The Immortal Longing of C.S. Lewis

By Neil Earle

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:16, RV).

In a year (2011) that is famous for anniversaries – the American Civil War and the King James Bible come to mind – we should not forget the publishing of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) by the Christian thinker C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). That was more than 60 years ago in 1950.

This was the book that launched a seven-part series of children’s literature called “The Chronicles of Narnia” – one of the most renowned children’s series ever. Great ideas of adventure, sacrifice, redemption, freedom and victory march though the encounters children have with the Great Lion, Aslan who is modeled on the character of Jesus Christ.

Yet Lewis was a pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed Oxford don. Why this fascination with myth and romance? Well, of course those were his themes teaching literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Very early in life, the young Lewis was attracted to the wistful concept of Sehnsucht – a German word that has travelled well. Taking root in the Middle Ages and reworked during Romanticism it has the essential meaning of “longing,” “yearning,” especially an agonized pining for that which is elusive.

“Sehnsucht” cropped up in the late 20th century in the songs of a German industrial band called Rammstein. It was also the title of two movies, one made in East Germany in 1990 and in United Germany in 2006.

“The Soul’s Ardent Longing”

The German poet-author Novalis (1772-1801) in his “Hymns to the Night,” expressed the soul’s ardent longing as a sense of awakening from a captivating vision and desiring to return to it. Artists and writers and singers latch on to sehnsucht as a useful shorthand for the inexpressible, that spiritual side of the human being that can never be completely suppressed. That transcendent sense of escaping the mundane and embracing, however briefly, the spiritual side of life makes Sehnsucht a phrase rock bands might be too embarrassed to mention overtly. Small wonder, then, that Christian writers and thinkers have also seized upon “sehnsucht” as a guidepost for investigating psycho-spiritual realities that never leave us or are hard to explain – the sense we have been here before, the exhilarating experience of looking into the face of our true love, or a sweet memory flooding into our minds we thought we had long forgot. Lewis the Christian thinker and opponent of materialism felt all this showed we are not primarily physical beings at all but something much more complicated – “the stuff which dreams are made of” to quote Shakespeare.

Most often these immortal longings are squelched by the daily grind of making ends meet – but we all experience those moments of longing for something better, richer and sweeter beyond the demands of 8-5.

Sehnsucht lives on because we human creatures are much more complex than any chemical experiment in a lab. A number of Biblical texts reveal a sense of spiritual longing and even a thirst for eternity in the human psyche (Job 32:8; Ecclesiastes 3:11). In the English-speaking world Lewis was the best-known exponent of this sense of spiritual “longing.” Years later, the brilliant German theologian Jurgen Moltmann inadvertently added a theological framework to what Lewis explored in a popular vein.

Lewis and Moltmann’s ideas are important. They relate directly to the supreme purpose God is working out in human beings, what Lewis called “the business of heaven.”

That Far Greater Country

In his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis explored his own experiences with what he called “the stab, the pain, the iconsolable longing” that he was sure all human beings felt. He wrote eloquently in The Weight of Glory about “this desire for our own far-off country… the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…Our commonest expedient is to call it Beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter” (pages 29-30). Lewis argues that what we call “nostalgia” or “romanticism” or childhood flashbacks describes this deep yearning for “our own far off country.” Lewis knew 1 Corinthians 13:12 – which Christians believe explains the future reconciliation of all things in Christ – was a getting beyond what St. Paul called “looking through a glass darkly.” In that future state, says St. Paul, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” But, Lewis knew, our lives are already haunted by this longing. Something inside us longs to possess that reality here and now.

“Angels Unawares”

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (a Lewis favorite) called these yearnings “intimations of immortality.” Lewis confessed to being a Romantic devotee of the Imagination. His first experience of “sehnsucht” he says came while contemplating a mystical looking line of hills from his nursery window called the Castlereagh Hills. That, and his brother’s toy garden, stirred his first intimations of an other-worldliness, or thirst for experiences beyond the material world. Lewis felt this delicious but painful sense of yearning was almost squeezed out of him at public school and by wounds suffered in World War One. He identified three experiences that encouraged him on his lifelong quest for Joy.

The first was the aroused memory of his brother’s garden when encountering a flowering currant bush. Memory or remembered moments of bliss are an important element of sehnsucht. In writing about godly love, for example, Lewis speculated boldly that to finally meet God and Christ is to know that we have always known them, that they were in all our experiences of true earthly love – a mother’s attention, a friends’ devotion, a stranger’s self-sacrifice, a teacher who motivated and inspired us. Every good man or woman, says Lewis, is something like God. So we should not be surprised that these encounters with joy can be found all around us, in moments we cannot plan or remotely anticipate. In St. Paul’s phrase, “we entertain angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:1, AV).

Lewis also derived this divine sense of longing from children’s tales with their clear examples of good and evil, of kindness and constancy, of harrowing trials and evil defeated in the end. His third influence came from poetry, especially, in early days, the poetry of Longfellow and the strong and vigorous rhythms that galloped through much of his verse.

Lewis found the call from the transcendent recurring through life. He found them flooding back when he first heard a recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” He felt it breaking through the lines of the Christian epic poet John Milton, who addressed the eternal longing for home in “Paradise Regained.” Theologian Paul Tillich called the spiritual beauty inherent in good art as “messengers from another world.” Lewis would have agreed.

Lewis’s English word for all this was Joy, a quality he distinguished from both Happiness and Pleasure. The key to Joy, for Lewis, was that it gives birth to that deep longing for even more other-worldy experiences, a longing for “our true home.” But, Lewis wrote, such moments are fleeting on this earth. Permanent Joy “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about-to-be.”

It is that “about-to-be” which led Lewis to work out the important meaning of Sehnsucht for Christians and made him such a master of children’s stories with their “once upon a time”/”happily ever after” dynamic. After conversion in 1931 Lewis identified these earlier experiences of Joy as pointers, hints and clues to what he now could embrace through Christianity, Christianity as a grand drama of love, rejection, sacrifice, redemption and happily ever after. In 1931 new convert Lewis was actually “surprised by Joy” for he mistakenly thought that submitting to the discipline of the Christian life would be sober and austere, more like a life sentence. But his experience was exactly the opposite. Terry Lindvall wrote of this “joyward longing” in Lewis’ prose as a “full heavy, enveloping nostalgia for a fulfillment that awaited him – in something, somewhere” (Mars Hill Review, Summer, 1997). That “somewhere” Lewis spoke of humbly and in Christian orthodox terms as Heaven.

Lindvall comments on how this “evidence from unfulfilled desire” helped Lewis write eloquently to popular audiences about “whispers from beyond the world,” that tender and plaintive-like call for lost weary pilgrims to “come home, come home.” “For Lewis,” says Lindvall, “this special happiness we seek can be found only in God. Or, as Augustine professed, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.’”

Doing Earthly Good

Nor does this “joyward longing” translate into shallow escapism from the often numbing realities of this world. “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next,” Lewis stated in Mere Christianity. The abolition of the slave trade was a cardinal example. Lewis himself was another. In the fear and stress of World War Two in August, 1941 Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of ten minute broadcasts on the spiritual life. He had already made the rounds of air force bases explaining Christianity to men whose life expectancy was very short. These wartime talks ended up as his best-selling “Mere Christianity” in 1952. In all this Lewis was unwittingly allying himself with a Christian theologian who also called upon Christians to stay heavenly minded while doing earthly good.

Jurgen Moltmann came to Christianity not long after seeing his whole class wiped out in the dreaded air raid on Hamburg in 1944. Languishing in a Belgian POW camp, he pulled out the small pocket New Testament given him by an American chaplain. He turned, fortuitiously as it happened, to Matthew 25: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Young Moltmann was pricked to the depth of his being that a dying prisoner 1900 years before could so capture his own feelings at the time. He heard the Call. Years later he wrote of Christian hope as resurrection hope, a hope as firm and as grounded as the earth in which Christ’s cross stood:

“In the New Testament, at least, believers and apostles talk extensively about their experiences. The first experience we have to mention is the experience of rapturous joy. When the Spirit of the resurrection is experienced, a person breathes freely, and gets up, and lives with head held high, and walks upright, possessed by the indescribable joy that finds expression in the Easter hymns” (The Spirit of Life, page 153). Moltmann’s words offered hope to a postwar population to whom the thought of joy seemed distant and remote. “When life is reborn out of violence and guilt, wrongs committed and hurts endured, and finally out of the shadow of death, this means a tremendous affirmation of life,” Moltmann countered. For Moltmann the Carrier of that divine life, that hopeful “about-to-be” and “forward longing” is the Holy Spirit of God.

As the Spirit of life abiding in Christians through faith, the Holy Spirit brings with it not only the blessed fruits of the spiritual life, He also brings a sharp and acute sense of the future, of the future that belongs to God, the future that is, remarkably, already secure. God already lives in the future so for Moltmann, the systematic thinker, all hope derives from “Him whose voice calls into history from the end, saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Theology of Hope, page 26). The Spirit brings tokens already of that peace and joy the world will experience in what the Bible calls a “new creation.” Since time means nothing to God, this certain future is coming to meet us from beyond this life and as God’s Future it challenges Christians to share it in the here and now:

“In faith we receive the consolation of the Spirit in suffering, but in hope we look to the future of a new creation in which there will be no more mourning and no more pain and no more crying…The people who believe God acquire hope for this earth and everything living in it, and do not despair. They see through the horizon of apocalyptic terrors, as it were, into God’s new world, and act in accordance with that world even now, in the midst of this world’s terrors” (Spirit of Life, page 155).

Thus, “in accordance with that world even now,” Lewis the popular theologian and Moltmann the systematic thinker can both be seen as recalling Christians to be up and doing in the name of the One who is coming, who promises to restore all things, who calls to us from the Future. Inklings of that certain future can be glimpsed even now, by thinkers and writers, by poets and musicians (e.g. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”) and by the man or woman on the street or in the movies who is sometimes arrested by haunting thoughts of justice and the need for “something more” and wondering why this world has to be the way it is. Well, it doesn’t at all. Through what Lewis called senschut we sense that a better world already exists, coming to us from the future in the form of those “groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26), heavenly longings we have all experienced on occasion.

The future is not to be feared for God inhabits eternity and already lives there (Isaiah 57:15). He promises to set all things right in the end which is one reason the Bible itself concludes on a note of longing: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon’” and John’s response? “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).