Updated: May 29, 2020
I wrote in my last reflection that my Christian faith first started to be formed, in my late teens, by "peak experiences" of transcendence, particularly in the natural world, and that this was supported by certain writers, like TS Eliot whose work I was studying for A Level English. This time I will describe that process further, taking you to what I consider the inner sanctum of this kind of thinking, which is found in a fairly obscure corner of CS Lewis' writings.
As I put it last time, it was “frost in the fields above the village, lamplight on a flagstone floor at the end of term" that started me on the Christian path. In fact, there was a carrot and a stick. If these peak experiences, the mystical feeling of one-ness with everything and of obscure longing were the carrot, the stick was an emerging Calvinist sense of “total depravity” and the need for redemption: quite the opposite feeling to one-ness. Then as now, I found it hard to choose between the mystic and the revivalist preacher.
I will return to the latter, I think more Protestant impulse in a future reflection on Kierkegaard. But for now, let's stay with mystical longing, which I think of as the more Catholic impulse, based in experience and having a slight flavour of pre-Christian paganism. Most of the great Christian mystics have been Catholics.
One of my obsessions as a sixth former, and then in the summer after A Levels and as a first year student, was the idea of wanting to merge with the frosty fields, or sunset, or other beauty that I encountered in nature. It was not enough to see, touch, smell, taste or hear it: I wanted to become a part of it in a way that the body and its boundaries made impossible. To be joined to it. After reading the opening of Wordworth's Prelude on the beach in Majorca I dived, enraptured, into the sea wishing to be joined to the coloured sea bed. The Romantic poets, and most of all Coleridge with his incantatory “Kubla Khan”, were obviously fellow travellers. And it also seemed to me that the nature spirits (Naiads, Dryads) and transformations in Ovid and the classical myths described the same longed for merger of a human consciousness with nature.
When three years later I became formally a Christian, I detected an element of this feeling infusing the work of the writer that everyone was recommending, CS Lewis. I liked the fact that respectable evangelicals (well, all but the very most respectable) liked Lewis and yet he was my guy, with his liking for and association with poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge and frosty village nights. This feeling was hinted at in both The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, which I read first, and more strongly present in his autobiography Surprised by Joy - where Lewis redefined the word “Joy" to describe a related experience.
“Joy” in Lewis’ new definition had not the normal sense of ebullience but instead referred to a feeling of longing, so intense that the desire itself was to be desired as soon as it had passed. Which was almost at once - for the feeling was always momentary and hard to define. All that you might say definitely was that you were at several removes from the longed for thing. You found yourself longing for the longing. But what was the thing ultimately longed for, the promised land? Something, perhaps, to do with nostalgia and childhood (connecting Lewis to Wordsworth with his "child is father of the man" idea); but not just any regular childhood experience. Rather, it seemed to involve far away places, gardens like Eden, that one had experienced briefly in blissful half-remembered episodes... before being exiled. This feeling pervades the Narnia books and also certain earlier works that had influenced Lewis - such as the stories of George MacDonald and one by HG Wells, The Door in the Wall.
Lewis said that the feeling of Joy could be evoked suddenly by a single line of poetry as much as by experiences of nature. As a young man, before his conversion, he would find it (without having then given it the name Joy) in Norse epics and what he called “the Northernness”: an atmosphere of pine forests, distant peaks and the aurora borealis. When he became a Christian, Lewis became what might be called a Romantic Christian: one still enthralled by this experience of desirable desire, but now wanting to connect it with the Christian idea of heaven. Lewis argued, in fact, that it was heaven that was the promised land to which these desires had been pointing all along. Because if all other ubiquitous human desires can be satisfied, then why not this one too?
Eventually I discovered the corner of Lewis' writing where this doctrine is expressed in its purest form. There is a sermon that he preached in Oxford in 1941 called “The Weight of Glory”. If what I have been describing resonates with you, you should read the sermon in full - you can do so here. In the key passage towards the end, I was amazed to find, Lewis (who had always seemed to me a kindred spirit) actually puts into words my own late teenage fantasy, not especially orthodox and rather mystical and pagan, to merge with beauty - and says that this is just what the Christian gospel promises us.
“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it in to ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves - that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace and power of which Nature is the image. [...] At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
Is this not an attractive gospel? That the Christian faith promises fulfilment of all the most powerful longings we have experienced, but have hardly been able to name, from our earliest childhood on. That the rush of desire we experience fleetingly in the mountains, for something that eludes and yet captivates us, is in fact a mere hint and foretaste of what Christians mean when they talk about heaven. That one day we shall be united with all this beauty - we shall get in.
I think it’s very attractive indeed!