Longing for Beauty

Lewis and Longing

Throughout much of C.S. Lewis’ life, he recognized a longing within him that would stir from time-to-time and, as suddenly as it had risen within him, disappear. In his spiritual biography, Surprised By Joy, he wrote:

“As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier 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 which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?... 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 withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to... [such] experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” - C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

As we discovered in Mere Christianity, Lewis eventually learned that the longing was pointing to something beyond the created world. There were things in this world which could stir the longing, but nothing which could satisfy it.

Lately, I have found myself thinking deeply about Lewis’ concept of longing because I believe this is part of the reason behind his continued popularity. His works tap into the desire we all feel and to which we can all relate. Further, I have found myself paying more attention to this longing and asking myself how I can better respond to this longing.

Experiencing Longing

Just this past weekend, while I was in Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the choir started singing Ave Maria by Michael John Trotta during the Preparation of the Gifts, and I was overwhelmed with a beauty that brought me to tears.

When the choir began singing the lines "Santa Maria…" (around 1:20 in the YouTube video), I was undone. I wouldn’t be surprised if people sitting next to me in the pew were worried about me because I just couldn’t control myself. Even as I listened to the linked version (which is incredible), I was again brought to tears. Thankfully, this time I was a bit more controlled...

At that moment, I believe I experienced the kind of longing which is so often described by Lewis. The music tapped into something profound inside of me. If I could best articulate it, the first emotion I felt was wanting to go to the source of that beauty. The world is filled with brokenness, and my own life is filled with faults... yet that moment everything seemed perfect. I wanted to be consumed by that beauty, yet as I realized my desire to be consumed by the beauty, it was gone. For a few more minutes, I was able to experience some of it by reflecting on it, but it soon faded...

I felt a deep sense of peace at the moment when the joy came upon me. The typical worries of life didn’t seem to matter. If I could orient my life toward the source of beauty, everything else would be alright. If things in my professional or personal life didn't go as planned, that would be alright because someday I will be with the source of beauty itself.

Longing in Till We Have Faces

The theme of longing has appeared several times in Till We Have Faces. When Orual visits Psyche the evening before she is to be taken up to the Mountain to bre sacrificed, Psyche has a deep sense of peace because she believes she is going to the source of all the beauty has has experienced:

‘The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing - to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all beauty came form -”

Not only that, she regards her upcoming journey as a journey home:

“My country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think all it meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed, it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me...I am going to my lover. Do you not see now - ?”

Orual is upset with Psyche speaking this way and wonders if she had been making her sister miserable all these years. Psyche clarifies what she means:

“No, no, no, you don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine...where you couldn’t see Glome or the Palace...And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else, there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, ‘Psyche come!’ But I couldn’t (not yet) come, and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home.”

Psyche's longing, pointed her towards the source of her longing. Our longing likewise points us towards its source, everlasting life with the Trinity. The longing is not an end in itself, but a means of pointing us towards Heaven.

How do we respond?

As I sat in my pew listening to the choir sing Ave Maria, the music tapped into a longing deep in my soul for communion with God. As I recognized the longing, I wanted to respond to it somehow.

I think I began crying because I felt that I wasn’t worthy to experience such beauty. It was a humble realization that I am so broken and that I don’t deserve any of what God offers me. Yet, the Lord offers it, nonetheless. This realization inspires me to want to live a life worthy of His grace and beauty. I cannot possibly earn His love or His grace, but I can respond to it. It is a call to live in more perfect communion with our Heavenly Father.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day, when the source of that beauty entered into His own creation in order to draw us up into the Trinitarian love. I pray that each of us opens our hearts to receive that grace, love, and beauty tomorrow.

God Bless and Merry Christmas!