Friday, January 21, 2011

Surprised by Joy, the Long Version

This is the long version of my musings on Surprised by Joy, the autobiograpy of C.S. Lewis' journey into spiritual awakening. I really debated whether to post this long version or not. It is over 2600 words, and my notes are very personal. But then I thought about how I would love to happen on someone else's take on the developments in Lewis's life, especially if they discovered similiar parallels in their own life.  So read this or skim this if you really love going long and deep. Otherwise, if you'd like a summary, please go to my short version.

In the first chapter, Lewis described his first few encounters with Joy, as a child, and when he found it in a children’s book it suddenly reminded me of the children's book that I read where I first encountered the same piercing stab of wonder, and a sort of sadness.
The memory of a memory: As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery… It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s enormous bliss of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but desire for what? “Oh I desire too much” – and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time, and in a certain sense everything else that ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

The second glimpse came through the Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible- how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawaken it. And in the experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

The third glimpse came through poetry. From Tegner’s Drapa “I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."

The quality common to the three experiences is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only in common with them; the face that anyone who has experienced it will want I again…. I doubt that anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
He found it in Squirrel Nutkin, and I found it in Felix Salten’s Bambi, which is nothing like the Disney movie, and is full of the bittersweet and many real scenes of suffering that I still remember to this day. I was 8 years old when I read it first and was surprised by how it moved me, then re-read it again many times, no doubt going back to try to find some elusive quality that tantalized me. There was quite a lot of death in that book, and sadness, all mingled with beauty and passion. I still remember the conversation of two leaves just before they fell from their tree into oblivion; his old friend the hare being attacked by a fox; the felling of the great old oak; the way that Bambi moves on after his mother’s death, simply accepting it (how could he?? my heart cried out!); the foolish vanity of one of Bambi’s friends who dies (in a rather gruesome description for a children’s book) at the hands of man, and finally the death of a man himself, and Bambi’s father explaining that there was one even greater than man. He never mentions God, but I wondered if that was what he was referring to. What else?

In Chapter 4, “I Broaden My Mind” – Lewis describes another occurrence that mirrored my own.

But the impression I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand such religions stood our own, the thousand and first, labeled True. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest. Why was it so differently treated? Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.
I remember feeling the same way at some point during my high school years. Why should Christianity stand out as the one truth faith among all the other religions? And as a young aspiring scientist, how could I believe in it, when it provided no truth and only a history of violence both to outsiders and dissension, often bloody, within its own ranks.

Then in Chapter 5 Lewis describes his “renaissance” –when he rediscovers Joy again during his boyhood at boarding school.

The authentic “Joy” had vanished from my life: so completely that not even the memory or the desire of it remained….Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pan, the inconsolable longing. This long winter broke up in a single moment. Spring is the inevitable image, but this was not gradual like Nature’s springs. It was if the Arctic itself, all the deep layers of secular ice, should change not in a week nor in an hour, instantly, into a landscape of grass and primroses and orchards in bloom, defined with bird songs and astir with running water. I can lay my hand on the very moment; there is hardly any fact I know so well, though I cannot date it…. My eye fell upon a headline and a picture, carelessly, expecting nothing. A moment later, as the poet says, “The sky had turned round.”

What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume….. Pure “Northerness” engulfed me, a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago… and with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss… at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire.
I remember being fascinated with my mother’s copy of Rackham’s illustrations from Wagner’s Ring, especially the one where Brunehilde rides her horse into the fire. But I don’t think the beginning of my Renaissance began until, after several false starts trying to read the Lord of the Rings and failing (it’s not like the Hobbit at all after the first couple chapters!) I finally got into the story at age 14 and was swept away by it. For the next year, every single entry in my journals made some sort of reference to the Lord of the Rings. It grabbed hold me and shook my very soul to the core though I could not exactly say why, but the way Lewis describes his “Northerness” rings true to how I remember feeling.

In Chapter 6, “Check”, Lewis goes on to describe Joy in more detail, and I love how he compares those seeking after that elusive feeling to the women seeking Jesus in his tomb after He has risen.

Only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else – whether a distant mountain, or the past, or the gods of Asgard – does the “thrill” arise. It is a by-product. Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer. If by any perverse askesis or the use of any drug it could be produced from within, it would at once be seen to be of no value. For take away the object, and what, after all, would be lift? – a whirl of images, a fluttering sensation, a momentary abstraction. … in my scheme of thought it is not blasphemous to compare the error which I was making with that error which the angle at the tomb rebuked when he said to the women, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, He is risen.”
This just might be my favorite part of "Surprised by Joy" - the poetry and wisdom of Lewis captured in sweet conciseness:
The comparison is of course between something of infinite moment and something very small; like comparison between the Sun and the Sun’s refection in a dewdrop. Indeed, in my view, very like, for I do not think the resemblance between the Christian and the merely imaginative experience is accidental. I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.
And finally, in Chapter 10, “Checkmate”, the culmination. Like Lewis, I did not like being “interfered” with and I wanted to call my soul my own. I was burdened with a belief in my own goodness and strength and when my world collapsed and I realized how little control I had, I also started to realize how much selfishness and meanness I harbored inside. I had been like the brother to the Prodigal son, disdaining the poor fools who sinned and then came crawling back home repentant. When I read the question “Can we be good without God?” in an article, I continued reading with the intent to debunk such foolishness, and finished it humbled and awed. Like Lewis writes – it was not a decision. It was like awakening from a long slumber. It was like being blind, and then suddenly seeing.

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that “spirit” differed in some way from “the God of popular religion.” My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, “I am the Lord; I am that I am; I am.”

Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not be “interfered with.” I had wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own.” I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight… in the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility that will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in… properly understood they plumb of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
At one point I disagree (strongly) with Lewis, but at least it is not a major point!

If Theism had done nothing else for me, it had cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.
I love reading my journal entries during the years when God was drawing me, and the first few years after I became a believer when I was learning the Bible and the principle of dying to self (still working on the application part of that). After that, my journaling did change and I find less interest going back and re-reading it, except in those instances when I was whining about something and now I can look back and see how God answered all my whining and worrying – it is a continual testimony to His provision.

In the very last chapter, Lewis brings up his theory about how other religions provide hints or prophecies of the truth which we see finally fulfilled through Jesus. I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but it is an intriguing idea.

The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, where has religion reached its maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled? … Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream. Where as the thing full grown? Or where was the awakening?

If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. Ad no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time… yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god – we are no longer polytheist – then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, man. This is not a “religion” nor a “philosophy”. It is the summing up and actuality of them all.
The ending surprised me, the way Lewis almost seems to discount Joy as no longer of “much importance.” But his analogy here is very apt: 
But what, in conclusion, of joy? …the old stab, the bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience… was only valuable as a pointer to something other and outer…. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” the whole party gathers around and stares. But when we have found the road and we are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. “We would be at Jerusalem.”
I love the very last sentence of Lewis' autobiography. It completely grounds him.

Not, of course, that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.


  1. Your personal reflections here truly emulate the ideas Lewis was expressing.

    I can totally relate to having a hard time with accessing "The Lord of the Rings" on my first few tries. I was probably an adolescent at the time, and I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. I couldn't get into it.

    I think I would have become an excellent replica of the prodigal's older brother myself - had it not been for a few of my own failings. Humility.

    I too thought it interesting that Lewis didn't think much of journal writing. I don't keep a journal, per se, but I do see how diaries and journals provide many people the opportunity to reflect and consider things deeply, and the ability to go back, sometimes even years later, to see how God responded to those old situations is both amazing and humbling. God truly does see.

    The ending surprised me also. The way JOY wooed him, but then once he met his Maker, the joy itself was no longer the 'thing' he desired.

    Your musings here provide heartfelt clarity. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading the next one!


  2. Interesting that both you and D.J. noted one of the same sentences that struck me - that Lewis decided that keeping a journal was a waste of time.

    I am not quite there - having kept a journal, off and on, since I was 17; but I surely journal a lot less since I began blogging.

    You did a very thorough examination of Surprised by Joy.
    I always find it fascinating how much "truth" brilliant intellectuals often find in children's literature, such as Lewis did in Potter's work.

    Looking forward to exchanging ideas through the book club. ...Marsha