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Surprised by Joy

C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy is subtitled “The Shape of My Early Life,” and is mainly about his childhood and young adulthood. In this spiritual autobiography Lewis traces the slow hand of God moving in the events and influences of his young life, through his atheism and finally into his spiritual surrender when he finally, reluctantly admitted that “God was God” (228).

Some things shocked me (I can’t take the rampant pederasty of British public schools with quite Lewis’s aplomb); other things merely surprised me. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about Lewis, such as his difficult relationship with his brilliant but eccentric father, his various boarding-school experiences, and his interest in the occult.

He traces his atheism and general pessimism about life as far back as the chronic, unusually marked clumsiness he possessed even as a child. He believes that because of this clumsiness, he soon grew to expect that everything he touched would go wrong somehow, that things going well was the exception and not the rule. His mother’s death of cancer when he was ten years old also had a profound effect on his worldview.

Lewis also explores his early creative and rational influences. His friend Arthur had a strong part in helping Lewis appreciate what Arthur termed “Homeliness,” a type of cozy beauty in sharp contrast to Lewis’s passion for Wagner and Norse mythology and what he called “Northernness.” This passion Arthur also shared, but rounded it with a love of simple, wholesome sights and ideas. Lewis also talks about his friend Jenkins who taught him to savor the taste of everything, even ugly things, to enjoy them fully for what they are. The influence of Lewis’s strictly rationalist tutor, William Kirkpatrick, is also acknowledged as a deep debt.

All of this is written in Lewis’s characteristically excellent prose. I loved this passage about his final thrashings before accepting the reality of God:

The fox had been dislodged from Hegelian Wood and was now running in the open, “with all the wo in the world,” bedraggled and weary, hounds barely a field behind. And nearly everyone was now (in one way or another) in the pack; Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself. Everyone and everything had joined the other side. (225)

I am finding that the more I learn about Lewis, the more divided I become. I agree with him more; I agree with him less. It is hard to really articulate where we are different (well, besides his obvious and all-permeating Arminian leanings which conflict sharply with my Calvinist tenets). I think one of the issues may be Lewis’s reliance on and almost religious respect for literature besides the Bible. Of course he is detailing a period in which he was first reading the world’s great literature as a student and lover of beauty, so naturally he will have a lot to say about its influence on his thinking and development.

And I have to remember too that Lewis is a Christian thinker, not a pastor charged with preaching the full counsel of God and illuminating Scripture to his flock. I do think, however, that at bottom I have a much deeper reverence for Scripture than Lewis has displayed in the books of his that I’ve read so far. This both simplifies and complicates my thoughts about him and his work.

The thread that ties everything together in this story is the central idea of Joy, which Lewis describes as the “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (17–18). These flashes of beauty, themselves insufficient, point to something else, something outside the person experiencing this longing. Ultimately Lewis connects Joy with the desire to know the source of all Joy, God. Those flashes of beauty and the unfulfilled longings are divinely given. And yet they are not the goal. Lewis writes,

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has been mainly about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian… I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old 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… 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 will 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.” (238)

This was a fascinating read on so many levels. Recommended. (****)

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