VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER
Douglas Gresham’s Journey
By Christin Ditchfield
Often we expect or assume -- almost take it for granted -- that the children of famous and influential Christians will automatically follow in their parents’ footsteps. With such a godly heritage, how could they not? But the Scripture makes it clear that God has no grandchildren. Each one must find their own way to faith in Him. It’s certainly been true for Douglas Gresham.
As a young child, Douglas watched his mother, brilliant American novelist Joy Davidman, undertake an extraordinary spiritual journey -- “through the long tunnel which leads from angry atheism through bewildered agnosticism out into the huge dim cavern of admission of the existence of God, thence to emerge blinking and blinded by the full light of Christianity, that sudden revelation for which our human tongues have no words of description.” Mother and son were always very close.
Douglas’ stepfather, C.S. Lewis was a British professor of medieval literature, a world-famous author, poet, and lecturer. “Jack,” as his friends and family called him, had been instrumental in Joy’s conversion, having made a similar journey himself – leaving behind the atheism of his youth to become the greatest Christian apologist of the century.
His stepfather’s life had a great impact on Douglas. The little things spoke the loudest – his warmth, humor, sincerity, kindness. And of course, the practice of his faith.
“It was not uncommon for me to walk into a room to find Jack praying…” Gresham remembers. “He prayed while walking, he prayed while sitting in his chair, he would pray throughout the day. For a man like Jack, prayer eventually becomes a matter of conversation with Christ, more than supplication…You know, he never preached at me, never tried to push me in any religious direction, but if I had a question, he would take great pains to answer it as clearly as he could.”
Douglas’ own journey of faith would progress in steps and stages. At the age of eleven, his whole world came crashing down around him, when his mother was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doctors believed her death was imminent. One afternoon, Douglas was walking home from a visit to the hospital when he had an incredible experience that he would never forget. He had wandered in to the courtyard of the Holy Trinity Church, “a child alone, grieving and full of fear and self pity in a hostile world.” But as he slipped through the gate into the cemetery, Douglas was stunned by an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.
“Every leaf, tree and flower seemed to snap into sharp focus and glow with color, life and power, as if lit from within, and I was no longer alone. He was there. He had been all along, but now He made me to know it and know also that He was sharing my grief and understanding my fear… I went into the church and, kneeling at the altar rail, did what I had never done before. I prayed, not out loud; silently I begged that my mother be permitted to live. I prayed with every fiber of my being, mind, soul and body. After a short while, only a few seconds perhaps, I knew that my prayer had been granted…I left the church no longer alone, and comforted, secure in the knowledge that I had been heard, understood, and that my request had been granted. I was no longer afraid, no longer grieving. I knew that my mother would live.”
Joy did indeed make a miraculous recovery – living three more wonderful, beautiful happy years. But the dreaded cancer returned, and she was once again fighting for her life. Douglas felt that two miracles were more than he had a right to ask for or expect. He knew his mother was weary of battling the disease. This time he prayed only, “Thy will be done.” Not long afterward, cancer claimed Joy’s life.
The loss of his mother affected Douglas deeply. Without her, he felt alone and adrift. His teenage years were marked by aimlessness, a lack of purpose or direction. In his heart, there was a growing rebellion and resistance to authority. At the time, Douglas still lived with his stepfather. Lewis was kind to the boy, but preoccupied – and eventually consumed by – his own grief. Jack died only three years after his beloved wife.
As a young adult, Gresham determined he would live life on his own terms and be his own man. He would do whatever seemed good to him. The faith that had sustained him through the painful years of his childhood was now irrelevant to his daily life.
“I always believed in Jesus and God,” he explains, “But my problem was that I never wanted to submit my life to the authority of anyone but myself. It took me a long time to realize that I was not qualified to run it myself.”
Academia held no allure for Gresham; he found his niche in nature -- farming and agriculture. He also found a beautiful young woman with whom to share his life, Meredith Conan-Davies. Douglas and Merrie were married in 1967. They left Great Britain for Tasmania, Australia, where they bought a dairy farm and began raising a family of five children.
Douglas and Merrie shared a “wanderlust” that would take them on many extraordinary journeys over the next twenty years. Whenever they grew tired of being in one place, they packed the family in a caravan or trailer and criss-crossed the country. They loved living off the land and camping under the stars. To make ends meet, Douglas worked as a ranch hand, a construction worker, a welder. Then he took a job in broadcasting and became a noted radio and television personality, director of a theater company, and author of the critically-acclaimed book, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.
The Greshams were rich in adventure; they had a wealth of fascinating life experiences. But they were spiritually and emotionally empty. Merrie began searching for something more – and she found it in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Self-made, self-sufficient, self-assured, Douglas didn’t feel any need for God. He could manage life just fine on his own. In fact, he took great pride in rescuing others from their mishaps and mistakes.
It would take a series of humbling experiences – deeply personal failures – for him to acknowledge his own need of a Savior.
“I guess you could say that I am something of a slow learner in that regard. I am by nature someone who likes to help people – it’s the way God made me. The trouble is that I always thought that with my ‘superior intelligence’ I could figure out the best ways to help people all by myself. It turned out that this display of arrogance and conceit inevitably brought about a situation that went badly wrong and I would end up hurting a lot of people instead of helping. It brought me to take a long hard look at myself, and I had to confess that I was living my life based on arrogance, conceit, and pride.”
One day, he finally let go of it all and surrendered himself completely to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. His intellectual assent to a set of theological truths was transformed into a living, vibrant, personal faith. As Douglas says now, he’d have to write another book to tell the whole story. “Suffice it to say that I am a very different man in many ways than I was before, and now let Him work through me rather than trying to make Him work for me.”
In 1993, the Greshams began a new journey of an entirely different kind. They felt God calling them into full-time ministry in Ireland. There they purchased a home called Rathvinden House. Today, Rathvinden House is a refuge, a retreat, a shelter for healing and restoration. The Greshams provide grief counseling and group therapy for those emotionally devastated by childhood abuse or loss of pregnancy. They also host the families of Christian workers who are weary and worn out -- and could not otherwise afford a vacation.
“Our motivation is simply to serve and be available,” Douglas says. “The technique has been simply to offer ourselves to Christ, for Him to do whatever is His will for us. The ethos of our ministry is simply to put it entirely in His hands. It is up to the Holy Spirit to bring those people who He wants to have come here…When we began settling into and renovating Rathvinden House, we were just waiting to see what use He would put both the house and ourselves to. It’s an interesting way to live as we never really know what is going to happen next. I firmly believe that the most important thing for anyone wanting to be in Christian ministry is to determine the difference between what we want to do for Christ, and what He actually wants us to do for Him – and then do the latter! After all, He really does know what is best…for us, for the world, and indeed for the Universe.”
Douglas Gresham found his way. He now walks freely and fully in the godly heritage he received, living his life to the glory of God and in the service of others. In doing so, he has created a powerful legacy to pass on to his own children and grandchildren -- as each one embarks on his or her journey of faith.
Christin Ditchfield is the author of A Family Guide To Narnia: Biblical Truths In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. (Crossway Books, 2003)
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