Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Longing for God (sehnsucht, 2)
Jonal entry 962 | Monday, March 13, 2006
C. S. Lewis, my favorite author, says that in his boyhood in Northern Ireland he and his brother Warnie liked creating mythological places far away and also fantasizing mythological creatures and characters to populate those places. This child's play was never forgotten in their lifetimes, and was recycled in most of Lewis's works of fiction: the Narnia series of books, the science fiction trilogy, The Pilgrim's Regress, The Great Divorce, and the ancient pagan land that resembles ancient Greece in his "most adult novel" (as most Lewis reviewers call it), Till We Have Faces.
He focuses especially on the mythological "places" in his autobiographical writing. It was as though he and Warnie had a longing, sehnsucht (he uses this German word for it) which he also describes as a longing for "northern-ness." I've never had a clear idea of what he means by northnern-ness, and get the impression he wasn't clear about it in his own mind. Was it Scotland's highlands, far to the north of England where he spent most of his adult life and even north of his birthplace, Belfast? No, somewhere beyond. Was it the Viking north of the Danes and Norwegians? Maybe closer, but not quite. It was a "northern-ness" beyond the sea, to invoke Bobby Darin's rock song metaphor from 1960.
Having lost their mother in childhood and their father being inept at relating to young sons, the Lewis boys grew up with no faith in God and were each other's main source of solace and fellowship. Though they separated when sent to different boarding schools in England and served separately in the military in the World War I era, they later became reunited and spent many years together in a house they called the Kilns (as it was near a brick manufacturing operation) outside Oxford, where they both worked. Even after Jack (C. S. Lewis's nickname) married Joy Davidman a few years before the end of his life, Warnie continued to share their house. Jack relates that the sehnsucht that started in his pagan childhood and got no less pronounced even in his more stridently atheistic phase as a young man, continued to push him toward fantasy and mythological reading and writing, and those interests led him into close proximity with two strong Christian influences.
Though he was born too late to have personally met George MacDonald, a Scottish Christian fantasy author from the turn of the 20th century, Lewis found him early in life and considered him his strongest literary influence, though MacDonald's writing is less famous than Lewis's and that of several of his close acquaintances, including J. R. R. Tolkien of the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings myths. Tolkien was a contemporary of Lewis on the Oxford faculty and was a devout Catholic who expended great effort to persuade Lewis of the truth of Christianity. After an intense discussion through much of the night between the two lovers of myth and legend, on a ride in a sidecar on Warnie's motorcycle to a zoo, the light went on in Jack's heart. He said that when they embarked from Oxford he was still not a believer, but when they arrived at the zoo, he realized that he was now a follower of Jesus.
Afterward, Lewis compared his longing, sehnsucht, and "northern-ness" to spiritual yearnings of the type Augustine describes, and Pascal pinpoints as "a God-shaped vacuum." Though I've never experienced what so many others describe as "homesickness," I suspect that all homesickness is related to this searching by the soul. It's an ache that originates in that vacuum inside the heart of every human creature of God, that until its victim encounters Jesus, as Pascal says, mistakes as homesickness, longing, and loneliness for specific places or persons, when really it is longing for the filling of the Spirit of God.