Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)

What an apt analogy for Christmas. surprised_by_joy_the_shape_of_my_early_life_frontcover_large_1thqlUR3XQVIcV2 Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.

You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)

Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.

I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)

Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:

Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)

Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,

that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)

As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?

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I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.

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Reading the Season is my annual Christmas Read:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw’s A Widening Light

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

Reading The Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge’s The Bible and the New York Times

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Reading the Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis2To embrace the Christmas season in a more meaningful way, I’ve been trying to stay close to the heart of the matter by reading.

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis is one of my selections. Now, of all the wonderful books by the Oxford scholar, why would I choose this title for the Season?

From my reading of Joan Didion’s The year of Magical Thinking, I learned that during her mourning for the loss of her husband, she had read C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. That sparked my curiosity. After finishing Didion, I turned right away to explore Lewis’s book about his own experience of loss.

After 58 years of bachelorhood, Lewis found the love of his life in Helen Joy Gresham, an American author who had come all the way to England in search of a genuine and credible faith. Their love story is poignantly portrayed in the movie Shadowlands (1993). In Helen Joy Gresham (‘H’ in the book),  Lewis found his equal in wit, intellect, and a faith that had endured testing and evolved from atheism to agnosticism and ultimately reaching irrevocable belief. Lewis entered into marriage with Joy at her hospital bed as she was fighting bone cancer. She did have a period of remission afterwards, during which the two enjoyed some traveling together. Regretfully, only four years into their marriage, Joy succumbed to her illness.

shadowlands

A Grief Observed is a courageous and honest disclosure of a very private pain. But what’s so different about this personal loss is that this prominent Christian apologist, acclaimed academic and writer, was willing to lay bare his questioning mind and disquiet heart to his readers. As his step-son Douglas Gresham wrote in the Introduction, the book is “a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane”. By crying out in anguish and exposing his torments, he shared his personal journey of painfully seeking the meaning of death, marriage, faith, and the nature of God. Lewis was brave enough to question “Where is God?” during his most desperate moments, when his heart was torn apart by searing pain and his intellect failed him with any rational answers.

Gradually he came out of despair realizing that the loudness of his screams might have drowned out the still, small voice speaking to him.

The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it:  you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs…

After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.

After the fog of doubt has dispersed and the dust of despair has settled, Lewis saw the dawning of a gentle glimmer. He realized that he had been mourning a faint image or memory of his beloved, but not beholding the reality of her. The fickleness of his senses offered only fading fragments of her image. However, it is in praise that he could enjoy her the best.

I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer.  It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow–getting into my morning bath is usually one of them–that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness.

Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift.

Further, as with God, he knew he should grasp the reality, not just the image.  He should treasure God Himself, not just the idea of Him:

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.  I want H., not something that is like her.

Upon this revelation, Lewis powerfully points out that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is how God reveals Himself to us in His full reality.  Our ideas of God are shattered by Christ Himself.

The Incarnation… leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.

As Christmas draws near, I ponder once again the humbling of the Creator God, born a babe to grow up to experience the full spectrum of being human, showing us by His life and death the reality of God, an iconoclastic act only He can perform.

Lewis has drawn me to the heart of the matter, the crux of the Season:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

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Click on thse other ‘seasonal reads’:

2012 Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

Reading The Season: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle