Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thoughts on "Surprised by Joy"

DJ at the Quiet Quill has started a C.S. Lewis book club, where she picks one of his books each month to discuss.  I've read quite a few of his books, but I want to read all of them because I think Lewis is one of the greatest Christian writers ever.

"Surprised by Joy" is C.S. Lewis' autobiography that chronicles his journey from atheism to Christianity (most his youth). He made a point early on in the book that most autobiographies he'd read himself, he found the childhood and early adult years to be the most interesting part, and when I stopped to think about it I tend to agree.
In the first chapter, I was immediately hooked when Lewis described an experience as a young child that I remember (very similarly) from my own childhood:

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 “Oh I desire too much” – and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.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.
This is his description of Joy and it is so true: after feeling it – and it only comes briefly - the world turns commonplace again. I can think of at least three instances (when I was 8, then again at 14, then at 16 or 17) where I encountered that stab of Joy so intensely that I wrote about it furiously in my diary. By age 20 or so, I had even come up with my own name for it – “Akina” – just as Lewis came up with a name for it, “the Northernness”, during his boyhood.

He associated it at first with nature, then with literature, at times with music, at other times with art. Yes! Yes! Yes! – I can think of music (Gymnopedie by Erik Satie) and art (several paintings by Maxfield Parrish) and books (many, but in particular the Lord of the Rings) that also gave me that momentary piercing Joy. And one time when I was alone wandering through an autumn forest, full of shadows and light, where the memory is still so vivid it almost gives me goosebumps.

I have been a follower of Jesus since I was 23 years old, and yet until I read “Surprised by Joy” I had not thought to see those moments of joy in my childhood and teenage years as pointers toward God, but this statement by Lewis cinched it for me:

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.

Lewis goes on to describe other encounters with Joy, and I love this part where 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.”
His story culminates with this paragraph:

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?
In my case, looking back to the years when I had little regard for God, I was more like the brother of the Prodigal son, disdaining his younger sibling who sinned foolishly and then came back home repentant. I thought such people were weak and ignorant. Oh my did I have a lot of pride (well, it’s still a struggle). But a couple years ago I posted my own story of and being humbled and discovering God.

CS Lewis uses the analogy of a chess game between himself and God throughout the book which was very apt, but the bulk of this book is more of an exploration of human character (in many fascinating forms), literature and philosophy than of Christianity. Right up until almost the very end, any discussion religion is mentioned only in a detached sense. Lewis makes many, MANY references to literature - very little with which I am familiar, but he framed all his literary discoveries so well that I want to study more classics now myself (especially George MacDonald).

What thrilled me throughout this book were those "a ha" moments that always accompany reading CS Lewis. No matter what point of life he is describing (and I have absolutely no experience with English boarding schools or World War I trenches) he is somehow able to communicate universal human foibles and frames of mind so perfectly (and so eloquently) that you feel like you could pop by his house and have a chat about life over tea as if you were old friends.

I could list a dozen other parts of this book that I loved and found some connection with to my life, as well. But I'm already notorious for too-long-blog-posts... oh, I can't resist. Here's a link to the long version of my ramblings about Surprised by Joy.

Here are some wonderful posts by book club members on this book: Checkmate and Surprised by Joy and other things as well.

Off to read the next book for the club: "A Grief Observed".


  1. I also enjoy CS Lewis but my husband even more so...this gives me a good idea of what to surprise him with for Valentine's Day!! and the neat thing is that I have a gift certificate for my local Christian bookstore...yay! I haven't seen this book before...thanks for your thots on it. My truest moment of complete JOY was when my oldest daughter was born and put onto my stomach for the first time.....and there have been SEVERAL times when I've experienced a deep sense of joy, and it was fleeting but oh so deep, and it has always been in the woods or on the summit of one of the mountains we hike. Maybe this is why my spiritual temperament is Naturalist.! happy weekend!! and thanks for your comments on my FFF post :)

  2. So glad you are joining in the discussion on Surprised by Joy and the C.S. Lewis Book Club. I agree that Lewis creates such a sense of comfortable, and comforting, familiarity, that the reader does feel we could just pop in for a cup of tea.

    Another good point you made is that of being redirected to other literature through Lewis's wonderful way of referencing such works. I, too, first read George MacDonald because of the way Lewis referred to him. My guess is that you will really enjoy reading MacDonald; I certainly have.

    Thank you for your reference to my blog on Lewis.
    God bless you - Marsha at Spots and Wrinkles.

  3. So excited to read your thoughts on his autobiography. I thought it was interesting too when he mentioned that his favorite part of most autobiographies are the early years. Like you, that has been my experience too.

    Lewis references so many works of literature that, as an English teacher, it makes me want to hide my face in shame. I was only familiar with a scant few that he mentioned. I haven't read George MacDonald either, but I'm going to have to now! :)

    I agree with your assessment too. Lewis' words have a way of transcending the particulars, such as the trenches of WWI, and expressing the universal truths of humanity in a way that we can all relate to.

    So glad you're reading Lewis' works with us! Can't wait until Feb. 1 when we discuss "A Grief Observed."