CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Far Country

Are you familiar with CS Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy?

Surprised by Joy is a book that discusses the “mysterious longing” that visited him on numerous occasions. Lewis gives particular details for three of these encounters.

Lewis’ Experiences of ‘Joy’

C.S. Lewis’s First Recorded Experience

The first recorded experience of Joy was when Lewis was between 6 and 8 years old. His family had just moved to their new home, Little Lea, which was fascinating for Lewis and his brother Warnie. It’s of Little Lea that one of Lewis’ most often quoted statements makes reference.

“I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also of endless books”.

CS Lewis Family
The Lewis Family at Little Lea. Warnie, Jack, Albert and Flora Lewis

(One can almost see the Pevensie children of the Narnia Chronicles exploring Little Lea with young Jack).

On a summer’s day at Little Lea, Lewis was standing by a flowering currant bush when he suddenly remembered his toy garden in a biscuit tin from the family’s previous home, Dundela Villas. Lewis later described the currant bush moment as a “memory of a memory.” He recalled feeling that he was “remembering from centuries ago” and likened his experience to Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden. He wrote,

“Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time, and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”

Lewis’s Second Experience

Lewis’s second experience Lewis was facilitated by Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published just before Jack’s fifth birthday. Lewis loved all the Beatrix Potter books, but returned over and over to Squirrel Nutkin which gave him the particular feeling he called the “Idea of Autumn”. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis mentions “it” which was their private reference to what Lewis later called Joy. (Joy is always capitalized).

“I think almost more every year in the autumn I get the sense, just as the mere nature and voluptuous life of the world is dying, of something else coming awake. You know the feeling, of course, as well as I do. I wonder — is it significant in stories nymphs slip out of the tree just as the ordinary life of the wood is settling down for the night. Does the death of the natural always mean the birth of the spiritual? (CLI 831,832)

Lewis’s Third Experience

The 3rd seminal occasion occurred when Louis was reading the Saga of King Olaf by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When Lewis came across the opening lines of Tegner’s Drapa, he says he was suddenly lifted into “huge regions of northern sky”.

C.S. Lewis’s Mystical Childhood Experiences

Lewis’ three encounters – the flowering currant bush, the Autumn Idea, and reading Norse mythology with its Northern country – were later described by George Sayer as “mystical experiences of the presence of God.”

The “special longing” that Lewis called Joy got its name from Williams Wordsworth’s sonnet, which Wordsworth wrote following the death of his 3-year-old daughter. That poem is famous for the “Pangs” that it evokes. The line Lewis borrowed from is –

“Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind I turned to share the transport.”

We never learn what “Joy” had surprised Wordsworth, but Lewis obviously connected with the line. “The central story of my life is about nothing else,” Lewis wrote. Adding, “There is bliss in this longing, also colored by a sadness or sorrow, but this sadness is a kind that we want.” The encounter left him “troubled with a dim sense of something just beyond his consciousness, something unattainable, but wonderful.”

Other’s Mystical Childhood Experiences

Here’s why I’m asking…. Lewis seemed to think that this story is the central story” of everyone’s life.

I started to wonder if the Spirit visits everyone as a child. I started asking clients about their experiences.

I’ve asked people if they remember any brief experiences where everything seemed “opened up” or “extra-alive”, and then quickly, “impatiently” the world “turned commonplace again”?

Many people report having similar experiences, but “well-meaning adults” talked out of them.

How do folks usually “help us” to write our spiritual experiences off? They tell us, “It wasn’t real.”

What about you? Do you recall an experience like this? Some people I work with have clear memories of experiences like Lewis had. Others hear about ‘Joy’ and either want their memories “given back” to them, or they want Joy to enter their lives now.

Whatever you want to do with his spiritual autobiography, Lewis’s experiences of “Joy” were so real that he never forgot and never recovered; It was “the central story of his life.”

Joy Davidman’s Childhood Experience

Joy Davidman, who later became Mrs. Lewis, also had childhood encounters and wrote:

“There was a presence in the room. … I found myself more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take life watered-down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute”. (The Long Way Round, Essay by Joy Davidman)

How ‘Joy’ Informed C.S. Lewis’s Fiction

Like so many of his ideas, Lewis included this idea into his fiction to help us see as he did.

In The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn announces on arriving in heaven,

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all of my life though I never knew it til now.”

I can relate to Lewis in that I never forgot or “recovered” from my childhood encounters either. Also, like him, I became a skeptic and considered atheism before I was able to realize what had happened, or who had happened to me.

Lewis called the longing itself, that “unsatisfied desire which was more desirable than any other satisfaction, ” ‘Joy.’

Sometimes he referred to the “where” that he was longing for as “Far Country”.

One day I had the desire to try to convey the experience of the Far Country through song.

In the meantime, if you want to read Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, you can get a copy here.