Sin has dulled your senses. Your skin feels thick, like the hide of a dragon. How can you possibly scrape all that off and become truly human again?
There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and his masters called him Scrubb. I cannot tell you how his friends spoke to him for he had none. So begins one of the most delightful books in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, featuring the unforgettably appalling Eustace, who liked animals — most especially when they were dead and pinned on cards.
I love Eustace, because as horrible as he is — pouting all the time, self-centered, delighting in tormenting his Pevensie cousins — he makes me chuckle because I can see a little bit of myself (and almost everyone I know) in him. He is funny because he is so utterly recognizable.
The richest part of his story is his conversion, which occurs in a moment is worked out slowly over the rest of his life. Like Eustace, my own conversion hasn't been quite as linear as I might have hoped — instead, it has been a fitful journey with steps forward and back, moments of grace and stumbling, courage and weakness.
Eustace's conversion involved a remarkable transformation — from beastly boy to dragon and then back to boy — only of an ultimately less beastly sort. For most people, conversion does not involve becoming a dragon first, but then again, most of us don't have an opportunity to sleep in a dragon's lair.
Eustace became a dragon after a sudden downpour forced him to take refuge in a cavern. While there, his thoughts followed their typical dragonish trajectory. He fell asleep and then woke with rough and bumpy scales all over himself. At first he tried to look on the bright side, imagining that his fierce new image would provoke fear in others and give him power. He liked the idea of being a Force To Be Reckoned With.
But he quickly realized that power is a poor compensation for friendship. Why is it that so often in life we're forced to chose between these things? Eustace reminds me of one of my childhood acquaintances. I've worried about him for years — he's even been popping up in my dreams — because he was so cruel. A few weeks ago, I ran into his aunt and asked how he was. She told me that he was doing really well as an attorney. But that wasn't what I was asking about. I didn't want to know about his career. I wanted to hear if he had become more human.
For Eustace — and for most of us — he had to face the ugly truth about himself before he could become more human:
He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.
As a dragon, Eustace began to see how difficult he had been. Compelled by his desire for companionship and understanding, he lugged himself back to the camp where his cousins and the other sailors were. After they realized that under all those layers of dragon skin he was actually Eustace, they begin to genuinely enjoy him, perhaps for the first time ever.
It was however, clear to everyone that Eustace's character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon ... after it became chilly as it sometimes did after the heavy rains, he was a comfort to everyone, for the whole party would come and sit with their backs against his sides to get well warmed and dried; and one puff of his fiery breath would light the most obstinate fire.
Eustace began to experience what it is really like to love and to be loved by others. He began to devote himself to concrete acts of kindness. As he poured his energy into caring for his friends, he forgot to think about himself constantly. A loving community does help balance out the pain of authentic self-knowledge. Perhaps this is this part of why 12 Step Programs tend to be successful. The awakening occurs in the context of a loving, transparent and supportive community.
These relationships protected Eustace from the despair that is never too far away, because it is, after all, "a dreary thing to be a dragon," just as it is a quite dreary thing to own up to our own weaknesses. It was so bad for Eustace that he could barely tolerate his own reflection in the mountain lake, and he needed to sneak off by himself to eat, because he was so ashamed of his rough ways.
But God does not inspire an awaking just so that we can see who we are — the knowledge is given to inspire transformation. God is light, but he doesn't shine his searing rays into our life just to expose our ugliness and sin. His light, like the sun coaxing new life out of seeds, seeks change. And this is what happened to Eustace the Dragon, whose awakening preceded encounter.
That night, a lion came to him and told him to undress. Eustace began to scratch at his skin, and it slipped off like a banana peel. As sweet as it was to be free of that scaly skin, he quickly discovered that beneath the top layer, there were more and more layers.
Anyone who has begun to try to break free of sinful patterns knows how discouraging this process can be. I often feel like I've conquered a vice in one area of my life only to see a fresh manifestation of that same vice in another. Like Eustace, I can begin to peel away layers but I cannot "undress myself" completely.
Here's Eustace, describing his encounter with the lion:
Then the lion said — but I don't know if it spoke — "You will have to let me undress you." I was afraid of his claws, but I can tell you, I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.... That 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'd ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.
Part of conversion is recognizing our own powerlessness to change ourselves. We must surrender. The change begins in a moment but we choose it again and again for the rest of our lives. Our ongoing surrender to grace is a slow walk — more turtle than hare. We are nudged along this difficult and discouraging path by hope, just like Eustace, who was always just "beginning to change."
It would be nice and fairly nearly true to say that "from that time forth Eustace was a different boy." To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
Copyright 2007 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.