Nostalgia for the Future

A cup of tea, a dream, a seashore, and eternity

This afternoon I made a cup of tea. I didn’t use my usual fancy Republic of Tea British Breakfast black tea, but instead a simple generic orange pekoe of the Red Rose or Lipton style which I had not had for years. The smell of the tea bag brought a wave of nostalgia over me, a longing for the past. Certain sounds, smells, sights do that to me, and I suppose to most people.

C.S. Lewis wrote often about longing. He believed it was one of the indicators of the existence of God. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he used the German word Sehnsucht to describe a strong emotion that often came over him and eventually convinced him of the reality of God. Wikipedia describes Sehnsucht like this: Sehnsucht (German pronunciation: [ˈzeːnˌzʊxt]) is a German noun translated as “longing”, “pining”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”.

At the end of the first book Lewis wrote after his conversion to Christianity, A Pilgrim’s Regress, he named some things which evoked Sehnsucht in him, ““that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

And in his famous essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he describes our experience of longing as “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.” Finally, in his most famous non-fiction book, Mere Christianity, he declares what he thinks this longing is all about and uses it as an argument for Christianity. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Desire, longing, nostalgia, Sehnsucht was an important concept in Lewis’ thinking. And it shows up in his fiction as well. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there are two places where this longing can be seen. When the four Pevensie children are in the Beavers’ house, they hear about Alsan for the first time. Lewis describes their feelings at the mention of Aslan as like having a dream that has a meaning too lovely to put into words “which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get back into that dream again.”

And in the last chapter when the White Witch has been defeated and Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy travel with Aslan and all the others to the seaside castle at Cair Paravel to be crowned kings and queens, the author breaks out of the story and talks directly to the reader. He describes the beach, the sand, pools of salt water, “and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking forever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” He leaves the world of Narnia for an eternal realm, the desire for it evoked by a memory of the sights and smells and sounds of the seashore.

Sehnsucht has been a driving force for much of my life.  I grew up in a poor family, and my parents did not take us to church. As the oldest of five I had a lot of responsibility placed on me to help my mother, and there was not much beauty in my life. I had two consolations – reading and playing outside. As a young reader my longing for escape and beauty was filled by reading science fiction and fairy tales. In fifth grade we lived in a small town where the library was in walking distance from our house, and I went through all the science fiction in the youth section that year. One of the few books I actually owned that I remember most was a collection of fairy tales which I reread many times.

The other consolation was nature. I loved to play outside and create make believe worlds out of objects I found. Some of my dearest memories are of when I was taken to my aunt’s house in Vermont for two weeks several summers in a row. This was a special treat since I was the only one of my siblings there with my aunt. She had plenty of land where I was allowed to wander and play. I remember an insect hospital I made one year. And I remember one summer making boats out of leaves and watching them float slowly down a little stream until out of sight.  My young soul, who knew nothing about Jesus or Heaven, was longing for beauty and some better place beyond where I was.

Hard to imagine, but my family’s life grew even bleaker from the time I was in sixth grade on. We moved to a city and nature was taken away from me so I entered into the world of books even more avidly.  In high school I read books that are not typical for teenagers such as Tolstoy, George Elliot, Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, and other writers who would make me feel sad and leave me longing, but I did not know there was an actual something I was longing for – Sehnsucht at work.

I worked my way through college starting out as a pharmacy major, but after two years of sciences and math I left that behind to go where my heart was – literature. I studied Shakespeare, the Greek playwrights, and any literature I could as electives, and my final degree was in French literature. Literature was where the beauty was, the window to other times and places for me, the world through other eyes than what my own sad eyes saw around me day-to-day. I did not connect the longings that the beauty in the literature evoked in me to a longing for the transcendent God. In fact, I never made the connection until two years ago when I read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and felt as if so much of my life had been explained to me. I understood that longing for beauty had participated in drawing me back to God.


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