Imagine this: Christmas Eve. My family opens presents on Christmas Eve and my father always buys each of us something special. On the Christmas of my fifteenth year, I knew what my gift would be because I had asked specifically and I had seen dad doing research. It would be a CD player, tape player, and radio combined. It would record from tape to CD and play both sides of a tape without my having to open the deck and turn it over. It would be a miracle of science, a source of endless pleasure and hours of musical entertainment. I would be happy.
I waited all day. Breakfast was fine, a special Christmas rice pudding which I generally love, but this morning I was looking forward to something even more sweet than rice pudding: my new gift. The day passed drearily and exceedingly slowly. I was all anticipation. The evening arrived. Excitement continued to build. I longed for the moment when I ripped the paper off of my present and I could hold it in my hands.
Father lit the advent candles and read the Christmas story as he does every Christmas Eve. The story is long and I have heard it before. Then he finished A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Even the ending of Scrooge’s adventures (another family tradition) could not distract me from the sheer pleasure for which I was so highly tuned. And when we had apparently wriggled and wrinkled our faces in agony long enough, mother handed us our presents. They were all regular, but smaller than anticipated. I opened mine and they were nice, but they were not the gift. My siblings opened their gifts. It was all very nice.
Then my father disappeared into the back room. He came down the hallway and told me to close my eyes. I felt my body tingling and I shivered with sheer delight. I was happy.
The opening of the present and the subsequent pleasure of holding that big black music box were what you would expect: pleasurable. But even while I was holding it in my lap, the happiness was slipping from me, for it cannot compete with the happiness I felt before holding the present in my hands. This inconsolable longing is the same longing we feel just prior to Thanksgiving dinner. The air is so thick with the smells of turkey, gravy, and potatoes, of apple pie and cranberries, that we nearly choke with longing. But we soon find that while the meal is all deliciousness, it lacks the deliciousness of longing before the meal. It is as if the anticipation were more wonderful than the actuality. This longing, almost characterized by a kind of pain, is Sehnsucht.
Let’s not disregard these indicators of our need for God. The signs are everywhere and this inconsolable longing, this Sehnsucht, is an important sign of our pilgrimage. We long for some thing. Pleasures, whatever they might be, never deliver the lasting satisfaction we so desire. Perhaps I am playing the humbug here, but I only write what Lewis has pointed out already; namely, that our lives are characterized by this longing. We long for the old thrill of anticipation almost as soon as we have the object of our desires in our hands, but we cannot have it strictly as it was. Sehnsucht was Joy and Joy was a desire and so “all joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings” (C.S. Lewis).
What Lewis realized much later in life was that as long as he tried to recapture that moment, he was endlessly rebuffed. The old thrill was gone, or at the very least going. He could not have that moment again. It was gone, but the memory was there and the memory itself was a kind of longing, a desire for a desire. “Thus, the very moment when I longed to be so stabbed again, was itself again such a stabbing” (Surprised by Joy).
Lewis understood that what he wanted was a state of mind, a thrill, and so he focused his imaginative energies on claiming that thrill: “And there lies the deadly error. Only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else—whether a distant mountain, or the past, or the gods of Asgard—does the ‘thrill’ arise. It is a by-product. Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer (Surprised by Joy).”
Our lives are characterized by this inconsolable longing precisely because we are not home yet. Our desires are not satisfied so much in a state of mind as in something “other and outer,” namely, God. Were we to have this thrill granted to us by way of drug use or some other form of virtual reality, we would immediately find that the thrill itself had lost value. Joy is what we want and we find it most readily in this deep longing.
Perhaps for this reason, for Sehnsucht, we long for the weekend, for summer break, for extended vacation time, and for retirement. These, in themselves, do not deliver Joy. We already have the Joy when we long for these things and this longing is the shadow of a much deeper longing. Pleasure is not the same as Joy. Attaining the next mountain peak (whatever it may be) will not finally be the source of Joy, it will only show definitively that it was not what we actually desired. What we desired was something else entirely and our pursuit of pleasure is a sign of this misguidance. Augustine came to realize this fact only later in life, after squandering his youth. “I was mad for health, and dying for life,” he writes in his Confessions, “I was greatly disturbed in spirit, angry at myself with a turbulent indignation because I had not entered thy will and covenant, O my God, while all my bones cried out to me to enter, extolling it to the skies. The way therein is not by ships or chariots or feet—indeed it was not as far as I had come from the house to the place where we were seated” (St. Augustine).
So our lives are a pilgrimage, a search for the object of Joy, and the bewilderment we face comes most often from a confusion of happiness with pleasure and the confusion of Joy with both happiness and pleasure. Longing is Joy, but not happiness, and certainly not the satisfaction of a pleasure. Joy points to something else above and beyond both happiness and pleasure. We do not seek Joy itself, but the object of Joy’s desiring and pleasure is not it.
Pursuit of pleasure, whether religious fervor or sexual ecstasy, will in either case lead to frustration. Those are not the things for which we hunger, but an unhealthy imagination, an imagination that does not see as God sees, will confuse pleasure and Joy. An unhealthy imagination will likely be the seat and cause of much frustration resulting from this confusion because the imagination is not only the creative and integrative faculty of the mind, it is also the propulsion of our desires. Within the imagination are born images of the Good Life. Those images are given to us through various means: advertising, experience, memories. For most of us, the Good Life has a great deal to do with the fulfillment of pleasure—think Hawaii or laughing with svelte and suave friends over beer—and very little to do with anything higher than our own sensual pleasures. The satisfaction of pleasure, however, will not lead us, finally, to our pilgrim destination.
We wander and we wonder at the dissatisfaction that so characterizes our lives, but we don’t realize that a key rudder to this enormous ship of personal longings is the imagination. By it, we can turn from ourselves and back to God. By it, we turn from wandering and point toward home.
I do not believe this pilgrimage will automatically lead home for everyone. God became flesh for a reason: to show us the Father and to show us the way to the Father. Some saw and worshiped while others simply crucified him. Many are the wanderers: they do not know the way home and do not want to know the way home, particularly if it is a way that leads away from self. All of us are on a spiritual journey, but not all of us will find our way home. Some are more lost than others. The cross of Christ is the only means of rescue, and if we follow the cross, we feed the imagination and the soul strong food and good drink, thereby pointing her back to her founding: God’s imagination.
We live in a time when directions to happiness shout at us from every wayside curb and billboard. We are loaded with extraordinary busyness and practices that leave us living hamster lives—always moving, but rarely going anywhere. God is pressing in to meet us on this pilgrimage, and he has used the entire universe as a means by which to pull us to himself. There is one transcendent goal in life: union with God. Our souls long for their resolution in him and nothing less than God will satisfy this longing. What we need, then, is not more to do. There’s enough of that already. What is needed in our lives is a shift in perspective, a shift of vision: we need the imaginative vision to see our lives as God sees them and the courage to walk the path set before us by a loving story-maker even if the journey leads through pain.
I’ve always hated hiking. I’ll go camping and enjoy it immensely, but hiking sours everything for me, like too much baking powder in the bread dough. I prefer a nice slow stroll through the woods without gear clanking on my back. My father, on the other hand, loves hiking. His really long legs need a release. I think hiking acts as a kind of free gallop to a thoroughbred horse who spent weeks pent up in a stall. He covers ground in a hurry.
One of my childhood hikes took place up north toward Canada. It’s beautiful country, but the hike—if my memory serves correctly—was five or six miles up a mountain before we reached our camp site.
I’m sure I let my father and anyone else within range of my scowl know how much I was hating life on this hike because my father kept assuring me that the destination was spectacular; at least, that’s what he’d been told by a friend who had a friend who did this hike a few years back. I wasn’t convinced.
The path was rocky and dry as the sun beat down on us, and I trudged up the mountain for my five or six miles, stubbing my toes and dragging my shoes through the stones the whole way, until we crested a ridge and my eyes saw a lake so blue and so clear I wanted to dive into it, backpack and all.
The cliff walls on the far end of the lake towered above it. Our campground sat on the edge of the lake, so when night fell and we lay on our backs and looked at the stars, it was like lying down in an enormous bowl scooped out by giant hands. The rumor was true: the view was spectacular and the water was crisp and clean. Even though the hike was painfully dull and hard and hot and really, really long for a lazy teen like myself, the destination was awe inspiring. My father knew the journey would lead through pain, but I’m glad he lead me through it.
The road to a vibrant life is a lifelong road, an arduous road, a pilgrimage that leads away from ourselves and towards God. It is a rather unattractive road to a generation raised on text messaging and bubblegum, but it is the best road available to us because it is the road upon which God has set us. We injure ourselves, our souls, if we deviate from it.
Our creator has sent us out and now he calls us home. God speaks into the core of our being, our soul, by accessing its tap root: the imagination. His creation and Scriptures are primarily appeals to the imagination. He uses poetry and song and story to lead our souls home. But we are not home yet. The meantime, the in-between, is an exercise in tasting resolution and glimpsing satisfaction. Let us live as pilgrims, wayfarers, who know that “happy is the man whose help is from God, when He has set pilgrimages in his heart through the Valley of Tears, to the goal He has fixed” (Psalm 84: 5-6).
Although God calls us sojourners, pilgrims, we are not drifters because it is God who has intentionally set us upon this spiritual pilgrimage. How unhappy the person, then, who goes not to God for help in this journey, but to his own meager ingenuity. We have been set on pilgrim’s ways for two reasons: to cultivate our own gardens and to cultivate his garden (the world), preparing both for their telos—their end or purpose or resolution—in God. This redemptive labor requires intellectual fortitude and a synthetic, imaginative vision to see both our gardens and God’s garden as he sees them. Imaginative depth is not easily come by, but it is the only means by which we can identify any meaning in life.
Such a high calling for this pilgrimage does not alleviate the often bewildering circumstances that make this sojourn a spiritual trial. Our earthly adventures often capture both the bewilderment of being lost and the ecstasy of arrival. The promise of satisfaction, the picture of something wonderful, leads us through the bewilderment until we reach our destination.
I remember one such moment in my life: My father told me that we had to hike in to our campground. I told him that the idea stinks. The whole coastline was full of campgrounds right off the road. All we’d have to do is pull over and throw up the tent. He tossed one of his favorite lines to me: “all the best places are off the beaten path.” I’d heard that one before, but it didn’t make the hike any more exciting.
We had a load of equipment in the car and the whole family to trek down. “The hike is just over a mile, but we’ll have to take a couple of trips to get the stuff down there,” he said over his shoulder.
My day just got worse.
We loaded up like pack mules. My dad looked like a llama with his long neck and a load of bags piled high up over his shoulders. We hiked in, of course, and when we finally broke through the trees and onto the sand, I was suddenly astounded at the beauty. The campground was nestled in a cove and the tide brought water nearly right up to the tents.
Again, the rumors were correct: absolutely beautiful. No wind, just sand and water. We didn’t know it yet, but the next day the tide would go out further than it had in a very long time and we would see ocean life rarely seen by beach walkers or tent campers. The mile hike was tedious and burdensome and we had to do it twice. My father knew the path would lead through hardship, in this case a kind of tedium, but I’m glad he lead us through it just the same.
We are like cranes who have an incredible journey ahead. The crane’s durability and dedication has been a source of legend for centuries. Those legends provide a picture of how we might reach our destination with greater success. It is said that the crane flies higher and farther than any other bird. High up in the altitude, the crane is buffeted by severe winds. Some say that the crane swallows stones as ballast to prepare for the journey and suffers the discomfort until finally reaching port. Some say that the crane flies in company so that when the lead crane grows exhausted, another might take his place.
Our journey, like theirs, is arduous. Our destination requires that we fly high up in the spiritual stratosphere. It requires that we carry ballast in our soul and mind, that we fix our spiritual vision on the distant goal. It requires that we fly in company.
Our life goal, union with God, may require a difficult pilgrimage, but God is speaking to our imagination throughout the journey. New imaginative eyes that are tuned to his fingerprint will make the journey rich beyond measure, but we need fellow pilgrims for the journey.