“Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”
– Proverbs 25:25
“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.'”
– C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 73.
There is an experience which we all share, but it is one that we all struggle to put into words. We stand on the edge of the sea, surrounded by briny air and immensity, and something pulls on our hearts and breaks them. It tugs and beckons us, creating within us a longing, a desire for that which is more, that which is other, that which is past or future but never present. Or perhaps we come across a particular smell that evokes in us a sense of childhood and carefree-ness. It creates in us a strong and passionate desire for our past and the days which have come and gone. It comes across us unnoticed and reduces us instantly. We desire to linger in the moment and to drink in the experience. But it ends; it always ends. C.S. Lewis called this Joy, and as he described it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, this experience was the centerpiece of his life.
Lewis’ Joy is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from that of Happiness and from 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,” (Surprised by Joy, 23). This “Joy” is a trap that is sprung upon us in the moments where we least look for it, though once it is experienced, it is always desired. It is “distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing,” (68). But as soon as we attempt to possess it, it eludes us. As the quote above mentions, it only reminds us and never wholly reconciles us to the Thing; it only awakens an intense longing and desire for things which we cannot grasp here.
This Joy has arrested us all. In unexpected moments around family, in the quietness of a mountain range, in a long-dreaded goodbye, in a sudden rush of pull and heart-break, Joy sweeps upon us, beckoning us and instilling within us intense longing for something which we simply cannot get our hands around. When sought for itself, it eludes us, because, “only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else- whether a distant mountain, or the past, or the gods of Asgard- does the ‘thrill’ arise. It is a byproduct. Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer,” (149). Lewis gives us two marks of this Joy in an afterward to the third edition of his autobiographical allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Firstly, “This desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it,” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 202). Secondly, “There is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire.” Lewis describes that he has tried all objects to quench this longing, but all have, in turn, failed him: “Every one of these supposed objects for the Desire is inadequate to it. An easy experiment will show that by going to the far hillside you will get either nothing, or else a recurrence of the same desire which sent you thither,” (203). It is the curse of our lives, however, that we mistake both the “feeling” of Joy and the temporal object which communicates to us this Joy for Joy’s true Object. This is all idolatry, false worship of a thing which cannot produce what it promises. In Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis looks at the pursuit of this Joy through the trial and error of the main character John, whose experience with Joy ignites his life and leaves him panting for more. After discovering a window in a wall by a road, John glimpses, almost spiritually, through a wood of primroses, a far off Island, and “a moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember,” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 8).
It is this experience which sets John off on his life’s adventure, seeking the Island with all fervor and intensity. John’s quest leads him to various ways of thought and living, and as John experiences them all, he realizes that none of them can give him his Island. There, is, however, rumor and talk of a Landlord who owns all the lands in which John travels, and it is this Landlord who looms larger and stronger in John’s mind the further that he roams. In an extremely revealing moment, as John converses with a hermit, he says, “I set out to find an Island and I have found a Landlord instead,” (143). The hermit turns out to be “History”, and History enlightens John further by telling him that his desire for the Island “comes from the Landlord…It has brought you to where you now are: and nothing leads back to him which did not at first proceed from him,” (146). History continues, “The Landlord sends pictures of many different kinds. What is universal is not the particular picture, but the arrival of some message, not perfectly intelligible, which wakes this desire and sets men longing for something East or West of the world; something possessed, if at all, only in the act of desiring it, and lost so quickly that the craving itself becomes craved; something that tends inevitably to be confused with common or even with vile satisfactions lying close to hand,” (151). John still fears, however, that his desires will not match their object, and that there is, when all is found, no rest for him. But History reassures him: “Until you have it you will not know what you wanted…has not every object which fancy and sense suggested for the desire, proved a failure, confessed itself, after trial, not to be what you wanted? Have you not found by elimination that this desire is the perilous siege in which only One can sit?” (155).
We easily worship the past, because we often experience this Joy in seeming connection with it; We call them “the good, old days.” We worship our vacations, our relationships, anything we can get our hands on, for our Landlord is constantly sending His messages to us, and we are constantly mistaking the means of these deliveries for the End. We can even come to idolize the feeling itself, but to seek Joy for Joy’s sake is to seek it for an ends it was never meant to produce. Once we discover this fact, “we shall not stop and stare.” These “signposts” will “encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem,'” (Surprised by Joy, 206).
These moments of heartbreaking delight and passionate longing are messages sent to us from Him. They scream at us, “There is rest from your weariness. There is acceptance, though you feel alienated. There is fulfillment for your inmost desire.” Lewis quotes Proverbs 25:25 on the title page of The Pilgrim’s Regress, and I cannot help but smile. Our road is a dusty, desert road. We walk day after day in the heat. Some walk in more intense heat than others, but everyone walks in it. But our King is constantly sending messages to us. They invade us and refresh us like ice water, reminding us of our heavenly, “far off country”: our city and our home. His words come to us true and steadfast and serve as reminders, signposts, on our journey: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” (John 14:3). But we are still meant to seek past the sign posts, past the heart-break and longing of an ocean view, past the desire for the perceived perfectness of our own past or our future, greener pasture. We are to seek past “Joy” to Joy’s Object. For the truth hits us day after day, as we grasp at the little moments of bliss that evade our desperate grasp: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come,” (Hebrews 13:14).