The search for longing
Last year, in the month of May, on a beautiful, sunny Monday, Lorna and I set off for a day trip to the Isle of Bute. We drove to Wemyss Bay, where we parked the car, and prepared to catch the ferry to Rothesay. This was a trip I had been planning for some time. For me, it was an opportunity to revisit my childhood. As a youngster, I spent a great deal of time visiting relatives who ran a Boarding House in Rothesay. Many a summer holiday was spent on the island and even more frequent weekend trips. Even as I write this, I can remember the sense of excitement that would grow during the school days approaching a weekend trip to Bute. I would be desperate to talk about it to friends and eager to ask my parents details as to when we would leave and what kind of boat would take us from Wemyss Bay (Paddle steamers were the best).
I would make careful plans in advance as to how my time would be spent. On the journey, I would visit the engine-room of the boat (astonishingly, a child could freely wander into such places in those days, and if a child-friendly engineer was happened upon then untold delights were in store in the bowels of a boat). There would be time spent at the house in Rothesay: I would play in the garden which, to a child, had all the thrill of a jungle adventure. Alternatively, I could head off to play on the rocks and sand, which had all the fun of a re-enactment of ‘Treasure Island.’ Perhaps there would be a trip to Kilchattan Bay.
With all these memories of childhood joys swirling in my head, we made our way across the water on the 10.15 ferry. It was a delightful day, but there was also a sense of anti-climax, one that inevitably attends the return to happy childhood haunts. I returned to the place but not to my childhood. The deep joy I remember from those days remained a memory, and I sensed a nostalgic sense of loss. I was remembering a time when joy crashed upon me as a child, but it is in the nature of such joy that it can’t be manufactured or even recaptured.
C.S. Lewis wrote about this in his unusual autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’. He writes of his search, in early life up until his conversion, for the joy he occasionally sensed at points in his life - perhaps in reading something or through a sense of wonderment at the world and its mysteries. Every so often that deep yearning would awaken in him.
“As I stood behind a currant-bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from the depths not of years but of centuries, the memory of that early morning 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 that came over me…. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?.... 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 had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” (‘Surprised by joy’ p.19)
Later Lewis writes, ‘in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else’. This joy is a kind of homesickness. In the German language it is ‘sehnsucht’. It is depicted by Jesus in the parable we refer to as ‘The Prodigal Son’. When the son comes to his senses he longs for home.
It was Lewis’s genius that he recognised how we can manufacture all kinds of laughter; we can plan to have fun, or learn to tell a joke. However, we can never conjure joy, because joy can only be received from the One whose presence is joy.
Life for the Christian, explained Lewis, was a wandering toward the source of this joy—toward one’s real home. The journey may be rough and tiring and even tedious, but it offers surprises to a traveller at those very hours when he or she ought to be miserable. Each surprise is a free sample of joy, a foretaste of heavenly pleasure, offered without explanation. On a train trip from London, Lewis discovered he was invited to experience a moment of Eden:
“I am free to take it or not as I choose—like distant music which you need not listen to unless you wish, like a delicious faint wind on your face which you can easily ignore. One was invited to surrender to it. And the odd thing is that something inside me suggested that it would be "sensible" to refuse the invitation; almost that I would be better employed in remembering that I was going to do a job I do not greatly enjoy and that I should have a very tiresome journey back to Oxford. Then I silenced this inward wiseacre. I accepted the invitation—threw myself open to this feathery, impalpable, tingling sensation. The rest of the journey I passed in a state which can be described only as joy.” (‘Present concerns’)
A greedy impatience to snare, grasp, and keep joy, however, is the surest way to lose it. Lewis distinguished what he technically defined as joy both:
. . . from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is. (‘Surprised by joy p.20)
Lewis discovered that joy is not something we can attain by manipulating the circumstances of our lives. It cannot be encountered in a nightclub, at a party or in the holiday destination of our dreams. It does not lie at the pinnacle of material success any more than it is denied the poorest and destitute. Real joy is received in relationship with the joy-giver Himself, the Lord God. Newton put it well:
‘Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.’