I’ve been a fan of C.S. Lewis for quite a long time, and have read a good many of his books. But somehow I’ve never gotten around to reading Till We Have Faces, which many consider to be his crowning achievement and which he himself believed to be his best fiction work. I read it last weekend and was floored by its beauty. It seemed to be a culmination of so many of the ideas, images and themes Lewis had developed in other books I’d read—like The Great Divorce, The Weight of Glory, Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet—and yet it was perhaps the most literary, original and elegant of anything I’ve read of his.
I want to talk about a particular passage from Faces (which, I should mention, is Lewis’s reworking of the Psyche-Cupid myth) that has stayed with me since reading it. In the passage, the protagonist Orual is meeting with her imprisoned sister—Psyche—who is slated to be executed the next day as a sacrifice to the gods. Psyche is reassuring her sister, telling her that she is not afraid of death but rather feels like it will be the beginning of a true life some part of her has always longed for. Here are some quotes from the passage:
“I have always—at least, ever since I can remember—had a kind of longing for death… It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine… where you couldn’t see Glome or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me to longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home”
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—”
“Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”
These quotes express a certain feeling of longing that is a hallmark of Lewis’s writing. It is a feeling of an unsatisfied desire–often tied to memories or nostalgia–that is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. Lewis calls it Joy.
In his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, Lewis describes how this feeling–this deep longing–was first awakened in him when his brother brought into the nursery a little biscuit tin filled with moss and twigs so that it looked like a toy forest. Lewis says this was the first beauty he ever knew, that “it made me aware of nature–not, indeed as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory. As long as I live my imagination of paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”
For Lewis, the unsatiated desire that the toy garden evoked in him–most especially in his memory–was not for the object itself, but for some higher, ineffable beauties and inexhaustible joys that it somehow was a glimpse of. Later in Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes it further:
“As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “Enormous Bliss” of Eden . . . comes somewhat near to it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though it came into it ) for my own past. . . . And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”
For me, Lewis’s sentiments about longing and Joy ring ever so true. The words of Psyche in Till We Have Faces describe exactly how I feel sometimes when that peculiar blend of happiness, memory, and “there must be more of it” longing combine to make me feel, deeply, that there exists a greater, truer, more perfect reality for which we were all originally created.
Is it nostalgia for Eden? An aching for the part of our nature that sin rendered lost? A desire for a coming cosmic renewal and reconcilation? I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s there.
It’s there when I think back to the nights in my childhood when, at dusk, a fierce Midwestern thunderstorm would roll in from the western plains. It’s there when I remember the first time I went to Disneyworld with all my cousins, or the smell of a campfire in the mountains, or the first time I saw The Thin Red Line.
It was there yesterday when I thought back to five years ago: I was in the car with my best friend Ryan, driving somewhere in the Utah desert as the sun was going down. It was just days after we’d graduated from college, and we were driving out to California for an internship at the C.S. Lewis Foundation. The world was our oyster. Nothing was expected, nothing could be predicted, and yet–in retrospect–everything was in its right place. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it. Either way, it’s Joy.