A Page That Changed My Life

Ever read a book that you can say, without question, changed your life? Can you even remember a paragraph or page that particularly struck home?

In an ongoing feature, our friends over at The Gospel Coalition have been asking contributors to identify a section from a book outside the Bible that changed their lives and write a short post detailing why. Having read a few, I thought it might be a good idea to imitate here at ESI.

For my own part, I might be able to come up with a handful of passages that fit the criteria. I suspect, however, that good number of them would originate from C. S. Lewis. Not that he’s the only author who has influenced me a great deal. Rather, he tends to say things more memorably than most. 

In fact, Lewis’ writing possesses no shortage of virtues. For one, he’s able to join weighty concepts with language that is at once vivid, imaginative, and accessible, so that the end result fosters both understanding and enjoyment. Likewise, his emphasis on “mere Christianity,” his ability to combine intellectual rigor and artistic sensibilities, and his demonstrated humility have long commended him to Christians of various backgrounds and theological stripes. And even when I disagree with him, I find Lewis very much worth reading. 

Still, I may owe Lewis most deeply for is his ability to identify and, further, provide great insight into some of the most profound experiences we have as human beings. This leads me to the page that changed my life. I was actually in seminary when I first read the title essay in The Weight of Glory. Now, not much of it remains that hasn’t been marked up in some fashion through various readings. Among the handful of passages that have brought me back to it several times is this one:

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret that hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. …The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years (29-31). 

Why do I find this section so powerful? It’s one of several places in Lewis’ writing where he speaks what he elsewhere calls “joy,” a striking feeling or experience, capable of arising in any number of situations, that amounts in essence to a great longing. Reading this and other portions of his writing, it dawned on me that I knew exactly what he was talking about, though I had never really articulated it as Lewis had. But even more importantly, Lewis helped me see these experiences in the proper light. These episodes of longing would not be satisfied by more of whatever had triggered them. Instead, they were meant to serve as gracious pointers to the one thing that will: an eternal life with Jesus Christ in his completely renewed kingdom.  

In this way, Lewis opened my eyes to a “Christ enchanted” creation, helping me realize that he as everywhere left reminders that we were made for something more than what we presently see around us, something infinitely greater and better.

Even now, when I experience one of these particular moments, I’m not immune to seeing it with a myopic, even idolatrous eye. But thanks to Lewis, I’m much more likely to see and long for the real glory behind it…at least eventually.

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