Lewis, you told me this
It doesn’t take much to make me emotional, but one of the things that always moves me to tears is joyful old men. When I see an old man expressing genuine gladness I’m just gone. I’ve always assumed this is mostly to do with my paternal grandfather, who shared a home with us during my earliest years, and who was the most joyful old man I ever knew.
But I’m wondering if it may also have to do with a Belfast-born writer who died 50 years ago today. C.S. Lewis was only 65 when he died, but he exists in my imagination as a joyful old man. I owe him more than any other writer I have ever read and loved. I sat in a coffee shop in Coleraine this morning trying to hold back the tears, thinking about how much I’ve received from his writing. I want to try and express my gratitude but I don’t think I have the words.
I started reading C.S Lewis as a child (Narnia of course) and I’ve never stopped. I read Mere Christianity when I was maybe 15, and by the time I was a student I’d read pretty much everything he ever published. Since then, I feel like I’ve spent my life re-learning what Lewis had already taught me. In my favourite class at Regent we read ten “spiritual classics” from Christian history, including Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther – and in every single case what I read took me back to things I’d already encountered in Lewis. It became a running joke in our class that I would inevitably claim that “C.S. Lewis says the same thing, only better.”
My friend Ben has just released a beautiful album with his band Sullivan & Gold (which you should all go and buy now for everyone you love for Christmas) and on my favourite song he sings “Lewis, you told me this.” I’m not sure what Ben was thinking about, but it expresses what I’ve felt so often. Every time I think I’ve had a profound and original thought I realise Lewis has already said it much better.
I know lots of people love Lewis as an apologist, someone who provided logical arguments in defence of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. And I certainly appreciate this aspect of Lewis. He helps me think clearly. He makes the complex simple. He is persuasive and articulate, full of robust common sense.
But what I love most deeply about Lewis is not the way he defends the truth, but the way he evokes what is good and beautiful. There is a quality of joy and delight in his best writing that draws out my deepest desires and feeds my soul. Someone said reading Lewis is like “opening a window in a stuffy room.” He wakes me up. His writing is healing and restorative for the parts of me that are most weary and lost.
In the movie Shadowlands we hear C.S Lewis say that “we read to know we’re not alone.” Lewis has been a companion and friend to me in my journey. No other writer has more often expressed what I’ve felt but couldn’t articulate, or what I’ve thought but never dared say out loud. He makes me feel less lonely.
Maybe the best I can say is that Lewis’s writing creates in me the kind of joyful longing which he himself describes. The shyness and awkwardness he describes is what I feel in trying to tell you why I love his books.
In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.
We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.
But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. 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.
This is from an essay called The Weight of Glory which may be the best thing he ever wrote.
Thank you, Jack.