An Excerpt and Reflection: On Dragon Skin

Please bear with me as I share a longer excerpt from my favorite book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. It has always moved me, but this past week, I have felt extra drawn to it. Before I say more on that, here is the excerpt:

“I won’t tell you how I became a—a dragon till I can tell the others and get it all over,” said Eustace. “By the way, I didn’t even know it was a dragon till I heard you all using the word when I turned up here the other morning. I want to tell you how I stopped being one.”

“Fire ahead,” said Edmund.

“Well, last night I was more miserable than ever. And that beastly arm-ring was hurting like anything—”

“Is that all right now?”

Eustace laughed—a different laugh from any Edmund had heard him give before—and slipped the bracelet easily off his arm. “There it is,” he said, “and anyone who likes can have it as far as I’m concerned. Well, as I say, I was lying awake and wondering what on earth would become of me. And then—but, mind you, it may have all been a dream. I don’t know.”

“Go on,” said Edmund, with considerable patience.

“Well, anyway, I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it— if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”

“You mean it spoke?”

“I don’t know. Now that you mention it, I don’t think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden—trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.

“I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells—like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.

“I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to et out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

“The 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, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The 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’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff 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 knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.

“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me—”

“Dressed you. With his paws?”

“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes—the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”

“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.

“Why not?”

“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been—well, un-dragoned, for another.”

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

***

I have been a dragon for many years. I’ve been angry, cynical, skeptical, hurt, and apathetic about faith, God, Christians, and the church. I was content to be so. Many of my friends were in the same boat, so it seemed natural, and at times, even laudable. I grew up in a very conservative Evangelical family and church, and went to a college in the same vein. It was towards the end of college that I began to come that way, and it has continued through my entire seminary experience. I had a lot of doubts and questions, and carried them as my proverbial cross, but with a source of pride and an unrelenting grip. I would become defensive and almost hostile towards anyone who suggested I was perhaps a little too cynical, or—God forbid!—I should try going to church again.

In the last year, I realized just how unhappy I really was, and above all, angry. I didn’t want to live in anger anymore. I wanted this “pain in my arm” that Eustace had, gone. I sought out a professor I admired, and he provided some useful and helpful advice, and I felt myself heading down what I saw as a very long path towards healing and recovery.

I met a few astounding people, and I grew into relationships where I was being challenged to change and grow, and pursue this healing I desired. But while I appreciated—and wanted—their help, I felt it was all going too fast. I insisted on doing it at my pace, in my way. I was a little more open to hearing about God and understanding what it meant to be a Christian, and while I had started to attend a church service here and there, the pain in my arm was still deep.

Just two weeks ago, I read this excerpt out loud to someone, and I began crying within a minute of beginning. I knew that my attempts at growth, my small steps and slight willingness to be more open, was only me trying to peel of the skin by myself. I could step back and see all my skins that I had shed, and I was really proud of them. But I was still a dragon. I knew I needed it to be ripped off of me, but I wanted it. 

Oh, careless wishful thinking! It has been ripped; I have been ripped open. Circumstances outside of my control and my desires have forced this upon me. I am still very fresh and raw from it; I may be for some time. Unlike Eustace, I did not lie down on my back and allow it to happen willingly; I tried everything I could to stop it, in fact. But that does not mean that I cannot now willingly allow the lion to dress me in new clothes. 

I went on a retreat this weekend—a spiritual retreat. Talk about outside my comfort zone! But I chose to be open to it, and to try to hear words of comfort. If I’m being completely honest, I was hoping to hear from God. I don’t know what that sounds/looks/feels like; I can’t say I’ve ever experienced it. But I was desperate for new clothes. 

I don’t know quite what happened, but something did, that much I know for sure. I felt comfort. I felt peace. I felt strong, even. Or, stronger. I felt like I was able to read things that I’ve read dozens, almost a hundred times, and see and understand them with new eyes and ears. There was something inside of me that awoke, and was anxious to completely shed the dragon skin. 

I shall end with just a few more lines from that chapter that describe exactly how I’m feeling after all of this. 

“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 tiresom. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”

I don’t know if I can say after only a week that I am a different person. But I am beginning to be. My cure is beginning, and my prayer and intent is for it to continue on, until I can say that I am a different person. 

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