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Posts tagged ‘Surprised by Joy’

A World Within A World

This week I’ve been mulling over a certain phrase. I’ve just finished the famous and wonderful autobiography of C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, and I learned that one of the things he used to say over and over in his classes was, “The inside is bigger than the outside.”

The mythical wardrobe from the Narnia books is a good example. The 4 children are playing hide and seek in the house on a rainy day and are having fun enough. This is the outside of their experience. But when one of them enters the wardrobe, a whole new and more expansive world opens up, that of Narnia. The inside of a closet became bigger than the outside.

Apparently, Lewis was fond of saying this often to his students. I would say it helps me understand why writing this blog has served to bring me to a deeper experience and understanding of God.

The things we all experience are like the “outside”. We drive to work and listen to the radio – news and weather reports, sports, music. We park our cars. We enter the work day and experience the usual dramas, challenges and tasks, boring or fun. We prepare and eat food. We interact with people. We experience setbacks. We take part in our recreations.

Looked at from this perspective, life is hum-drum, repetitive and a certain wonder that we had in childhood can start to escape us as we become habituated to routine.

The journals I used to fill up every year are a good example of this. For some 40 years, since Grade 5 in fact, I filled the pages with handwritten accounts of my days. Perhaps I wanted to grasp on to life after our family experienced the death of my sister Hildi in 1968.

If you were to take a peek into my closet, you might be surprised at the stack of them. They were filled with the chronicling of the outside of life, for the most part. I tried going deeper, and I’m sure I sometimes did, especially in more recent years when I began to write out daily prayers and hopes that I had. But for the most part, I wrote about what I “did” or experienced each day. Fun or difficult, it was like the children running around in the house before their great adventures began.

The life-changing question that Paul Patterson gave me, “Where was God in my day?”, has been like going into the inside of things. This year, I have stepped way back from journalling as it dawned on me that it was only serving to keep me skittering on the surface of my life. I still pop in occasionally to write of important events, like my father-in-law’s death, milestones in Joel’s life, or important movies, concerts and celebrations we’ve taken in. I began to realize that the real journal of my deeper thoughts was in my blogposts. I have not missed it, and I have grown to love blog reflections more and more. They serve to ground me every week in my deeper values in a way my journals never did.

Take this week for example. In the old days of journalling, I would have written (once I’d felt better) about the 1½ sick days I had to take, and the agonizing feelings of having the flu and a bad headache at the same time . I’d had written about the frustrations of body limitations and wondered why.

Besides venting, I’m really not sure how useful this account would have been to me or anyone in the long run. We all experience illness and frustrations. As I lay recovering in bed, a far more useful reflection point was asking that question, “Where is God in all this?” I was feeling useless and pretty down, and when I looked at things from this perspective, I had every reason to keep feeling useless and down. Even asking the question, however, gave me cause for hope as I remembered that God is in every experience.

And I did experience God. First in the love of Joel and Lyle, who themselves didn’t just see me as the zombie walking in the house. In their acts of kindness, they reminded me that I was worthy of love and not just the scorn I was feeling from my body. I experienced the same from the kindnesses of co-workers and friends.

I also experienced God as I kept hanging on to the thought, “The inside is bigger than the outside,” and I said it like a mantra. The outside (feeling sick) was certainly not giving me hope, but remembering that God had an “inside” to this kept me going. Every experience can be transformed by God for the healing of the world. “Nothing is ever wasted,” said a wise person.

And so I took consolation in this mysterious truth. God can use this difficult  experience to build compassion and empathy in me for others when they are sick. Sickness can turn our thoughts negative, and it helped me remember that there was more to life than my current overcast thoughts. God is here.

C.S. Lewis himself wrote about keeping a diary, and it illustrates well this distinction between the inside and the outside. In the last pages of Surprised by Joy, he wrote that when he turned from Atheism to believing in God, one of the benefits was that it cured him of the “time-wasting and foolish practice” of keeping a diary.

You put down each day what you think important; but of course you cannot each day see what will prove to have been important in the long run. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)

This was confirmed in him when he began to write out his autobiography. He began to read over his old diaries and he said they did not prove to be nearly as helpful as he had hoped. I’m afraid this will prove true of all the stacks of journals I’ve still kept in my closet!

Asking the question, “Where is God in my day?” is just like wondering what is most important in the long run, like Lewis wrote. What is more important than writing out the events of my days, I’m finding, is lifting up layer upon layer, and finding God’s way of seeing the world.

In the closing pages of the seventh and final Narnia book, The Last Battle, Lewis writes perfectly about all this, so I’ll end with it.

The further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said, “this is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below. … I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Something More

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.”

-St. Augustine

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.

The Time I Met C.S. Lewis

* Before I begin this week’s story, I am pleased to announce that this coming week, I will be posting a few experiences that my friends wrote about lately. *

Lately my thoughts have been drawn to a memory from the 70’s. It has bubbled up because our community is about to begin a new study of the great writer C.S.Lewis. The memory has made me grateful this week that God provided for me in such a rich way so many years ago.

I had several communities growing up – my cousins, my elementary school, the friends on my street and another is definitely my church community. I grew up in a large, Mennonite Brethren Church in North Kildonan (Winnipeg, Manitoba).

I have many good memories of that church, made by caring people who showed me God’s love. Being such a large place, you’d think someone could never also be lonely, but my teenage years there are marked by memories of solitude. There was an outer and an inner me in those days. The outer me had a blast in “Young People’s”, but there was an undercurrent of questions and ponderings that I can’t remember telling anyone about. Adolescence is usually a tricky time, but likely my experience was also influenced by my family’s grieving the death (from leukemia) of my oldest sister Hilde.

A knowledge of death and impermanence began to shape my thoughts after her death in 1968, and our family’s sadness brought some quietness to my normally chatty personality. Our family rarely talked about our loss, but I began to find myself wondering about things. Where was God? How could I experience God? Was I “saved” like they said I was after I “accepted Jesus”? Was I being “good enough” to get in to heaven? Sitting in church one Sunday morning, I thought I saw a pointing hand illuminated in the Exit sign above the door. Like God, this vision seemed mysterious and unexplainable. Was there a destiny the hand was pointing me toward? The Sunday preachers always seemed sure of answers, but for me their loud words never seemed to touch on these ineffable realities.

Thank God for libraries. Like modern day labyrinth or meditation walks, walking the aisles of a library can be a sacred experience. They let you meander and ponder with no pressure to assent to another person’s agenda. As I discovered the church library, my searching heart began to find space to breathe.

Our church’s library was in the basement across from the boiler room. The three spinster sisters who ran it didn’t mind a gangly blonde teenager hanging out among the books and they never grilled me with questions like I feared they would. Like a magnet, I became drawn to a certain shelf. If the church hadn’t burned down in 1998, I could still take you to the exact place along the basement wall where the books by C.S.Lewis were housed.

C.S. Lewis 1898 – 1963

To this day, I remain grateful that a conservative church allowed these books into the library. C.S.Lewis is considered one of the greatest 20th century Christian writers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Here was an author who wrote about mystery and who presented a Christian faith that was complex and nuanced and thoughtful. To be honest, I can’t tell you the name of any one book I actually read. Most likely I picked up Lewis’ most famous book Surprised By Joy, the book where he chronicles his coming to faith. I was surprised to hear someone describe himself as a “reluctant convert”. The book describes his early childhood and also recounts his leap from atheism to theism and then from theism to Christianity.

I think the thing I was most struck by was the depth and complexity with which Lewis wrote. In my opinion, he was and is a tremendous spokesman for the faith.  Our church seemed bent on answers and I felt like an outsider mired in questions as I was. Within the pages of Lewis’ books, I found a friend who was content to search and ponder. His coming to faith only happened at age 32, and I didn’t think he would have called it “accepting Jesus”. His faith account was more like God kept searching him out, not leaving him alone he conceded that there was a God.

One week ago, I was at a co-worker’s wedding. Sitting at the table with my co-workers, I had a conversation with a good friend who described her search for God with longing. She had been to a funeral a few months earlier and even in grief, the people at the funeral had a faith that seemed alive and real to her. “That’s what I want,” she told me with longing, “but I’m not doing anything about it.” I thought of God finding C.S.Lewis, or for that matter of God finding even me despite my many doubts and crooked paths over the years, and I told her, “Maybe you don’t need to worry, maybe it will find you.”

Not too many years later, when I was studying at University of Winnipeg, I took a children’s literature course and one of the Narnia books by C.S.Lewis was on the reading list. On my daily bus commute from the suburbs to the downtown campus, I began to discover this amazing series and marveled again at the breadth and wisdom of this man’s thought.

God has found me so many times in my life, and I always remain grateful that this sacred place was given to me during such a formative time of my life.

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