Surprised by Joy
Second on my list of C.S. Lewis books to read this summer was Surprised by Joy. I liked this book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I enjoyed reading about Lewis’s educational experiences in England during the first half of the 20th century, which gave me a glimpse of my own parents’ experiences. Here, living vicariously through Mr. Lewis, I entered the world of thought and literature. I envied his knowledge of the classics, and I mourned over our current education system which seems to get weaker with each generation.
Lewis describes the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, because an idea has awoken something within you, a curiosity we now satisfy with a quick google search and then move on. Easy access to information may make us more informed, but it has taken away the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of discovery. I remember that thrill as a flood of ideas come together, joining with other ideas and making new connections.
One thing I found interesting is the idea of remembering back to your childhood and trying to trace the origins of your thoughts and beliefs. I’m not sure I could do that with the same clarity Lewis seems to have, although reading this book brought back the distinct memory of the hours I spent in the same study carol on the 4th floor of the Gelman library of the George Washington University were I would study hidden among the art books, taking the occasional break to look at beautiful pictures. I recall the excitement I felt when one paper would lead to the next, quoting another paper I had already read, and I could anticipate the next thought or conclusion before it happened. I remember the joy of my thoughts jelling into coherent passages and my confidence growing as I could feel I had understood or conquered the subject.
But this is not meant to be a book of the pursuit of academic knowledge as much as I enjoyed it as such. It’s the story of Lewis’s coming to faith, of his experience with an emotion bigger than himself, which he describes as Joy. He describes this Joy as enormous bliss, as a desire, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Most, if not all, of his experiences with this Joy centered on some experience with nature, and much of the rest of his early life was spent in the attempt to recreate the feeling it gave him.
Nature and reading. I can relate to Lewis. There is a section of the book where he describes a walk on a wintery day, enjoying the cold and loneliness of the morning mist, knowing all the while that there is a pile of new books waiting to be read by the warmth of the fire. Bliss for Lewis: “it seemed to me that I had tasted Heaven then.” Oh, yes, Mr. Lewis, we could be friends.
Lewis chronicles his desertion of the Christian faith of his youth and then the long process by which God lured him back. I think there must be as many ways of luring as there are Christians. God used the music of Richard Wagner and Norse mythology to awaken something in Lewis, both of which I find strange, but then my experiences have been very different.
The midsection of the book continues the story of Lewis’ education which I found very interesting, but perhaps not particularly relevant to the topic. We read of the schools he attended and the tutors who taught him to think critically, to read the masters, and to write coherently. He details his choice of reading materials and the effects they had on him. As he puts it, “a young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” He discovers that his favorite authors, MacDonald, Chesterton, Johnson, Spenser, Milton, all of them, were Christian. And the authors who were not religious lacked depth, were too simple or “tinny”.
As the barriers to faith get knocked down by writings, friends, and experiences, Lewis encounters God in ways that echo my own experiences, so I will share his words. In the chapter entitled “Check”, Lewis describes a train ride reading a book by George MacDonald, an experience he describes as an encounter with holiness in which he feels a voice or a song of sirens. He writes “it was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me.”
At the end of the book, in the chapter “Check Mate”, there is a beautiful passage on his final surrender that I think describes my own feelings on the question of free choice or chosen-ness:
“The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice…. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some still clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor…. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; not threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset mean the incalculable. The choice appears to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. …. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite…. I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most I have ever done.”