I met Lydia at my Collegeville workshop in July. She was a pleasure to meet and hang out with, and the stories of her life (growing up in the Catholic Worker house in Detroit) and her current work as a water activist were so inspiring. Her writing is amazingly evocative, filled both with a sense of activism and a deep lyricism. I too love the Narnia books, and for me they are so tied to family as well. I want to honor the richness of this essay by telling you it would be best if you find a quiet space to read it and be prepared to be moved: when Lydia writes about her mother there is something deep happening. I am so grateful for her words here, and am honored to host them.
Love Story to Narnia
by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Frustrated he said, “Well what would you do if you were trying to convert someone?” He had been following my mom around campus for months trying to convert her to be a Crusader for Christ by following the 5 spiritual laws of conversation. Without needing a minute to think about it, she said “I would ask them to read the Chronicles of Narnia and then invite them to talk about it.”
She was raised on those stories, traveling Europe with her parents. She read them aloud in the little chapel on the hillside in Taize, France while the monks chanted prayers. On the Queen Mary, she carried her small metal Reepacheep sword around the decks. Narnia came alive in her as her sense of imagination, adventure, and wildness grew.
That deep magic found its way into our home. Tucked under the covers, I feel her hand on my back and her voice carrying the pages into my own dreams. We were a family who craved winter, to walk through the snow and trees imagining being in Narnia where the animals and trees are alive with spirit and speech. It was a tale and a land that nurtured my love of the seasons, honored the animals, instilled a sense of hope and faith against all odds, trusted in the unseen sacred spirit around us, and taught me an unfaltering belief in resurrection.
At twelve, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Given six months to live, she miraculously lived for seven and a half years. It was a season in my life marked with surgeries, seizures, and long hospitals stays. On the times when I would sit with my mom waiting for her to regain consciousness, I knew there was only one thing I needed to bring. Chronicles. We read those stories over and over from one hospital bed to another.
In the final months of her life, my dad took to reading her The Last Battle (the seventh and last book). On December 30, the night before she died, my sister Lucy (a name not unrelated to Narnia I believe) and I crawled into the hospital bed that lay beside our Christmas tree in our living room. We tucked ourselves under her arm, as my dad read the final chapter out loud to us all. He read the final words as we all clung to that moment with warm tears hanging on our cheeks.
“And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Narnia had woven its way through my childhood with a sense of mystery, kept me company through my teenage years beside hospital beds, and now at 19 years old it led me deeper into my own grief. When we closed her casket, I placed a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her hands. I held onto a deep sense of knowing that when I read those books throughout my life, I would continue to meet her on those pages.
At her Memorial Service, I read about the sisters, Lucy and Susan, caring for Aslan’s body as we cared for my mom’s washing them both with our tears. A couple years later, in a moment of numbness and loneliness, I found my way to that little chapel in Taize. I curled up in a corner leaning against the cold stone and found the courage to open the page and speak the words aloud. We buried my mom’s ashes up in the thumb of Michigan in a patch of tall pines she loved. The only thing that marks the spot is a lamppost. A young girl and her grandmother wandered into the woods and finding the lamppost, the girl cried out “We have found Narnia!” Indeed they had.
To be clear, there are also many problematic pieces of the stories as it is rich with patriarchy, warfare, and blatant atonement theology. None of that is to be ignored or excused. But for me, they are the stories that wove through my life holding a sense of home, mystery, and awe. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter what the books were, but that they were.
As an adult, in moments when my belief in God or heaven are challenged or the reality and possibility of building toward the Beloved Community, I find myself thinking of Puddleglum from The Silver Chair. He is a lovable, pessimistic, Debbie Downer, dreary, pain-in-the-butt, but completely loyal froglike friend. Towards the end of the book, him and his companions have been captured and taken to an underground world and tortured into believing that there is no world above, no Narnia, no Aslan. In an incredible act of faith that breaks the spell, Puddleglum cries out “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” Amen.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is an activist, writer, and mother in Detroit, MI. She is part of the Jeanie Wylie Community, focused on urban agriculture, immigrant justice, and nonviolence. She works for Word and World- an experiment in alternative theological education bridging the gap between the seminary, the sanctuary and the street.
Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series: