In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes one saint, a surpassingly beautiful woman, whom his characters encounter while they are in heaven. While Lewis’s description of her is intriguing, it also puzzled me and even made me a bit uncomfortable.
As the woman approaches, MacDonald informs Lewis (the character) that this woman was in a way a mother to all children. Lewis asks if it isn’t a little unfair to earthly mothers that this woman “steals” their children.To this, MacDonald replies,
[H]er motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives. ( Lewis 119)
This episode stuck in my memory, perhaps because I did not understand it. How could loving something beautiful help us love lesser things more? A contradiction for sure.
But as my plane came in for landing at Midway Airport a few weekends ago, I glimpsed what Lewis was getting at…I think.
I had just spent a weekend in Seattle, soaking in the beauty of the hills and fir trees and mountains. I always joke that it’s a tragedy that I live in Illinois, because I adore lovely landscapes, especially ones with mountains and forests. In my opinion, the Northwest is prime real estate; suburbia Illinois…not so much.
So as I headed back home, leaving a place that speaks to my soul, you would expect that I returned somewhat wistfully. Not the case.
As our plane began its decent into Chicago, it flew over Illinois farmland. In the sunset, flat country stretched in every direction: rural highways lined by shaggy trees; a vast checkerboard of soy bean and corn fields; winding little rivers. Flat. All so flat. But somehow I felt grateful for those miles of fields. They showed off the fading light pretty splendidly. The awe and peace that came over me as I looked on matched the feeling I got when I flew over Puget Sound a few days earlier.
That got me thinking about a peculiar property of beauty: Beauty does not make us resent other things that are less striking; instead, it helps us to recognize beauty in those things that we already know and have ceased to delight in. ….Which got me thinking about to Psalm 84, a passage of scripture that I’ve come back to repeatedly in the past year. I’d be hard put to find a more pure and contagious demonstration of thirst for God than this psalm. “How lovely is your dwelling place, / O Lord of Hosts!” The Sons of Korah proclaim,
“My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God” (v. 1b-2a).
This psalm has become precious to me because this past year has been one of transition. I am so grateful that, in coming back home to work in Chicago, I’ve felt the support of my family and old friends. Yet no one can leave a favorite place and part from some of their dearest friends without feeling that they’ve entered a desert of sorts. At a time when I was experiencing the emptiness of transition, this psalm beckoned to my heart. I thirsted to be like these psalmists, who love God above all else and find fulfillment in Him alone.
“Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, ever singing Your praise!” they continue in verse 4.
Yes! I want that. I want to want that! I know nothing is better than dwelling in God’s presence and adoring Him, and I want to desire that like these saints do!
But, then again, I’m a teacher at a private school in the suburbs of Chicago. I’m a fiddler who plays in Irish pubs. I can’t spend all my time praying in my church sanctuary and I most definitely can’t just click my heels and find myself in heaven. Great for you, Sons of Korah. You’ve entered your rest and get to spend your days worshipping God, but I’m still down here struggling along. Thanks a lot for telling me how great it is up there.
But the sons of Korah aren’t done. In the very next verse, they introduce another category of “blessed” people:
Blessed are those whose strength is in You,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs. (v. 5-6a)
Wow. Apparently, there is also a way to be blessed during our earthly toil. We can journey through the most barren places and still find rivers of water there (The Valley of Baca, according to Bible commentaries and such, was a desert in Israel at the time). But how? This I wondered and pondered and hoped could come true in my life.
Just what is it that makes the Valley of Baca “a place of springs” for the faithful? Longing for God with all of their hearts, of course! “In whose hearts are the highways”…The joyful heart is the one longing for and running toward God, no matter where the body is “stuck.” When our hearts are engraved with the paths to God—yearning to run to Him even when our feet are tangled and we can’t—our eyes suddenly spy springs in places we believed were deserts. Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it?
Yet looking back over this past year and my life in general, I realize how true this is. When I expect the most from where I am, I find myself dry and disillusioned. It is in those times when I’m fixing my eyes on Christ, learning more about Him, crying “Come, Lord Jesus!” that I find myself standing in my little world blinking at the blessing around me.
Lewis’s beautiful saint made men fall in love with her but return to their wives loving them better. Just so, pursuing God renews our delight in our lowly lives. When we see Him more clearly as He is, we more clearly see Him in places we had not hoped of finding Him. What a wonderful God we have, Who rewards those who seek Him by making them more content where they are!
In some ways viewing the majesty of a mountain and beholding the glory of God work the same wonder upon us: they make us better servants in the flatlands, laboring in fields white for harvest.
By and by, the chains will fall from our feet and we will run to the One we long for. But that time is not yet. Until then, let us continue to reap the harvest….with our eyes to the hills and highways in our hearts.
“They go from strength to strength, each one appears before God in Zion” (v. 7)
1. Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. 1946. New York: HarperCollins, 2001)