“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” -C.S. Lewis
This week our community began the study of C.S. Lewis. “When have you experienced C.S. Lewis’ joy?” we were asked after watching an excellent video introducing his life and thought. This question has been playing in my thoughts all week and has been one of the ways I’ve seen God this week.
Joy was the most important and essential theme of Lewis’ life and writing. His autobiography is called Surprised By Joy. When he was a kid, he had an experience which became his first recognition of his deep inner longing for Joy. His brother Warren had found a biscuit tin lid, filled it with moss and then made it look like a toy-sized garden or forest by placing some twigs and flowers in the moss. Warren showed it to his younger brother and “Jack” (as Lewis was called) had a pang of joy. Germans call it Sehnsucht, which also means “longing”. Lewis wrote many years later that it was the most significant thing that had ever happened to him.
The tin lid creation was probably nothing much in a literal sense, but somehow for a few moments, Lewis had a window to God. For a few moments, that moss-filled biscuit tin became a picture of Paradise and awakened in Lewis an inexplicable desire. Remembering it throughout his life, it became a primary means by which God would draw him steadily to himself.
After watching the documentary which reenacted this experience last Wednesday night, the group of 15 or so of us began to talk about joy. Linda shared how as a kid, she had looked through a View Master and saw a 3-D picture of a path going into a forest. Most vivid to her was the light which played on the trees. She too had that pang of joy, of imagining herself walking down that vivid path, entering into a place that felt transcendent and joyful. “Often now when I’m in nature, I remember that picture in the View Master, and I’m reminded of that joy, that longing.”
Lyle talked about arriving home after a 6 week vacation with his parents when he was a young boy. The garden his mom planted was tiny when they left, but entering the garden upon arriving home, Lyle was shocked to discover a lush paradise with plants that seemed to be taller than he was. How had this transformation happened, he wondered. He was filled with wonder and awe, a memory which stayed with him all his life, and which he told us about when asked the question, “When have you experienced C.S. Lewis’ joy?”
I’m certain that we’ve all had experiences like this. Usually they are very brief moments. As soon as we begin to notice, they are over, and we are left with the memory, so powerful that it can stay with us all our lives, making us wonder about God. Even the most agnostic of us, if hard pressed to give proof that God exists, would begin to describe these experiences.
The experience I remembered was so tiny, it reminded me that it can be as common place as a biscuit tin. Children’s literature wasn’t a huge commodity in our house when I was growing up. Bible stories for kids and books of german poetry and stories were our fare. Among my favorites was one book of german poems and I remember looking at it often. One day I noticed a bird in one of the pictures that I had never seen in previous viewings. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. Seeing this gave me such pleasure that I pondered it for hours, savoring that moment of unexpected joy. The joy of a child is uncluttered and pure. Maybe it’s no surprise that as an adult, I’ve become an avid birdwatcher.
I’ve had a few other experiences like this. Walking into the choir loft one Sunday morning in the 70’s, I was lifted above the usual angst of teenage life when I heard the congregation singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. It felt like a window to God opened up as the song touched my very being. It lasted only a few seconds, but I’ve never forgotten it.
I also experienced this after my son Joel was born. It was Christmas Eve, 1990. Most people were asleep and the hospital was quiet. Looking out the window at the snow filled streets of Notre Dame Avenue from the Health Science Centre, I felt a deep awareness of God and a quiet and powerful sense of peace. Molecules seemed to be parting and I was seeing something deeper than my normal consciousness.
I’ve written before of my beloved university professor Carl Ridd, a brilliant and wise teacher of religious studies. He used to have a phrase that he repeated often. “Tumm Tee Tumm,” he would intone, describing the life of our normal consciousness. We often go through our day to day with eyes half shut, unaware really of life’s depths. Eating, sleeping, preparing and eating food, going to work, paying taxes, taking care of the kids – all the while forgetting that life is infinitely profound.
Experiences of transcendence such as Lewis described serve to awaken us, reminding us that there’s Something More to long for. Until the age of 32, Lewis was an atheist but the biscuit tin joy kept wiggling into his consciousness, reawakening in him a desire. He described Sehnsucht as “the inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what”.
“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead…the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
-C.S. Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Regress
As children, Linda looking through the View Master or Lyle staring in awe at the garden or myself marveling at the bird in the children’s book would not have known what this joy was all about. But all these years later, I’m beginning to get a hint. I know that my heart’s longing is being met in the peace of heart I’m discovering in God. It’s nothing I could describe with empirical truth to convince a skeptic. I just know that more and more, I understand the old song, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Nothing I else I have tried matches being found by God.
I’m found when I’m with my faith community – talking and reflecting on faith, singing, practicing with our music group, writing this blog. This weekend my father-in-law is passing away in a hospital in Medicine Hat and Lyle is there, sitting with his family. The prayers and love of our community carry us through this difficult time, assuring us that we’re not alone. It’s not a joy that is without pain and struggle, but I know I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
One of my favorite quotes says it best.
Oh God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Wherever you find yourself this week, may your experiences of joy lead you to the Something More of God, and may your heart find rest.