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In Lenten Lands

Tom Neven

He invariably wears his trousers tucked into his knee-high leather boots. He’s rarely without his Navy-blue seaman’s turtleneck sweater with a large silver cross hanging around his neck. A Greek-fisherman’s hat tops his head.

And while he might strike some as eccentric, he has in fact lived an eccentric life during his 56 years: gadabout, sheep farmer in Tasmania, radio DJ in the Australian outback and now abortion and grief counselor.

But perhaps he’s best known for being the son of Joy Davidman, the woman who captured the heart of C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s great Christian writers and apologists.

Douglas Gresham was born in New York City in November 1945 to William and Helen Joy Gresham. William Gresham was a fairly successful writer in his own right, with his novel Nightmare Alley being turned into a movie with the lead played by Tyrone Power. The money from this allowed the family to live comfortably in upstate New York, until tax troubles began to intrude. Douglas’ father was also a heavy drinker and violent drunk, once smashing a guitar into kindling when he couldn’t master a certain musical piece on it. Add to that his view of sexual morality—he saw nothing wrong with marital infidelity—and the marriage was bound to fall apart. Joy and William eventually divorced.

In the meantime a friend of Joy’s, an Episcopal priest, introduced her to the works of an English writer who was becoming known as a great explainer of the Christian faith. With questions piqued by Lewis’ writings, Joy wrote to Jack, as Lewis was known to his friends, and struck up a pen friendship.

“She found for the first time in her life, as also did Jack, someone of the opposite sex with whom she could have a conversation on even terms,” Douglas said.

And so the daughter of atheistic Jews who was raised in the Bronx came to know Christ as a result of Jack’s writings. Their pen friendship eventually led her to England to meet Jack at his home in Oxfordshire in 1952.

Joy moved to England with her sons, Douglas and David, in 1953. By then, Douglas had fallen in love with Jack’s works of fantasy and allegory, such as “Chronicles of Narnia.” “They were magic,” Douglas said. “They arrested me altogether, always have and still do. They’re something outside of the normal literature.”

But meeting the great writer for the first time was not the experience Douglas expected.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “It sounds strange, but here I was, 8 years old, straight out of America, going to meet the man who was on speaking terms with King Peter and Aslan the great lion of Narnia. At that age, I was immersed in Narnia emotionally. King Peter obviously wore silver chain mail and carried a sword and so on. I sort of expected Jack to be a stalwart, tall figure, possibly dressed in armor and carrying a sword. And of course, Jack was nothing like that at all. He was a stooped, balding, professorial gentleman, with very strutty clothes and nicotine-stained teeth.

“But,” he adds, “interestingly enough, even within the first hours of meeting him, the enormous vibrancy and vitality and charm and humor of his personality completely expunged any physical deficiencies that I might have seen in him.

“He was a very humorous man. That is what is missed in most people’s impressions of Jack. If Jack was in a room, there was laughter. If he was sitting by the bedside of someone dying of cancer, there was laughter. If he was talking to his colleagues, his peers, there was laughter.”

It was also immediately clear that Jack and Joy had developed a love for one another. Joy, in the meantime, started to complain of pain in her left hip, and during the ensuing illness Jack took in Joy and her family at his home near Oxford, The Kilns.

Douglas, who was very close to his mother, despaired of losing her. He went to a small churchyard near The Fins and, in a faltering way, asked God to save his mother. As he related it, it was the first time he ever felt the presence of God. “I’m emotionally face to face with the presence of Jesus Christ,” he said, remembering that visit. “But that didn’t make me a Christian, because, although I believed in God and I believed in Jesus, I didn’t want to submit to His authority.”

Joy recovered from her illness. But to compound matters, the British government was threatening to revoke Joy’s resident visa. So, according to some, Jack and Joy made a “marriage of convenience” in March 1956 so that Joy and family could stay in England. But Douglas knew Jack had been contemplating marriage to Joy years before the visa problems arose.

Jack and Joy were made for each other, and they lived a happy life at The Kilns. But illness continued to shadow Joy. Douglas was away at Lapley Grange, a boarding school in Wales, when on June 20, 1959, he was summoned home because his mother was deathly ill. Again, he went to the small churchyard. “I had begged God for [my mother’s recovery], and He had given it to me,” Douglas said.

“I also had the strangest feeling to ask for the miracle twice. It’s kind of presumptuous. And I’m not sure I was doing that entirely for the right motives. I felt at the time that, to be honest with myself, I really could exist without my mother. I was 14 years old. I just said, ‘Thy will be done’ and handed it over to Jesus. I think to be rudely honest with myself now, I guess by that stage I was almost waiting for her to die, almost hoping that she would. Because when you’ve spent four years living in constant terror and fear of something, you begin to wish that it would happen so that the fear would be over.”

Joy fought the illness for several months, but on July 14, 1961, she succumbed to cancer. [Web author’s comment: Apparently Neven has his facts off here. Most sources suggest that Joy died on July 13, 1960.]

Douglas went on with his life, having middling success at school and sent by Jack, against his will, to work on a farm in Somerset owned by Sir Edward Malet. Douglas was, by his own description, “a typically self-oriented, self-opinionated, boorish young fool.”

There Douglas learned farming and shepherding skills, but most important, he met Merrie, Sir Edward’s niece from Australia. They were married Feb. 2, 1967, and moved to Tasmania, where Douglas took up dairy farming.

“Things were pretty primitive,” he said. “We loved doing everything for ourselves. We loved being self-sufficient, growing all our own vegetables, killing our own meat, making our own bacon, all of those things. We were there for several years, and then we decided to have a little bit of rest in Australia. So we worked our way across Australia complete with children and dog with everything in the car and a caravan [house trailer]. We spent eight or nine years in western Australia, where I was soon established as a broadcaster and television and radio personality.”

Still, Douglas had not given his life to the Lord. “I put my wife through a lot of trouble,” he said. “I was a fairly unfaithful husband.”

His marriage troubles forced him to take a long look at himself. “Quite frankly, I was disgusted with what I discovered, which was that I was living my life based in arrogance and conceited pride. I wound up going to the local archdeacon of the Anglican Church and telling him that I needed to talk. Merrie had already become a Christian several years earlier. I committed my life to Christ right then and there. My whole life went through a 180-degree turn, changed radically and completely, and I’ve been living a different life ever since.”

Today, Douglas lives with his family near Dublin, Ireland, in an old manor house. He founded Rathvinden Ministries, named after the estate, where he has affiliated himself with the International Institute of Pregnancy Loss and Child Abuse Research and Recovery. “It is basically a group-therapy situation for people who specialize in patients whose problems are the result of either having been abused as children or from having lost pregnancies.

“We also provide a place for people who are in active ministry. People who work for the Lord usually work very hard for very little financial recompense and cannot afford to take a vacation. So priests and ministers and pastors who come to us with their families have a cost-free vacation at Rathvinden House in Ireland.”

Douglas has had no contact with his older brother in years. “David and I are about as different as two human beings can be and still belong to the same race. We were never close even as children. He became an orthodox Jew by persuasion as a teenager. He had already dabbled in Buddhism and Islam before that. And I have since become a committed Christian.”

Reflecting on his life, Douglas said, “My lifetime is kind of unique in that my upbringing spans two centuries and is now moving into a third. I was brought up by people who were stuck, if you like, in the 19th century. The people who had the most influence on me were all 19th century minds, 19th century habits. Then, of course, I was born into the 20th century and now, of course, I’m heading into the 21st. Really mind-blowing, in a way.”

Still strongly influenced by his mother, Douglas opens his autobiography, Lenten Lands, with the epitaph on her headstone:

Lenten Lands

Here the whole world
     (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

See also:

For further reading on this site, see Lewis, Tolkien, and Myth.


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