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The Conversion of C.S. Lewis

Excerpts from the chapter “Checkmate” in C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy:

“And there I made ┬ánew friend. The very first words he spoke marked him out from the ten or twelve others who were present; a man after my own heart, and that too at an age when the instantaneous friendships of youth were becoming rather rare events. His name was Neville Coghill . . . he, clearly the most intelligent and best informed man in that class–was a Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist . . . had something really dropped out of our lives? Was the archaic simply the civilized, and the modern simply the barbaric?”

“The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the ChansonChristians are wrong, but the rest are all bores.”

“When we think a thought, ‘thought’ is a cognate accusative (like ‘blow’ in ‘strike a blow’). We enjoy the thought (that Herodotus is unreliable) and, in so doing, contemplate the unreliability of Herodotus. I accepted this distinction at once and have ever since regarded it as an indispensable tool of thought.”

“This discovery flashed a new light back on my whole life. 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. . . . 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. The inherent dialectic of desire had in a way already shown me this; for all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! What do I remind you of?’ ”

“I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, ‘Is it this you want? Is it this?’ Last of all I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and, labeling it ‘aesthetic experience,’ had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down. Inexorably Joy proclaimed, ‘You want–I myself am your want of–something other, outside, not you nor any state of you.’ I did not yet ask, Who is the desired? only What is it?”

“A tutor must make things clear. Now the Absolute cannot be made clear. Do you mean Nobody-knows-what, or do you means a superhuman mind and therefore (we may as well admit it) a Person? . . . I distinguished this philosophical ‘God’ very sharply (or so I said) from ‘the God of popular religion.’ . . . I didn’t call Him ‘God’ either; I called Him ‘Spirit.’ One fights for one’s remaining comforts.”

“Then I read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. . . .Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff in Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ ”

“I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corslets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open that door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable. . . . I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. . . . Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, ‘I am what I do.’ ”

“Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side. You must not do, you must not even try to do the will of the Father unless you are prepared to ‘know of the doctrine.’ All my acts, desires, and thoughts were to be brought into harmony with universal Spirit. For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”

“. . . I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my ‘Spirit’ differed in some way from ‘the God of popular religion.’ My adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, ‘I am the Lord'; ‘I am that I am'; ‘I am.’ ”

“Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ I had wanted (mad wish) ‘to call my soul my own.’ . . . Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would he be more ‘reasonable’ in that other, more comfortable, sense? Not the slightest assurance was on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. The reality with which no treaty can be made was upon me. The demand was not even, ‘all or nothing.’ . . . Now the demand was simply ‘All.’ ”

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare have been so abused by wicked me that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

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