God Beckons Through Beauty

Where Our Deepest Longings Lead

The longing has stirred deep within me, I suppose, ever since I’ve been old enough to long for it. It’s an intense, bittersweet longing for something unnamed I’ve always wanted but can’t quite put my finger on. And it doesn’t so much stir as stab, striking when I’m not expecting it — not even looking for it. Then all too quickly, it’s gone, leaving me wanting that pleasurably painful pang again. I say it’s bittersweet, but it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.

Growing up, I don’t remember anyone I knew ever describing this experience of longing. Nor do I remember trying to describe it myself. Perhaps it’s because English doesn’t have a word for it. Or perhaps it’s because the experience is so subjective and what prompts it varies from person to person.

But I learned from C.S. Lewis that German speakers have a word for it: “Sehnsucht” (Surprised by Joy, 6), which means a wistful yearning for one’s homeland when living in a foreign country, or a painful pining when someone or something dear is absent. That gets very close to the feeling.

Sehnsucht Mentor

In fact, Lewis not only gave me vocabulary for this familiar soul-longing, but he also became my first and foremost teacher regarding its significance. Lights came on when, as a young man encountering Lewis’s essay, The Weight of Glory for the first time, I read about the “inconsolable secret” I carried inside (just as you do) — “this desire for our own far-off country” (29). And he explained why we find this Sehnsucht secret difficult and awkward to talk about:

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, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. (30)

In my childhood and teen years, I had loved Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and his Space Trilogy, no doubt because they were seasoned with Sehnsucht. But it was in reading many of his nonfiction works later that I really began to understand why I had this “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” — an experience Lewis called “Joy” (Surprised by Joy, 19).

Beautiful Signposts

It’s telling that my experience of this Joy has always been stirred by beauty. Not everything I find beautiful stirs it. And a beautiful thing that stirs it once may not stir it again — certainly not every time. Nor can I predict what kind of beauty will rouse it. But a whole spectrum of beauties might: An old house long abandoned. Clouds in an N.C. Wyeth painting. Orion striding toward a crescent moon, noticed on a late-night dog walk. My granddaughter on the porch, entranced by Narnia, which she discovered through the magical wardrobe of an audiobook. A long-past moment in Lutsen, Minnesota, frozen on film, when my then-young children leaped from a boulder, laughing for joy.

Lewis frequently experienced the stab of Joy in works of literature. I frequently experience it in music. I’ve been stabbed when listening to Rich Mullins’s rough demo of “Hard to Get,” the melancholy cello in Rachel Portman’s “Much Loved,” Andrew Peterson’s “The Silence of God,” Eva Cassidy’s rendition of “Fields of Gold,” Ola Gjeilo’s “Winter,” and Bob and Jordan Kauflin’s “When We See Your Face,” to name just a few.

When I perceive beauty in such things, what am I longing for? The abandoned house? The clouds? The stars? The memory? The music? No. It’s something else, some beauty I’m glimpsing through them. Lewis explains it this way:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (Weight of Glory, 30–31)

Or we could say they are signposts directing us toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

Where the Signposts Point

When I was around age ten, I remember listening to my father’s record of Christopher Parkening performing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and feeling that bittersweet pang of Joy. As far as beauty-signposts go, few are more obvious — spelling it out in the title. You might think I’d have recognized where my longing led, especially since I came to faith about this time. But I didn’t — and wouldn’t for another decade.

Lewis’s road to discovery was longer. In Surprised by Joy, he describes how he spent the first half of his life engrossed in the pursuit of Joy, experiencing repeated disappointment when it vanished from every beautiful object he thought contained it. What surprised Lewis was his slow realization that it wasn’t Joy he desired; rather, “Joy was the desiring.” And “a desire is turned not to itself but to its object” (269, italics mine). All along, Joy had been saying to him, “Look! Look! What do I remind you of?” (268).

Having searched high and low, Lewis realized that his desire was one “which no experience in this world can satisfy,” in fact was “never meant to satisfy . . . but only to arouse . . . to suggest the real thing” (Mere Christianity, 136–37). The greatest surprise of Lewis’s life was when he followed the direction of his otherworldly desire and discovered that it led to the Satisfaction he hadn’t believed existed. All those years he had mistaken the signposts as the sources of his treasured Joy, when all along they had been telling him that Jesus was the ultimate Joy of Man’s Desiring.

The Ultimate Destination

I call Lewis my “Sehnsucht Mentor” because through his writings I gained a vocabulary for my “inconsolable longing,” priceless conceptual clarity for what before had been a hazy intuition, and a richer understanding of the heartbeat of the Christian life, which I learned from John Piper to call Christian Hedonism.

And when I read the last novel Lewis published in his lifetime, Till We Have Faces, his reworking of the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros into a story of Sehnsucht, he gave me one of the most beautiful statements I’ve ever read, uttered by the character Psyche:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from. (86)

I feel the bittersweet pang of homesickness almost every time I read it, “a desire for [my] far-off country,” “a country [I] have never yet visited” but recognize as home (Weight of Glory, 29, 31).

Home. That is our inconsolable secret, isn’t it? We long to be in the place where — or more accurately, with the Person from whom — all the beauty, all the glory, comes from (John 17:3, 24). We’re longing for home, for the Mountain. And all the signposts that prompt our piercing, bittersweet desire tell us that’s where we truly belong.

I call it bittersweet, but it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.