C.S. Lewis and the concept of Sehnsucht

In his writings, C.S. Lewis spoke of an “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” He described it as a “desire for our own far off country . . . for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” He called it “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

For Lewis, this Sehnsucht as he called it – a German word translated as longing or yearning for something inexpressible – was a key factor in his Christian conversion. For the rest of us, it can be a powerful experience of a fundamental truth about God: “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

A personal recollection

From my earliest memories of childhood, I recall feelings very much in harmony with what Lewis described. Naturally my triggers were different than his; growing up in a small city, I never saw wild ducks flying overhead, nor did I ever read The Well at the World’s End. Nevertheless, certain stories and music, descriptions of remote times and places, the noonday sun, warm dry clothes after coming in from the rain, mental images of Ancient Greece or outer space, all stirred within me a yearning for that ineffable other, that ideal state and perfect place where I belonged.

Some readers will no doubt recognize something similar in their experience. Others may scratch their heads and chalk it up to an overactive imagination. Yet Lewis argues that this sensation, this Sehnsucht, is an intrinsic facet of human nature, present in all of us to one degree or other, whether or not we recognize it as such. He cautions against dismissing it as “nostalgia and romanticism and adolescence.” Rather he urges we embrace it with gratitude as a divine gift, wired into us by our Creator to draw our hearts and imaginations beyond this present world toward ultimate realities.

The yearning is not an end in itself

At the same time, Lewis warns against the dangers of making the yearning an end in itself, at the expense of the eternal goal to which it points:

“These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Before I was a Christian, I was aware of these feelings, these longings for “I knew not what.” I wasn’t aware at the time that God had placed them in my heart. I didn’t realize he was using them as an instrument, by his Holy Spirit, to stir my desires and affections toward him.

Once I came to faith, that sense of yearning took on a vibrant relevance that meshed beautifully with the teaching of Scripture: “But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).

In the classic summation of Saint Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Looking from the lesser to the greater beauty

As a follower of Jesus, I’ve found the most rewarding way to respond to this Sehnsucht is to use it as an argument from the lesser to the greater. If created things are beautiful, and the longing they stir in my heart more beautiful still, then how much more surpassingly beautiful will be the reality to which they point, the far country not yet visited, where there’ll be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11)?

For Lewis, his Sehnsucht led him to an inescapable conclusion: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Sources and further reading

The quotes and allusions in this article are taken liberally from several of C.S. Lewis’ works touching on the subject of Sehnsucht, most notably Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Weight of Glory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and Till We Have Faces, among others. The curious reader is encouraged to investigate these works for a deeper exploration of the concept.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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