As we make our way through the story of Jacob, I have been thinking about Jacob’s connection with CS Lewis. Let me explain. Jacob was the ancient mid-eastern patriarch of course, while Lewis was the sophisticated 20th century English man of letters. But such surface observations fail to see the deeper connection: that both men hungered for more than was easily accessible in their worlds. Both wanted something they couldn’t quite name. What unites them, and draws us in too, is that sense of longing.
CS Lewis is loved for his brilliant thinking, but perhaps more so for his sense of wonder, his imagination, for his love of the mythical and mysterious. Through his varied writings, Lewis found a way to picture the “more” of reality we cannot see but somehow feel. His personal story is an exploration of the relationship between thinking-man and searching-man, the relationship between the one who figures it out and the one who knows “it” can only be discovered as if by a gift of sight. We are helped to know that Lewis feels his way to faith as much as he thinks his way.
His first Christian work was The Pilgrim’s Regress, a recounting of his intellectual and spiritual journey set within a classical fictional journey motif. Because of its many obscure references, most contemporary readers struggle with the book, but it does have moments of real clarity. The chief character of Regress is John, who grows up in heavily rule-oriented religious house. One day, while still a boy, John goes out into the woods, and he has this experience:
There came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away... It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays... he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, “I know now what I want...” [CS Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933. pp. 33-34]
The vision is a feeling more than a thought, a feeling we carry but can’t name. In the vision of the island, we realize a picture of our deepest human longings: beauty, peace, joy, and every other true and good desire we have. There is nothing ugly or corrupted here, but if you were to follow the story of John in his Regress, you would see how easy it is to settle for cheap substitutes.
But substitutes don’t deny the real. And the longing was real. Lewis wrote often about longing. He said that our problem was not that we desired too much but that we desired too little. Our problem was that we were far too easily placated. He called this deeper longing by a German word, sehnsucht, which meant for him a longing that could not quite be named, an inconsolable longing for, well, we only know when we see it.
In time, Lewis was to re-embrace the Christian faith of his childhood, but only when that faith had been cast into a new light, when he was able to shift away from a system of hard and unyielding sternness to a faith which had caught a vision of future glory. Which begs the question for each of us: do we know anything of this better Christian faith? Have we caught a glimpse of God’s future, the bigger picture, the more real reality? Once that vision breaks in on us there is no going back.
In the most famous of Lewis’ Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), we enter the frozen land under the witch’s curse and power. Its a land where it is always winter and never Christmas. All seems very bleak indeed, except it is reported that the white stag has been seen in the forest. And that is evidence of the inevitable change that is coming. Yes, it was just a glimpse. And the story will continue to be long, with many twists and turns – but – once that white stag has been seen, even if for a moment, well that cannot be ignored or forgotten, can it?
And so, says the gospel, Christ has appeared. And that means that our human story, this long twisting tale, has a certain inevitable trajectory. For into the story of humanity’s search for life, a glimpse of a uniquely different life has been given to us. The Christian faith says that, in Jesus, God has shown something of himself and of our destiny. In Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection, life and immortality have come to light.
Have you caught a glimpse of that? Do you think it might change what you want?
- what do you know of these two sides of Christian experience: mere hard, stern morality? glorious life-altering beauty and love? (while morality is important, it doesn't save us, nor draw us forward into life)
- can you point to an “island vision” in your life?
- what peaks your imagination? your wonder? is it music, literature, the stories of people you know? nature? what?
I am always happy to hear your thoughts and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org