There is a sweetness to this time of year that I began to feel again last evening. I was walking on the SMU campus about dusk, and I was met along the way by memories that came with unexpected vividness. The warm air, the amber light, the slight breeze: I was taken back to an autumn evening as a young boy in a park near our home. The memory affected me in a way I can’t quite explain. It was a sweet, happy remembrance, but one that made me ache inside, perhaps because it could not be held onto. It was something very real, and yet a phantom.
It was on just such an evening that I walked with Robin across another college campus, for the first time hand in hand. It was a moment out of time, electric and yet filled with an uncommon peace, and I sensed that something fundamental had changed. Thinking of it, I can almost see us as we were then. I now, long married to this same woman, eavesdropping on us with an affection that is piercing. So many years have gone by, and yet it seems like yesterday.
C. S. Lewis named his autobiography Surprised by Joy. There is more to this title than meets the eye, for Lewis operated with an unusual but profoundly insightful definition of joy. For Lewis, joy is something quite different from happiness. Happiness is a good thing, to be sure, but it exists in the shallows of the human psyche. Joy is in the depths.
Joy finds us at those moments when the curtain of the ordinary is lifted, and we see, however fleetingly, the beauty, the majesty of God. Joy comes unexpectedly—perhaps in hearing a symphony, perhaps in connecting with nature, perhaps in a moment in which we know love. Often, it is the experience of perfection. Two movies come to mind: Amadeus, in which Salieri reads Mozart’s scores and, as if stabbed, drops them to the floor, believing that he has heard the very voice of God, an absolute beauty. The other film is Field of Dreams (which I won’t even try to explain; if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand the reference). One character, Terrence Mann, comments on what he has seen, which is the righting of old wrongs, and calls it “unbelievable.” Ray Kinsella, the lead character, responds, “It’s more than that. It’s perfect.” Other characters refer to this same reality as heaven, the place where dreams come true. It is where everything finally fits, makes sense, and where joy is found.
According to Lewis, such joy can be strangely and intensely painful. I think I can begin to understand what Lewis was getting at. One example came many years ago when Robin and I toured a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Illinois. I have always been a fan of Wright’s architecture. In fact, I grew up within two miles of a Wright house. Even as a young child, I knew that it was a special place. Wright himself, like Mozart in Amadeus, was a flawed person, but he was capable of seeing things, as Mozart heard things, that few people can.
My previous experience of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture hadn’t prepared me for what I experienced that day. Robin and I walked into the front entrance; I looked up and was stunned, and, much to my surprise (for this was an entirely new experience), tears welled up in my eyes. It was perfect; everything exactly right to the smallest detail. Even the furniture had been made to precise proportion for that one house. “This is the way it is supposed to be,” I thought. It was pure joy, but strangely painful. No structure I have ever been in produced the same reaction.
I later told my parents what had happened, and they didn’t get it. How could a building generate such a reaction? They looked at me as if I had momentarily lost my mind when, in truth, I felt as though I had found it.
Something in the absolute beauty we rarely experience, in the perfection we only occasionally glimpse, touches us at our deepest level. It creates in us an unimaginable longing to know life always at this depth, to remain in this holy place.
These are moments in which we glimpse eternity, moments when we sense what it means to be with God. It is deep calling to deep. And it hurts. Yet, there is nothing we can feel that is more exquisite. We have had a glimpse over the wall, a look through the hedgerow of day-to-day patterns and ordinary expectations, and it is breathtaking. I have never had a near-death experience, but I find it notable that many people who have describe it in these same terms, as an encounter with unfathomable joy.
A wonderful thing about memories is that they can take us, not only to the past but, by faith, also into the future. Recollections such as I described return to me, not only the texture of earlier events, but a desire for something that those prior events could themselves only approximate and anticipate. In the power of memory, I re-experience, however faintly, an echo of joy. In the process, my own standards are elevated, my desire for excellence is regenerated, and my hunger for God reinvigorated.
We may long for past moments when the beauty and perfection of eternity were foreshadowed. We cannot go back, but we believe in Christ that the longing we feel will be satisfied. Death will be swallowed up in victory; love will reign over all. If this is heaven, then let heaven touch all of our present lives, our values, our goals, our standards, and our dreams.
In the meantime, we cherish and cultivate the moments of grace, the experiences and the memories of joy. They are gifts from God to our truest self. Even if they are painful, we cherish them. Perhaps they are the thing most real. As Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” In time, in that new morning, the ordinary will offer up its extraordinary reward, and we shall know in God a joy untinged by loss.