This month I’m doing something a bit different. I’m sharing a reflection that I read a few years ago. It touched me deeply then and continues to do so each time I re-read it. I’m hopeful that at least some of you will also be touched as we enter this Advent season—a time of preparation, penance, and patience. This is a story of hope. It’s a longer read than most of my blogs but an easy read, and one that could produce much fruit for you. So relax, take a few moments, and let yourself sink into this story.
A Dragon’s Tale* by Marjorie Thompson
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence, and his schoolmasters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none… Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card…. Deep down he liked bossing and bullying; and though he was a puny little person who couldn’t have stood… in a fight, he knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time…
So begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Narnian Chronicle by C. S. Lewis. What follows is a story from that world – a story of lions and dragons, a story of transformation.
To begin with, Eustace Scrubb had no imagination and no patience with his cousins who did. He taunted and pestered them because they childishly believed in a land called Narnia, ruled by a lion named Aslan, whom no one in the world but the four of them had ever seen. Scrubb prided himself on being unsentimental, scientific, and cultured; others might have described him as rude, boring, and haughty. Having been raised on Plumptree’s Vitaminized Nerve Food, Scrubb’s tastes were, in fact, deplorably narrow. It took little to turn his delicate stomach and sheltered eyes. To be quite bald, Eustace was the world’s original “wimp.”
Imagine, then, the poor lad’s dismay when the “fictitious” land of Narnia suddenly became a living reality, and Scrubb found himself affected by the very Magic he had ridiculed with such disdain! I am sorry to report that when this took place, the boy’s already ungracious character became absolutely unbearable. He made out his cousins, and everyone else in Narnia, to be ogres; he refused to take responsibility for anything in the course of their adventures; he insisted on viewing himself as the only sane individual; and he expected exceptions to be made on his account alone – assuming that he always got the short end of the stick, no matter how civil, even generous, the others were to him. So there you have Eustace Clarence Scrubb, for better or worse – and mostly, I’m afraid, for worse.
As the story progresses, the adventurers’ ship survives a devastating storm and finds harbor on an unknown island. Eustace, unaccustomed to work, creeps off to take his ease while the others set to repairs. He manages to get thoroughly lost and ends up in the valley of a dragon! Now the dragon itself is scarcely a cause for alarm; Eustace comes upon the elderly creature just in time to watch it expire. Then the real adventure begins. A blinding rain drives Scrubb into the dragon’s cave; and there, as his eyes grow accustomed to the dark, Eustace realizes that the sharp objects he is sitting on are not rocks. They are crowns and rings and heavy necklaces – all gold and precious jewels!
Of course, you and I would know right away that a dragon’s cave is filled with treasure; but Eustace had never read the sort of books that tell you these things. Gazing at the sheer magnitude of riches, his eyes grew large and his hands grew itchy and his heart filled with desire. “They don’t have any taxes here,” he astutely observed. But he had no sooner slipped a heavy gold bracelet over his arm when fatigue overtook him. He fell asleep on the treasure heap, and when he awoke, he discovered to his utter horror that he himself had turned into a dragon! Lewis writes, “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, with greedy, dragonish thought in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”
Time out. Is sin a word you have trouble identifying with? I suppose most of us don’t really like to call ourselves “miserable sinners,” or sing and mean “a wretch like me.” I once knew a woman who told me, “I hate the prayer of confession in our worship service; I can never identify with all those awful things we say about ourselves. I’m not like that; I live a good life.”
Perhaps many of us feel this way. One thing seems clear to me: that sin results in a certain blindness to the truth of our condition – the condition of being alienated from God, from one another, and from our deeper self. Sin is not simply a matter of the wroungheadedness of particular thoughts or deeds. Sin is a deeper orientation of life from which all of us suffer. If we have trouble recognizing our basic brokenness, might it be that this difficulty itself is a sign of our disease?
Eustace saw himself as an intelligent and superior sort of person; others could see his tragic flaws more clearly. In effect, Eustace’s character was beastly all along, but he couldn’t recognize it until it got so inflated that it took visible form. Then he could see his beastliness reflected back to him.
What prevents us from seeing our tragic flaws? Certainly, we want to be perceived as good, as right, as intelligent, as attractive. We often feel as if we should be all these things at all times; so, whether we think we are or not, we expend a great deal of energy trying to prove to others and to ourselves that we are. These very human patterns have other names: pride, envy, anxiety, defensiveness, rationalization, and self-justification, to name just a few. Each has a way of blinding us to our real predicament. We all indulge in such protective illusions at one time or other, individually and as communities – even nations. Fortunately, there are mirrors around. Sometimes we catch our reflection and, for a moment, see ourselves as others see us.
When Eustace realizes that he has actually become a monster cut off from the human race, he begins to look back on his life with different eyes: “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 ever been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.”
When we recognize our inner distortions and see how they have cut us off from real relationships, we too discover a deep longing for human community. We often want to refashion our behavior to fit our changed perception and attitude. But at this point, most of us will find that the desire to change and the capacity to change are not evenly matched.
Paul speaks with hard-hitting honesty in Romans 7: “though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will… it is no longer I who am agent, but sin that has its lodging in me…”
I know what the old apostle is talking about. One of my weaknesses is procrastination. Suppose I have a major task ahead, and I promise myself I will start working on it early, both for quality and sanity’s sake. As the time approaches, I invariably find myself placing far less urgent tasks before the critical one – checking the mail, watering the plants, clearing off the desk. Any little excuse will suffice. I am aware of indulging my avoidance but can hardly resist the urge to put off the real work until pressure reaches a critical peak of discomfort.
Your “Achilles’ heel” may be different: perhaps overindulgence in food or TV; perhaps a habit of being sarcastic or critical despite a hundred self-administered lectures on biting your tongue. Each of us has at least a few areas where “willpower” just doesn’t carry enough voltage, no matter how we try to convince our actions to fall in line.
“Miserable creature that I am, who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” Paul’s anguished cry is born of just such human experience. But Paul has an answer for his own existential question. It is the same answer discovered by our young friend, Eustace – turned – dragon, who now wants nothing so desperately as to become himself again. Not only is he odious to himself; he is a burden to his Narnian friends who must take him with them on their continued voyage – and however will he fit into the ship?
At this critical point – when the desire to change is real, but the capacity is not – Eustace meets Aslan, the great lion, “Son of the Emperor over Sea,” who saved Narnia back in the days of the White Witch. Eustace does not know who Aslan is, but senses his authority, fears him dreadfully, and obeys without hesitation when the lion bids him follow.
Aslan leads Eustace a long way to a mountaintop garden, in whose center lies a wide well of pure, clear water. Eustace longs to bathe in it, but the lion first commands him to undress. Our dragon friend succeeds in tearing off his outer skin and scales, rather like a banana peel. But when he approaches the water, his reflection still reveals a dragon skin. Twice more he scratches off his rough and wrinkled suit, and twice again finds himself yet encased in the vestment of a beast.
Then Aslan speaks: “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace later recalled the experience in these words:
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff come off.
… Well, he peeled it right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobby looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch. Then he caught hold of me – I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything, but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and … I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I’d been turned into a boy again… After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed me.
Eustace Clarence Scrubb will tell you from experience that you cannot achieve your own inner transformation. We can neither take off the old skin of sin, nor re-dress ourselves in righteousness. That is why, in the words of one of our familiar hymns, we ask God to “re-clothe us in our rightful mind.” Our desire to change is a necessary preparation for the painful but wonderful process of being changed by God’s grace. When Christ strips us of our dragonish self, he goes much deeper than we do – right to the heart. Real change means giving up much of what we assume is natural to us. That’s why we cannot do it ourselves; we simply do not see how radical the surgery needs to be, and even if we did, we would be powerless to perform it. Yet the pain of this radical transformation quickly becomes joy as we see and feel genuine health emerging underneath.
Eustace found that he was a boy again, although a boy with a much-improved character. His old self was fast withering away; a new person, his true self, was now free to emerge. But if his encounter with Aslan marked a fundamental change of heart, it did not yet mean that Eustace was perfect. The end of his story is an apt reminder to each of us of the ongoing character of transformation:
It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that “from that time on 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 quite tiresome. But … the cure had begun.
It takes time for our new self in Christ to be fully realized. But if you have ever tried to change yourself and been disappointed; and if you have then given yourself over to the One whose love alone can transform us; and if you have seen even some part of your life turned around through the mystery of this encounter, then you, too, can be sure that the cure has begun. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory!
Prayer: Lord, thank you for loving us even when we are beastly; for your patience when we are tiresome and blind; for your stern yet tender love which longs to heal us from this painful disease called sin. Help us to see our need; to desire your touch; and to receive your transforming love, offered to us through Christ our Lord. We pray in his name. Amen.
* Article appeared in the March/April 1991 Weavings publication