Beyond Joy

Posted by on Oct 26, 2011

I have long been enamored by C.S. Lewis’ discussion of joy, his technical term for that longing we feel for something more than this life can deliver. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he says it’s the theme of his entire life. In his classic essay, The Weight of Glory, he describes this “lifelong nostalgia” as a “longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside” and concludes that it is “no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

His most rhapsodic description of joy comes earlier in that same essay where he says, “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

What I had forgotten about Lewis’ experience of joy was how it all ceased to hold such a central part of his life once he became a Christian. In a recent rereading of Surprised by Joy, I was delighted to find this last paragraph of the entire book. Perhaps you’ll resonate with it as much as I did.

“But what, in conclusion, of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the visionary stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. “We would be at Jerusalem.”

I wonder how many of our unsaved friends are longing to find the joy Lewis found…and then release the signposts, as he and many others have done.

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