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Last week I was invited to tag along as C.S. Lewis scholar and writer Sandy Smith took a group of men from our church on a tour of the local C.S. Lewis landmarks. I’ll be honest; I was more than a little excited. Actually I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. There is something oddly refreshing about becoming a tourist in your own city. Somehow looking with fresh eyes gives you a chance to notice things familiarity had obscured from view.
In Belfast, if you know where to look, the legacy of C.S. Lewis is on every corner. Tucked away a short distance from a busy intersection is a monument in the shape of a wardrobe. On the back, reproduced in bronze, is a letter to a young girl who had written to Lewis in distress after reading of the death of Aslan. In another spot, if you look down, you will find that the pavement itself carries a quote from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, engraved like a concrete tattoo on the streets of a city that is proud of its celebrated son.
Hidden amongst the leafy suburbs, marked only by a small blue plaque, is Little Lea, Lewis’s impressive childhood home. On the top floor is a small window marking the attic where at the age of ten, when most of us were lost in adventure stories, Lewis was reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and writing his own response. Or creating the imaginary land of Boxen. Or counting the rafters in an attempt to find his bearings in the rooms below, just as Polly and Diggory would do in years to come.
Further down the road is the rectory where the young Lewis would often visit his grandfather. If you look closely you will notice that the oversized handle on the rectory door carries the face of a lion.
Not far from that, on the corner of Dundela Avenue, is the site of the little house where Lewis was born. While I enjoyed every bit of the morning, it is the house at Dundela Avenue that has been on my mind ever since. Not so much because it was the site of Lewis’s birth, but because it was there that he had an experience which turned out to be one of the most formative of his life. An incident that has resonated deeply with me since the first time I read it, drawing me back again and again to his writings.
In “Surprised by Joy” he describes the moment his older brother “Warnie” brought into the nursery an old biscuit tin which he had filled with moss and decorated with twigs and flowers. For some reason, presented with this simple toy garden, the young Lewis found himself overwhelmed for the very first time with a deep sense of longing for something he could neither name nor trace; a feeling he would later describe as a “stab of joy”. For Lewis, the search for the source of this longing became a lifelong quest. He said himself that the central story of his life was about nothing else. Standing there, I found myself retracing my own journey.
Like Lewis, I have found my life punctuated by these stabs of joy, the ebb and flow of longing shaping the landscape of my story. Sometimes it comes like an old friend on a perfect summer’s day, invited in by sunshine, friendship and the pink clouds of cherry blossom. For just a moment the joy is bigger than I am and I know without doubt that it comes from somewhere deeper than picnics and good conversation.
Sometimes it comes apparently out of nowhere, an unexpected gift on a grey Thursday in February when my head is bent and my heart is ready for anything but joy.
Sometimes it’s in the small things. Laughter that makes your eyes water and hangs in the air between good friends, even when the moment has passed. The silence that comes after snow. Watching the sunrise while the rest of the world sleeps. The moment you first read a poem or hear a piece of music that cuts through your defences and leaves your soul bare. Waking up to the sound of the sea. Undeserved forgiveness.
Over the years the list has grown. The first time I held my baby daughters. The moment they took their first steps. The nights I have watched them reach for God through tears, finding Him more than worthy of their trust.
Most recently of all, and this one is new for me, there are the stabs of joy that are found in the presence of grief. The moment when all around is thick and dark and then, like a splash of colour on an empty canvas, comes the realisation that this is not how it will always be. That God is present in our pain and moved by our tears. That grief is so deep because it is foreign to souls that were created for joy. Sometimes just knowing this is enough to kindle fires of hope in the midst of darkness.
These, and many more, are the stabs of joy that keep me longing for a home I haven’t yet known. They are whispers in the language of my soul reminding me that what we see now is just a shadow of all that is to come.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.