Archives For Joy

Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.

Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.

Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.

The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Coleridge)

Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
(Robert Stroud)

Lewis and Irish Sand

It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.

Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.

My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.

To another friend, he wrote:

I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.

But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)

Sand as a Metaphor

Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.

Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.

[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
(Genesis 22:17)

[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
(Joshua 11:4)

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.

“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
(Proverbs 27:3)

[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
(Isaiah 35:7)

[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
    Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
    a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
    though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
(Jeremiah 5:22)

[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor

In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.

We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.

But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.

All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.

A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).

“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”

Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.

In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.

[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.

As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.

Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.

Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.

It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.


* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.

Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .

C.S. Lewis and Squirrels

October 31, 2019 — 15 Comments

One unchanging constant through the whole of C.S. Lewis’ life, was his love of nature. His affection for a creature frequently regarded as a pest, illustrates this perfectly.

In 1954, Lewis wrote playfully to the eight Kilmer siblings in the, the family to whom he dedicated The Magician’s Nephew. (Coincidentally, the thirty letters he wrote to these children recently sold for over $100,000.)

There is no snow here yet and it is so warm that the foolish snowdrops and celandines (little yellow flowers; I don’t know if you have them or not) are coming up as if it was spring. And squirrels (we have hundreds and thousands about this college) have never gone to bed for their winter sleep at all.

I keep on warning them that they really ought to and that they’ll be dreadfully sleepy (yawning their heads off) by June if they don’t, but they take no notice.

One can imagine the awe Lewis would have expressed at learning about the almost supernatural hibernations undergone by Arctic ground squirrels. Believe it or not, as they say, it is a fact that during their lengthy hibernations, curled up beneath the solidly frozen ground, the core body temperature of these small mammals actually hover around 3 degrees below freezing!

In 1941 he responded to a comment from one of his correspondents about unbridled nature.

I do know what you mean by the sudden ravishing glimpse of animal life in itself, its wildness—to meet a squirrel in a wood or even a hedgehog in the garden makes me happy. But that is because it is, being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.

That wildness would not be lost by the kind of dominion Adam had. It would be nicer, not less nice, if that squirrel would come and make friends with me at my whistle—still more if he would obey me when I told him not to kill the red squirrel in the next tree.

In the early 1930s, Lewis mentioned squirrels in several of his letters to his good friend Arthur Greeves. For example, he described a simple pleasure experienced during one of his daily walks.

I also had the experience lately of walking under an avenue of trees after a shower, and saw that tho all the rest was still, a kind of wave-motion was passing over the branches on one side, followed by a patter of drops. Coming nearer I found it was a squirrel leaping from branch to branch and sending a wake of tiny showers to earth as they bent under him.

Similar happiness echoes in a 1939 letter to another friend.

[During] my annual January walking tour with my brother . . . We had one glorious day crossing Wenlock Edge . . . with new snow on the ground and cloudless sunshine from end to end of the skies–beautiful shadows. And out in the country snow is a great betrayer. Rabbits and squirrels became as easy to see as bushes.

The tracks are rather exciting, too, aren’t they? To climb up some unearthly lane to a hill crest far from any house, still early in the morning, and find from the innumerable paw-prints how long ago the animals’ day has begun.

Squirrels in Narnia

Squirrels play prominently in at least two episodes in the enchanted land of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we witness a terrible scene when the White Witch comes upon a group of Narnians who are celebrating a visit by Father Christmas.

A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. . . . But when the whole party saw the sledge stopping and who was in it, all the gaiety went out of their faces.

The father squirrel stopped eating with his fork halfway to his mouth and one of the satyrs stopped with its fork actually in its mouth, and the baby squirrels squeaked with terror. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered. “Speak, vermin!” she said again. . . . Who gave [these things] to you?” said the Witch.

“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox. “What?” roared the Witch, springing from the sledge and taking a few strides nearer to the terrified animals. “He has not been here!” At that moment one of the young squirrels lost its head completely. “He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. “Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures . . .

On a happier note, in Prince Caspian we see how even the Talking Animals remain true to their species’ nature.

After that they went on till they came among tall beech trees, and Trufflehunter [the badger] called out, “Pattertwig! Pattertwig! Pattertwig!” and almost at once, bounding down from branch to branch till he was just above their heads, came the most magnificent red squirrel that Caspian had ever seen. He was far bigger than the ordinary dumb squirrels which he had sometimes seen in the castle gardens; indeed he was nearly the size of a terrier and the moment you looked in his face you saw that he could talk.

Indeed the difficulty was to get him to stop talking, for, like all squirrels, he was a chatterer. He welcomed Caspian at once and asked if he would like a nut and Caspian said thanks, he would. But as Pattertwig went bounding away to fetch it, Trufflehunter whispered in Caspian’s ear, “Don’t look. Look the other way. It’s very bad manners among squirrels to watch anyone going to his store or to look as if you wanted to know where it was.”

Squirrels certainly know how to chatter. In 1955, C.S. Lewis shared with a regular correspondent, his idea of a perfect world. “I’m all for a planet without aches or pains or financial worries but I doubt if I’d care for one of pure intelligence. No senses (no relish of smells & tastes?), no affection, no Nonsense! I must have a little fooling. I want to tickle a cat’s ears and sometimes have a slanging match with an impertinent squirrel.”

The Most Significant Squirrel in C.S. Lewis’ Life

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis describes an early encounter that exerted a profound influence in the shaping of his identity. It came not from a living specimen but, as I have written about in a different context, from a fictional member of the Family Sciuridae. Lewis describes the opening of his mind to the pursuit of true Joy.

Then came the Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty. It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . . in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.

Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world [Boxen] was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. Thus if we use the word imagination in a third sense, and the highest sense of all, this invented world was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were, and I will now try to record them.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire.

And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

Rereading some of Lewis’ words about these entertaining creatures has taken me on an enjoyable journey, and not only because I share a similar rodent legacy or because our forest home is located on Squirrel Place. Lewis’ vision of the place of animals in this world and the next resonates with my sense of God’s relationship with this portion of his creation.

After all, it was our parents, not theirs, who brought about the fall. Thus Lewis’ sentimental thought that they are, “being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.”

Dating Like an Inkling

October 28, 2015 — 8 Comments

datingI don’t recall ever reading about C.S. Lewis’ dating life.

Certainly, much has been written about his late marriage to Joy Gresham. It began as one of legal convenience, allowing her to remain in England, and grew into genuine love.

The book he anonymously penned as he grieved her passing is regarded by many as his most moving work.*

Another relationship in Lewis’ life that has provoked much speculation, was his care for the mother of one of his friends who died in WWI. The fact that the two young soldiers had vowed to care for one another’s parents in that event, does not dispel questions about what that particular relationship may have developed into.

Yes, I’ve read a great deal about the women in Lewis’ life, but until recently I had not encountered his thoughts on dating while he was a young man. In a 1926 letter to his father, he related an odd predicament he was experiencing as a young professor.

My dear Papy,

. . . I have been bothered into the last job I ever expected to do this term: taking a class of girls once a week at one of the women’s Colleges. However, I am not engaged to be married yet, and there are always seven of them there together, and the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright.

I say this because as a general rule women marry their tutors.

I suppose if a girl is determined to marry and has a man alone once a week to whom she can play the rapt disciple (most fatal of all poses to male vanity) her task is done.

The most humorous part of this is Lewis’ accurate assessment of male vanity.

This passage got me thinking about the subject of dating.

Is dating fun? I’m sure to many it is. But, I suspect that to the majority of people, lacking a committed relationship is an unwelcome fact of life.

It seems to me that one of the very best things about having been happily married for 39 years, is not needing to date. I don’t remember it a being all that fun at the time. But then, memories can get foggy after so long.

Lewis was utterly content being an aging bachelor. In truth, the state suited him well, and many of his friends were shocked when he wed.

In marriage he encountered much unexpected happiness. But Lewis, despite being a Romantic, remained a Rationalist. He was no dreamer who professed idealized version of marriage that was immune to human flaws.

In 1962 he shared this wonderfully honest assessment of marriage . . . and this refers to a truly good marriage.

I nominally have [a place of my own] and am nominally master of the house, but things seldom go as I would have chosen. The truth is that the only alternatives are either solitude (with all its miseries and dangers, both moral and physical) or else all the rubs and frustrations of a joint life.

The second, even at its worst seems to me far the better. I hope one is rewarded for all the stunning replies one thinks of one does not utter! But alas, even when we don’t say them, more comes out in our look, our manner, and our voice. An elaborately patient silence can be very provoking! We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.

If only we were all so honest as Lewis. Life would be simpler and we might actually become a little “easier to live with.” Spouses, family and friends would surely appreciate that new self-awareness.

_____

* A Grief Observed. I have quoted from the volume in the past, including here and here.

 

 

Facebook the Discourager

October 7, 2013 — 18 Comments

facebookIt turns out networking on the dominant digital community, Facebook, may have a gloomy downside. A recent study of young adults found that the more time they spent on Facebook, the sadder they became. (A link to the peer-reviewed study appears below.)

The researchers ominously warn, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Most readers of Mere Inkling possess social networking accounts. In light of that fact, we will have a gut reaction to this allegation, invariably based upon our own experience.

Some will assume, I don’t get depressed reading posts on Facebook, so that study must be wrong.

Others may think, I can see how everyone’s reports on their achievements could discourage a friend whose life isn’t progressing nearly as well. In fact, some of us may have read about the accomplishments of our peers and felt a nagging pang that we don’t quite measure up.

To be fair, the problem doesn’t lie with Facebook per se, it’s a consequence of the human condition. No matter how self-confident a person appears, there is a seed of insecurity within each of us. Christians would trace it back to humanity’s fall, but whatever its source, we innately recognize that we are not the true masters of our own destiny.

Even if we make every choice afforded us correctly, there are accidents, diseases, whims of genetic imperfection and assorted other things that remind us of our vulnerabilities.

It is not actually our insecurity that creates the dynamic where Facebook can become a great discourager. The cause is more insidious than a mere awareness of our own dependency.

The reason we are saddened by the success and happiness of others—even those we love—is due to envy. That’s an ugly word, and it’s not something we want to foster in our lives. In fact, whenever it rears its head, we strive to crush it with our heel.

The truth is that most of us subconsciously experience this feeling far more often than we are aware. It could, for example, be as simple as longing for a sporty new car or muscular new truck like the one that just passed us on the road . . . or wishing that our makeup accented our features or our clothes flattered our bodies as nicely as someone we passed on the sidewalk.

Envy can be especially evident at events like high school class reunions. As the decades pass, it becomes simpler to contrast the (external) accomplishments of classmates who once shared seemingly equal opportunities.

You can find envy everywhere, even (God forbid) in churches. That’s why James included the following in his letter to the Church.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. (James 2:1-7, ESV).

In an essay entitled “Democratic Education,” C.S. Lewis noted, “Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand.” Lewis also included it in his description of the damned.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. (The Screwtape Letters).

Facebook doesn’t cause us to envy, it merely offers us the frequent opportunity to hear about the joys of others and wish we experienced the same. (Far be it from us to ponder the fact that our acquaintances seldom write about their own disappointments, insecurities, or worries.)

There’s really only one way to reduce the influence of envy in our lives. It comes from understanding how truly precious—how intensely loved—we are, by our Creator. When we understand that he loved each of us so deeply that he was willing to allow his only begotten Son to die in our place . . . only then can we comprehend that we need envy nothing.

Confident in that merciful love, the murderer Paul of Tarsus was able to rest in God’s forgiveness and write:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11b-13).

_____

The study, “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” is available through the Public Library of Science here.

Nature’s Melodies

July 12, 2012 — 9 Comments

Recently we were walking our five year old granddaughter home after a visit to our house, and she said something remarkable. (Our son’s family lives on a forested parcel adjacent to our own near Puget Sound.)

This precious little girl gazed to the top of the tall pine and fir lining the path and said, “I love the music the woods make.” She went on to describe various elements of nature’s orchestra, including the whistling wind in the treetops, the croaking of innumerable frogs drumming down by the pond, and, of course, the varied melodies of the birds who also call this glorious place “home.”

It was a wonderful moment.

When we pause to appreciate nature, it reminds us of the beneficent God who created it. Nature, especially when it is pristine and untouched by human hand, is truly wondrous. There are, I recognize, some “natural” settings that might actually be improved by human intervention . . . but these are few.

Unspoiled nature is beautiful. And that is a crucial distinction to make—because nature too has been corrupted by humanity’s fall from grace. Its capricious temperament is manifested in storms and other disasters.

So we, as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve must be content to savor this blurred image of God’s original creation. For, even this corrupted world, is surely magnificent.

C.S. Lewis appreciated this truth. He and his close friends enjoyed many a long walk across the English countryside.

Nature is an awe-inspiring thing, but she is incapable of communicating ultimate joy. To find that, we must look beyond the forest to see who wrote the music it so eloquently sings.

In The Four Loves, Lewis emphasizes this truth:

Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some pokey little church, or (it might be) going to work in an East End parish. But the love of her has been a valuable and, for some people, indispensable initiation.

May our Creator grant us the opportunity to enjoy his unfathomable creation—even as we recognize that it is only by his boundless grace we are capable of doing so.