unspeakable ritual for summoning the Devil, used by such wicked people – in the taghairm, an unspecified, though considerable, quantity of cats would be roasted alive over a fire. Eventually, their howls would cause the great cat himself to appear to the one foolish enough to have requested his presence in the first place.
And we’ve all seen the Hammer Horror films, dancing women, chalk circles, blood and candles. Awkward, in a good Calvinist community, I’d have thought, buying tapers in bulk. However, the truth is more mundane and, simultaneously, a lot more terrifying. You need not draw a circle, strike a match, nor yet kidnap next-door’s tom. It suits Satan’s ego and his guile for you to believe that bringing him out is such a complex affair. It’s not, though, because he’s already here.
He is interested in everyone and prowls about, seeking whom he may devour. When I, not quite a year into my widowhood, professed faith publicly, I was told, ‘it’s now he’ll really be interested in you’. And this was true, though I already had experience of his torments. The Devil hates Christ and he hates His followers, and tries his utmost to do the impossible – pluck them back out of their Saviour’s grasp. Stealing their peace is his aim. His methods are varied, and sometimes quite surprising in their ingenuity.
One of the ways in which I sought comfort for my loss was in reading CS Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed‘, adapted from the journal he had kept following the death of his own wife, Joy Gresham. It went well at first and Lewis’ description of grief as being ‘so much like fear’ spoke to me. The death of a spouse leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable. Just the way the Devil likes it. And then, I read this:
‘How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat.It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing . . . But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured.’
I was horrified. Donnie had gone through so much pain and suffering – was Lewis right to suggest that somehow there was more refining and scouring to be done after death? Instead of thinking that he was out of pain, at rest, his cancer finally gone, I was now imagining him still being tested and tried. It tormented me, this idea that he still had no peace. Somehow, all these months of needles and blood tests, of tubes and scans, of endless waiting in rooms packed with white-faced patients and their terrified families, of bleak diagnoses and grim-voiced doctors, had not ended.
Grief IS like fear, Lewis was right about that. The same horrible ideas now took me over once again, just as they had with his illness. What processes, what tests would he be subjected to? How would these ‘stains’ be scoured? Would he be treated gently? Would he be frightened? And would he come through it?
Fortunately, this anguish didn’t last, and all because of one simple, wonderful fact: Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise‘. I remembered that God, who cannot behold sin, would admit no one who was unsanctified; and Christ would not make a promise that He did not keep.
When you lose someone close to you, people are wary about mentioning death. In church particularly, people were very solicitous if a sermon even touched on the subject. I love them for it, but I want them to know that it’s not necessary. CS Lewis’ idea about death made me sick with fear. Every human being who has loved another human being knows that emotion. What we hear about in church, though, that’s different: that’s the death of death; death defeated by a death – THE death. So defeated that after THE death came life again.
And that thing which CS Lewis could not believe: the leap straight into perfection and peace? Oh yes, that too. Only the Devil will tell you any different.