C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) has been called one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century as well as the most influential writer of his time. He wrote over thirty books including the beloved children’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia, which was my first introduction to his writing when I was about twelve years of age. I didn’t know at the time that he was a Christian and had written a whole swag of other books that were going to be influential for me later on in my life.
Surprised by Joy is an autobiography that tells of Lewis’s journey from Atheism to Christianity starting with his childhood in Belfast and the loss of his mother to cancer. He goes on to describe his boarding school years in England, (one school he calls ‘Belsen’!) his childhood faith and how he lost it, his fascination with the occult for a time, and his Atheism during his youth. He touches on his War service during the Great War and his years at Oxford and ends with his reluctant conversion to Theism and then the next step as he embraces Christianity.
Surprised by Joy is so quotable that I found I was familiar with many passages because I’d read them elsewhere but didn’t know where they came from. Lewis’s candidness and humility oozed out of this book. His childhood memories were related without emotionalism but with an inherent poignancy as were his difficulties in his relationship with his father and his experiences at various boarding schools.
He describes the public boy’s school practice of pederasty and admits that while he was not tempted in that area he none-the-less had his own share of being ‘successfully’ tempted in other areas and he was careful not to cast judgement upon those who fell in an area he never had to struggle with.
Some interesting bits:
C.S. Lewis’s parents were very disparate in origin and temperament. Lewis was more like his mother – cheerful, cool and calm, while his father was sentimental, emotional and not inclined to be happy. This contrast between his parent’s temperaments bred in him a dislike and distrust of emotion from an early age.
He describes his childhood and the happy times he had with his brother who was three years his senior, the different influences on his life during that time and of the ‘absence of beauty’ which characterised his childhood:
‘No picture on the walls of my father’s house ever attracted – and indeed none deserved – our attention. We never saw a beautiful building or imagined that a building could be beautiful.’
There is a theme throughout the book that is conveyed in the title. Lewis describes this as Sehnsucht – a experience of a sense of longing, yearning, and wonder or ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.’ He called this experience, Joy.
These experiences came to him in the memory of a memory, or the ‘longing for the longing that had just ceased;’ one being the memory of when his brother brought a toy garden into the nursery.
‘As long as I live, my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.’
It also came to him through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin and then through poetry. The quality common to all three experiences was Joy.
When Lewis was seven years old the family moved to a larger house in the country,
‘I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books…’
When Lewis was ten years old his mother was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, which in those days they performed in the patient’s house! She later died and Lewis’s relationship with his father grew more distant while he grew closer to his brother.
‘With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.’
Reflecting on his cruel headmaster at Belsen and why those ‘wasted and miserable years’ under him did him little harm in the long run:
‘Hardly any amount of oppression from above takes the heart out of a boy like the oppression from his fellows.’
On his passion for the occult…’It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.’
Of sexual temptation, he explains that a new element entered his life – Vulgarity – and he underwent a violent and wholly successful assault because of his ‘deliberate withdrawal of myself from Divine protection.’
On School Life:
‘Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. It is often, of course, the pre-occupation of adult life as well; but I have not yet seen any adult society in which the surrender to this impulse was so total.’
In praising one of his teachers he said:
‘…even if he had taught us nothing else, to be in Smewgy’s form was to be in a measure ennobled. Amidst all the banal ambition and flashy splendours of school life he stood as a permanent reminder of things more gracious, more humane, larger and cooler.’
About games (sport) in school Lewis likened them to a toothache or pebbles in your shoes and didn’t give them the ‘moral and almost mystical virtues’ schoolmasters claim for them. He thought they led to ambition and jealousy but he felt it was a misfortune that he had no affinity for them because it can cut you off from companionship with some excellent people you wouldn’t associate with any other way.
On reading newspapers:
‘Nearly all that a boy reads (in newspapers) in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.’
Ha! Nothing much has changed.
‘A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere…God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.’
During his time at Oxford after the Great War, Lewis’s chronological snobbery began to be overthrown. He describes chronological snobbery as ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’
The more he read…Plato, John Donne, George Herbert, George MacDonald, Chesterton, the more alarmed he became. ‘All my books were beginning to turn against me.’
He was shocked when he found that the most intelligent and best-informed man in his English class at Oxford was a Christian and others began to pop up on every side.
He had always wanted to call his soul his own and not be interfered with. Now he felt the demand of ‘All.’
‘In the Trinity Term if 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…
The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?’
Lewis knew that God was to be obeyed simply because He was God and he found that as he moved from Theism to Christianity, his search for Joy lost its importance. If we are lost in the woods and we suddenly see a signpost we make a big deal out of it but once we find the road we don’t stop and stare at every passing signpost as we travel along because we want to get to our destination and we know we’re on the right road.
Joy, ‘the old stab, the old bitter-sweet’ was a valuable pointer to something other and outer.