As a child, I had little stashes of treasure. Translucent plastic beads, water-snail and mussel shells found in the Harpeth River, glass marbles, a ring with a little blue-glass jewel my brother gave me, a goat skull found on my godmother’s farm, a teardrop-shaped prism that filled rooms with tiny shards of rainbow, dried reindeer lichen, cheap pot-metal ornaments painted gold and set with faceted rainbow-glass, a lop-eared rabbit-puppet named Hazel (cookie points to anyone who gets the reference), an army (I’m not kidding, if they were alive and feeling militant, they could overwhelm you) of plastic horses.
All things that are nearly, or completely, worthless in a monetary sense. But I think most people will easily understand that they are anything but worthless to me, even today.
Along with these objects, I kept, and still keep, deeper and even more precious hoards. Memories, words, emotions, pictures of places, sounds, smells, anything and everything that has struck a certain note in me. It is a very specific note. I can feel it vibrate, and it is always the same, though the things that cause it are so utterly disparate that even I cannot see the connection. I only feel that there is a connection.
I hunt for something, constantly. The very fact that, having these treasure-troves already, I am still hunting, tells me that these things, while they touch what I am looking for, are not the thing itself. Smoke on the wind, pine sap, limestone boulders… almost, almost! But the moment passes as soon as I know it has come. I’ve tracked my quarry and won a glimpse, but it has disappeared, again, amidst the trees and all I have left are tracks.
I worry, sometimes, that these hoards are of the world, and perhaps, in a sense, they are. They, themselves, that is. But the chord they strike, that is of such power and purity that I cannot imagine it having its source anywhere but in God. Perhaps I, and all my fellow creatures, are in danger of mistaking the source of the want, for misunderstanding what we are hunting. I could spend my whole life believing that I am seeking the things that reflect the light, and find once I have them, the light is gone. But at the same time, if it were not for the reflections these things give me, what would I know of the light?
Maybe I am wrong. But it seems that if so, at least I am not alone in my error.
I’ve been listening to an audiobook copy of The Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis. Something he says near the end, in Chapter 10, made me think of my strange dragon-hoard.
I’m not sure, yet, how this is going to work, but I feel the need to explore the passage and my reaction to it. I think it will take at least one more post. It may take several. We shall see. In the mean time, here is the passage itself. I’ve whittled it down a little for brevity’s sake, but I recommend picking up a copy of the book and reading the whole chapter (or, for that matter, the whole book, it is very interesting).
Warning, Lewis speaks about Pantheism, below. From what I know of him from his writing, I think his words are not intended to insult, but simply reflect his view. After all, he introduces this chapter as nothing more than his personal speculation. Still, it is possible to take it as an attack on pantheistic religions. I am not a pantheist, I believe that Lewis’s words are probably correct, but I mean no insult to anyone in posting this. If your beliefs differ from mine, feel free to express them (politely, please) in the comments below.
You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven, namely that we do not, really, desire it. But that may be an illusion. What I am now going to say is an opinion of my own…
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.
You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words. But most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you’ve stood before some landscape which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life, and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw, but at the first words a gulf yawns between you and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him…
Are not all life-long friendships born at the moment when, at last, you meet another human being who has some inkling, but faint and uncertain even in the best, of that something which you were born desiring and which… year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for…?
You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it… echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest, if there ever came an echo that did not die away, but swelled into the sound itself, you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt, you would say “here, at last, is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want… While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
This signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him, and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.
The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing if you had never seen a key, and the key, itself, a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is… a key to unlock one of the doors in the House with many mansions. For it is not “Humanity” in the abstract that is to be saved, but you… God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you, and you alone, because you were made for it…
It is from this point of view that we can understand Hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else that it was within your reach, and you have lost it forever. This may seem a perilously private and subjective notion of the “Pearl of Great Price,” but it is not. The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. The thing, itself, has never actually been embodied in any thought, or image, or emotion. Always it has summoned you out of yourself, and if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down to brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you.
The door into life generally opens behind us, and the only wisdom for one haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work. The Secret Fire goes out when you use the bellows. Bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze…
Such is my opinion, and it may be erroneous. Perhaps this secret desire, also, is part of the old man, and must be crucified before the end, but this opinion has a curious trick of evading denial. The desire, much more the satisfaction, has always refused to be fully present in any experience. Whatever you try to identify with it turns out to be, not it, but something else, so that hardly any degree of crucifixion or transformation could go beyond what the desire, itself, leads us to anticipate. Again, if this opinion is not true, something better is. But “something better,” not “this” or “that” experience, but something beyond it, is almost the definition of the thing I am trying to describe.
The thing you long for summons you away from the self. Even the desire for the thing lives only if you abandon it. This is the ultimate law. The seed dies to live, the bread must be cast upon the waters, he that loses his soul will save it. But the life of the seed, the finding of the bread, the recovery of the soul are as real as the preliminary sacrifice. Hence it is truly said of heaven: “in heaven there is no ownership.” If any, there, took it upon him to call anything his own, he would, straight-way, be thrust out into Hell and become an evil spirit. But it is also said: “to him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that recieveth it.”
What can be more a man’s own than this new name which, even in eternity, remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.
Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another: the communion of the saints.
If all experienced God in the same way, and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church Triumphant would have no symphony. It would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note… Heaven is a “city” and a “body” because the blessed remain eternally different, a “society” because each has something to tell all the others: fresh and ever-fresh news of the “My God” whom each finds in Him whom all praise as “Our God.” For, doubtless, the continually successful, yet never complete, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others, and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations, is also among the ends for which the individual was created.
For union exists only between distincts, and perhaps from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is is a creed not so so much false, as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created, He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him and achieve union instead of sameness. Thus He, also, cast his bread upon the waters. Even within the creation, we might say that inanimate matter, which has no will, is one with God in a sense in which men are not. But it is not God’s purpose that we should go back into that old identity… but that we should go on to the maximum distinctness, there to be reunited with Him in a higher fashion.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Note: this is a transcription from audio. I cannot vouch for the punctuation, spelling, or even the exact wording, but I have done the best I can under the circumstances.