This is a story of discovery. C.S. Lewis was my guide. It all happened because of one late afternoon in the Spring of Minnesota when I heard these words:
Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.
The Unusual Study
The story actually starts in the morning of that Spring day when I packed up my books and drove to a quaint coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis. I went there to study and indeed that’s what I did. I spent several hours there of hard thinking and reflection and prayer on the end for which God created the world, along with musings about God’s aseity and the relationship between his incomprehensibility and his analogical revelation. I was in the Himalayas of truth. It was a glorious day of almost uninhibited insight, if I remember it correctly. But the problem is that I can’t.
That day of study has become legendary to my brain. It has become one of those days that every time afterwards, when I sit down to read, something in my head brings that day up the way a washed up Minor League pitcher talks about the no-hitter he threw in high school. Somewhere deep in my person it was decided that this one event would be called the glory days of my scholastic experience. I just can’t let it go. It was that wonderful of a day. . . .
The $5 Hot-n-Ready
Which is what made it so strange on the late afternoon of that same Spring day when I found myself standing in line at a Little Caesar’s pizza place about to order a $5 Hot-n-Ready. Now, in case you’re unfamiliar, a $5 Hot-n-Ready is a large pizza — cheese or pepperoni — that is prepared in advance for customers, its heat maintained in a big incubator, until it is sold as food, for only $5. This is all true, and I was at that Little Caesar’s on that late afternoon to purchase this pizza as dinner for my entire family, for only $5.
And here’s another line of important information: this particular Little Caesar’s is located in the inner-city next to a liquor store. So get this scene: I am in inner-city Minneapolis, waiting to purchase a $5 pizza inside a Little Caesar’s next to a liquor store.
And as I’m standing in line, as you can imagine, surrounded by cultural elites, in the background, blasting from the TV, were these words:
Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down. . . (yes, that song again)
“Of course!,” I thought, what else could make this whole experience more meaningful than an early 90s rerun of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
Except this time, unlike usual, I didn’t sing along with the only rap song I’ve memorized. I stood still, I looked around, and I hated the fact that I was there compared to the reality I had tasted just an hour before. I felt like a contradiction. The atmospheric pressures of my self-understanding were colliding. There was both this euphoric experience of insight and then the fact that I eat Little Caesar’s pizza. Which of these was true? Which of these experiences was real?
Down to the Brass Tacks
And that is where C. S. Lewis helps, in chapter 15 of his Letters to Malcolm.
Throughout the correspondence with Malcolm, Betty, the “silent third” in their dialogue, has apparently accused Lewis of overcomplicating prayer. So he responds to this charge by first explaining why prayer is not as simple for him as it perhaps should be, and then by explaining his process of getting back to simplicity. For Lewis, the issue is all about reality.
The initial roadblock to simple praying, he confesses, is how unreliable he considers his default understanding of God and himself. He calls them both “phantasmal” and “vague.” And in order to overcome that, Lewis puts himself and everything else in context. He gets down to the brass tacks of reality: Where am I? What am I?
Something More Than Here
Lewis’s answer is that there exists a deeper reality beyond his everyday consciousness. There is more to who he is, so much more, in fact, that Lewis calls his everyday experience a facade, a mere surface, or, a stage.
He shows us that there are two types of reality: there is our default everyday reality in this world, what he calls the stage; and then there is a deeper reality, one beyond our present experience, what he calls the off-stage life. And the key is that we be aware of this deeper reality while we walk through our everyday existence — that we have an awareness that can’t be bound to space and time, as if the stage of the quaint coffee shop were more real than the stage of Little Caesar’s.
Jack’s Modest Critique
Lewis’s point completely critiques my crisis. I was pitting one location against another when the real problem was my awareness. I had allowed my awareness of deeper reality to completely leave me when I stepped into the Little Caesar’s, and therefore, like a simpleton, concluded that it was Little Caesar’s fault. It felt lesser. I wanted to be somewhere else, although all I really needed was to wake up. Lewis writes,
The attempt is not to escape from space and time and from my creaturely situation as a subject facing objects. It is more modest: to re-awake the awareness of that situation. If that can be done, there is no need to go anywhere else. (81–82)
And here’s one crucial implication: if we understand that there is a deeper reality than our present experience, and that this deeper reality is accessed by our awareness, then it means that there is no experience here that is too mundane, or too average, or too low.
Awake Here to There
It is true, as Lewis says, that this world and this self are very far from being rock-bottom realities (81). It is just a stage, there is something more real — I have an off-stage life. Blaise Pascal pondered this same subject in pensée #164. He figures we sleep almost half our lives, and wonders if the other half, when we assume we are awake (like right now), could actually be another form of sleep that we will wake up from one day. Could you imagine looking at your life right now, as awake as you feel right now, and one day thinking of it the same way you think about your sleep?
There is something deeper out there. There’s a deeper you and a deeper me than what we experience now. Jesus is the one who modeled this perfectly. He also said about his disciples, “They are not of this world, just as I am not of this world” (John 17:16). The apostle Paul agrees when he tells us that we have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1–3).
Right now, I am spiritually, truly seated with Christ. I am here, yes, on this real stage called “life in this world,” writing a blog post, about to hit Publish. But I am also there. There. And when I am aware of this, Lewis writes, “This situation itself is, at every moment, a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground; the Bush is burning now” (82) — if only I am aware, whether in the Himalayas of focused study or standing in line at Little Caesar’s.