C.S. Lewis and the “stab of Joy” – an Excerpt from God’s Wider Presence

The following is an excerpt from God’s Wider Presence, by Robert Johnston.

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Cover ArtAs Lewis continued through his teenage years, he became a conflicted atheist—that is, he maintained that God didn’t exist but confessed that he was angry at God because of that. There also continued those moments of ecstasy, that stab of Joy, when he was sick with desire, that sickness which was “better than health” (119).

Lewis relates how he steeped himself in Wagnerian music and in Norse and Celtic mythology—all things “Northern.” But though he added detail to detail, Joy could not be produced. His greedy impatience to snare it seemed to scare it away.

However, Lewis then happened upon the imaginative world of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. I quote him:

In one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had
already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense
all was changed. I did not yet know . . . the name of the new quality, the bright
shadow that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. . . . It
was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now
speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my body, or behind me. If
it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity—something
too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. (179–80)

This Joy, for Lewis, was inseparable from MacDonald’s story. And while his previous experiences of Joy had seemed totally detached from his “ordinary” life, this time Joy’s bright shadow came out of the book and into his real world, “transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. . . . That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer” (181).

©2014 by Robert K. Johnston. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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