Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Surprised by Joy" -- A Review and a Revelation

I was up half the night with C.S. Lewis (author of MERE CHRISTIANITY, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, THE GREAT DIVORCE, THE FOUR LOVES, and more). I finished "Surprised By Joy" this morning at about 3:30 and fell into bed.

C.S. Lewis takes some getting used to. He is erudite and makes his way around a sentence differently than most of the rest of us do. All the same, before too long you know you have to stay with him because where he is taking you is worth the trouble it takes to get there. Many people call him one of the greatest writers of the past century, and I won't dispute that; certainly he's one of the greatest thinkers of that century or any other. But his ways are not my ways when it comes to expressing ideas. (His ways are likely superior to my ways -- I just prefer to cut to the chase and bypass the scenic route -- not in life, but in literature.)

Not everyone is aware that C.S. Lewis battled like crazy to become and remain an agnostic or an atheist after he got away from home and the environment there. He was introduced to christianity as a child (with a small "c"; I want to say bogus Christianity because so many of the people teaching it to him were christians by self-proclamation only) and spent a great deal of the rest of his life trying to divest himself of it and its ramifications for his life. As we all know, he became one of the greatest Christian apologists in later life. SURPRISED BY JOY is his recounting of his early years as a "pagan."

Surprised by Joy, the title, refers to one incident in his early life that delighted and baffled him all at the same time. He was not given to emotion -- his early life was traumatic and traumatized children generally learn to "hide" their emotions because their emotions so upset the facade that adults are trying to carry as a result of their experience of the same trauma. They build walls -- often of fantasy, as Lewis did -- to survive in a world that seems hostile to their spirits and survival.

Lewis's mother died when he was very young and he and his brother were sent to boarding schools and other places his father considered "higher learning." What they found there was equally traumatic -- people and teachers so self-involved as to be detrimental both to the boys' learning and to their spirits. "Learning" consisted largely of becoming victims of the whims of other, more aggressive students, and being subjected to diatribes and madnesses of various teachers. Of course there were a few good lessons learned, but for the most part, it took the greater part of Lewis's life to unlearn what he was taught and to return (or to re-parent himself) to a place where peace, tranquility and meditation reigned supreme. In his earlier years, it seemed, he could hardly hear himself think.

All of that resonates with me, as a fellow sufferer during my upbringing. It always seemed to me that the world was forever trying to take away my peace of mind -- and even my mind! I never fit in and felt there must be something "wrong" with that. Why wasn't I gregarious, ambitious in the ways of the world (driven up the ladder at any cost and by any means, willing to step on people to get there) as so many others were? There was a gentleness about Lewis and about me that was never quite "beaten" out of us by our societies.

It came as a shock and a wonder one day in Lewis's early life when his brother brought home from a forest a "forest box" he had put together. Its lid was covered by forest trinkets -- perhaps moss, acorns, twigs and other things readily at hand to a young boy walking in the woods. Looking at it, Lewis was "transported" by joy for the first time ever. His spirit was so immensely elevated that he took note of it -- and as soon as he took note of it, it fled!

Well, once he had felt joy, he wanted more of it, and undertook to find it. He wanted to be able to reproduce the feeling, to luxuriate in what seemed to be the height of physical sensation.

He assures us in the book that "joy" is not pleasure (pleasure can be found in sex, good food, a good friend, a great conversation). Joy is an experience almost beyond our range when it comes to sensation - which is why it seems so fleeting when we do experience it. It's exhilarating -- almost beyond earthbound sensation itself!

It took Lewis years to feel it again, well into adulthood. He did not feel it all the years he was an agnostic, although he experienced great pleasure as an agnostic and perceived "master of his own ship." He experienced mastery of his mind -- an ability to wrap his brain around a variety of concepts and perspectives that might boggle the mind of a lesser seeker. But alas, there was no "joy" anywhere to be found.

Then one day, it was back and the lust to follow it, to capture it, to domesticate it was underway. He would find it, he would corral it, and he would be able to pull it out of his pocket upon command and experience it. He was sure it was attainable with the proper attitude and nurture.

But it wasn't. It remained elusive, like a chimera, something like magic. He only knew he would feel it when he wasn't expecting it. When he was totally focused on something else is when it would happen.

So joy couldn't be a goal -- it was not attainable as a goal. Joy was the result of a focus on something else...

An undamaged child has it. He or she doesn't have to look for it. Joy belongs to a child the way the color of their eyes belong to them. They aren't aware of it, but it's theirs. Their entire world is joy as long as they are fed and their diapers are dry and loving people dote on them.

So Lewis thought, "If joy is a byproduct, there must be something or Someone who is the ultimate object or expression of joy."

In my experience, joy is love to the nth degree. It's an abandonment of all fear, trouble, and turmoil. It is exquisite, peaceful and dynamic. It's a mind in love with Love.

Lewis goes on in the last thirty pages of the book to explain how the search for joy led him into the loving arms of a loving God. I will leave it up to you to get the book and to encounter his journey yourself.

This brings me to a passage in the Bible: "It was for the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the cross."

Isn't that verse utterly unfathomable?! How do we wrap our mind around a phrase that sounds like the ultimate oxymoron?

Joy = enduring the cross ?!?!?!?

How could a man feel joy about that and still be sane?!

Here it is:

Jesus felt joy (remember what joy is, now, and begin to feel it, if you can, in your heart!) because he would be able to do something no one else could do for the people (and for the Father) for whom He did it. While the situation itself -- flogging, utter disrespect and taunting, crucifixion -- would be any man's (and he was a man) worst nightmare, Jesus set his mind on the "joy" of delivering us back to the Father, unblemished and freed from all damage and sin (our "missing of the target"). In joy alone was such enormous power that he was able to endure all that he went through -- even separation from His Father for three days as he visited hell and did what he had to do there.

If you can wrap your mind around what kind of joy that must have been to Him (the extent of the joy), to be able to do what he did for us and for His Father, I think you will be getting closer to the Mind of God, the Mind of the Universe, whatever you choose to call It.

Our joy is but a clouded reflection in His Immense joy. That's why it's so hard to "en-joy" (be one with joy) as often as we might like.

But when we love as He does, it's there. When we "see" (experience) His creation as He does, we experience joy.

1 comment:

Alison said...

I moved to Spain for many wonderful reasons, but if it's one thing I miss by being one person and a bag, it's the books. I will return to the UK later this year and the best thing about that is being able to accrue books once more. As soon as I do I want to read these things you are recommending. And then I can post useful comments!! Keep it up - I'm keeping a list!