The Joy of Being Surprised by C.S. Lewis
In C.S. Lewis, as in G.K. Chesterton, there is so much more to discover
I first stumbled across C.S. Lewis whilst fumbling around in a fog of ignorance. As an angry young man, filled to the brim with bitterness, I was groping for fragments of light amid figments of darkness. The light had first shone forth from the pages of a book by G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, in which the intellectually indefatigable GKC had vanquished many of the idols of my prejudice. I began to perceive, dimly at first, that the philosophy and theology of Christendom was the well of truth from which European civilization had sprung whereas the ideas of modernity were mere shallows by comparison.
I developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for Chesterton, scouring through second-hand bookshops for his works. It was on one of these book-trawling expeditions that my eyes settled on a book called Surprised by Joy by someone called C.S. Lewis. I had heard of C.S. Lewis, possibly as the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book I’d never read, but I knew nothing about him. Perhaps I had read somewhere that he was a Christian writer. Perhaps not. I’m not sure. The shadow of the years has descended upon the surface of my memory. Either way, something prompted me to take the book from the shelf. Opening it at random I came across a reference to Chesterton. As my eyes read Lewis’s words, my heart leapt, surprised by the joy of discovering a kindred spirit. “It was hear that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays,” Lewis wrote. “I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me.” Yes! This was exactly how I felt when I had first read him. It was uncanny that someone in a field hospital in France, during the First World War, more than sixty years earlier, could have felt exactly the same way that I had upon discovering Chesterton. I continued reading:
It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite over-rules our previous tastes when It decides to bring two minds together.
Exactly! I couldn’t have put it better myself. “Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love.” Yes again! How did this man Lewis do it? He knew exactly how I felt about Chesterton. He knew it because he felt it too – in exactly the same way.
Lewis waxed lyrical about Chesterton for a further page or so, my heart continually leaping in joyful ascent at his words, before he finally concluded with the following doom-laden words:
In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere … God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
After reading these words I couldn’t say that I hadn’t been warned. Lewis was cautioning me that, in reading Chesterton, I was walking a dangerous path. Who knew where it might lead? The warning went unheeded. Not only did I not desist from reading Chesterton but I now added C.S. Lewis as a literary mentor. From now on, when trawling through the treasures in second-hand bookshops, I would be searching for titles by Lewis as well as those by Chesterton.
In reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity, as in reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I learned that the Christian Creed provided the very credentials for truth itself. In reading Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, as in reading Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, I began to perceive the sense to be found in suffering; and in reading A Grief Observed I saw the abstract arguments about suffering become incarnate in Lewis’s own pain at losing his wife. In Narnia, as in Chesterton’s Manalive and his Father Brown stories, I discovered the wonder of remaining child-like, and the wisdom that springs from this wonder-filled innocence. And, of course, in Lewis, as in Chesterton, there was so much more to discover. Finally, through their guidance, like John in The Pilgrim’s Regress, I would lay myself at the feet of Mother Kirk. In reading the works of Lewis and Chesterton, and in the enjoyment of their company, I had crossed the threshold of hope and had entered Aslan’s country.