Daily Archives: August 2, 2008

C.S. Lewis on living by hope

Last week I started doing something I hardly ever do – I started reading a non-fiction book. Even more amazingly, it’s an auto-biography. That’s a genre I almost never delve into. In fact, I can’t even remember the last non-fiction book I read cover to cover. It’s not even a recent book. I ran across it literally by providence, and decided to bring it home.

The book is Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, among others. It’s not a standard auto-biography, though. The short description on the cover summarizes it as Lewis’ “search for joy, a spiritual journey that led him from the Christianity of his early youth into atheism and then back to Christianity.”

While his writing is frequently either outside my experience or above my head (in the first few chapters he discusses his very early life, including English and Irish boarding schools and social circles, and manages to write in a few Latin phrases and references to other works that he apparently thinks are common knowledge), I do get the drift. He had a tough childhood, emotionally and intellectually. The cruelty of his first boarding school headmaster was random and violent, and the academic lessons for the most part without merit. I get more of a sense of the atmosphere of the orphanage from “Oliver Twist” (or in my case, Oliver! the movie), than I do of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, which is patterned after an English boarding school, as I understand it.

But at the end of the description of this time in his life he says this:

Life at a vile boarding school is in this way a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and the holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven. They have the same pitiful unreality when confronted with immediate horrors. Tomorrow’s geometry blots out the distant end of term as tomorrow’s operation may blot out the hope of Paradise. And yet, term after term, the unbelievable happened. Fantastical and astronomical figures like “this time six weeks” shrank into practicable figures like “this time next week,” and then “this time tomorrow,” and the almost supernatural bliss of the Last Day punctually appeared.

He continued to describe the deep, nearly breathtaking delight that that day held. He also went on to acknowledge the other side of the same equation: that at the beginning of each time at home, the next school term was as unrecognized as a young man in good health would recognize his own mortality. It may be acknowledged, but never truly realized, until time moves forward and the inevitable occurs.

In all seriousness I think that the life of faith is easier to me because of these memories. To think, in sunny and confident times, that I shall die and rot, or to think that one day this universe will slip away and become memory . . . is easier to us if we have seen just that sort of thing happening before. We have learned not to take present things at their face value.

I haven’t had the same kind of circumstances in my life that he had, but I can come up with a few situations (though laughably smaller in intensity) that help me draw that same parallel. It’s helpful to have a new frame of reference for living in hope of a new world to come—to be able to work through the day to day grind of life while keeping one eye on the prize.