An Essay on Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

A Desire for God

There seems to be no question that everyone wants to be happy; everyone desires happiness. Throughout time, people have experienced an unexplainable exigency from within themselves that initiates a persistent search through life. This desire leads people searching, reaching for different circumstances in life. Some people believe this longing or desire is really a desire for God. If this universal desire exists within man, and if this desire is truly a desire for God, then following this desire is one way people can know or find God. C.S. Lewis, in his books Surprised by Joy and Pilgrim's Regress, examines these ideas about desire. The character John, in Pilgrim's Regress, illustrates the power of desire, and shows how the meaning or purpose of life is simply a matter of following after one's desire for God.

The words happiness, desire, longing, and joy share a common element. They represent wanting something bordering on the mystical. Happiness is considered the rarest, most prized, most misunderstood state of man. The Oxford English Dictionary defines happiness as: "The quality or condition of being happy; good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity." Happiness, like the other words, has a wide varity of personal definitions used to express an emotion; an emotion the poets have tried to capture in a flare of writing, a thought that is widely expressed on posters, and the ultimate goal everyone despirately seeks till obtained. Through time, the great questions asked about happiness are concerned with its definition and its attainability: In what does happiness consist? Is it the same for everyone, or do different people seek different things in the name of happiness? Can happiness be achieved on earth, or only hereafter? And if the pursuit of happiness is not a futile quest, by what means or steps should it be undertaken?

Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy and Pilgrim's Regress as autobiographical accounts of his personal quest for joy. Lewis thought the intense longing to be a common experience, easily misunderstood, difficult to bring to the forefront of the consciousness, and of immense importance. Lewis defines this special joy as "an unsatisfied longing which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." In the subtitle of Regress, Lewis intended the term, Romanticism, to mean the joy or longing everyone feels to their own far-off country: a longing painful, yet somehow a delight. John, the main character in Pilgrim's Regress, first experiences desire as a longing for a perfect island; the vision of which stung him with sweet desire. This desire is the force behind the story and sets John on a quest for the far-off island. The need for a pursuit to be happy reaches everyone; a search that makes everyone involved with life, and determined to seek out a special joy.

A standard definition of happiness is not easily written, because each person is unique and has his own sense of what makes him happy. The pursuit of happiness or desire will be many things to many people and lead people searching in numerous directions. When someone says "I feel happy", he is saying that he feels pleased or satisfied; that he has what he wants. Yet situations constantly change, and the way people feel about them changes. When considering a thought about happiness, it is discovered that someone can not bestow perfect happiness upon another simply with good intentions of wishing for harmony in their life or by just having a caring feeling toward them. But everyone finds a harmony of happiness through their own initiative and incentive. Desire is a peculiar mystery, because many times people feel they know what is desired, but when it is finally achieved and present in their hands, they realize the real object of desire has moved farther away, eluding them. Sometimes, in the end, some things are not enough; they were not what was sought after. Almost every aspect of modern life fix our minds on this world, and desire can be mistaken for many things in life, which causes people unknowingly to dive into many endeavors which they think will make them happy: marriage, career, drugs, music, ambition, intelligence, or a unique hobby or activity. Therefore, people do not always know what the desire really is. Many times the feeling of desire can even differ than the desire itself. The first time John became side-tracked was in the same place he first saw his island. He easily sought fulfillment of desire with the little brown girl he met, and later in many places through his travels, he easily substituted new things for his desire. From the beginning a hesitancy existed to determine the real good or the copy of the good; the real desire or a copy of the desire. The idea of copy versus original is not a new one, for even Shakespeare's Hamlet illustrates the difference between these important factors: facing a "what seems", and to be satisfied or knowing "what is", and never to be satisfied, until the truth is known. John finally learned that he could end up going too far south, to the extreme of emotionalism, or too far north, to the extreme of dogmatism, in his search for his island. But first, John needed the help of Reason, the tall, "sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand" to see clearer. Reason points out to John that "some have thought that all these loves were copies of our love for the Landlord." Perhaps all desires are merely a copy of a desire for God.

Lewis believed that his own longing and desire led to his conversion to Christianity. Lewis discribes this process in Surprised by Joy. Although, where might this desire or universal longing have generated, because it seems that it is difficult, and becoming more so, for the ordinary person to recognize in himself a desire for heaven. The first chapter of Genesis, verse 26-28, says that man was created in the image and likeness of God; that God blessed man and woman. In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul talks about the "Spirit of God dwelling in you", and the Spirit will give life. To believe that a spark of devine exists inside every person, can explain the origins of this persistent desire to reach for something specific, as a longing for God, the presenter of the gift. Lewis felt strongly that people are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. Finding a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, suggests that the most probable explaination is that people were made for a different world. All the things people seek after, were never intended to satisfy the desire for the far-off country, and more likely they were meant to arouse it, and to suggest the idea of heaven. People, most certainly, will continue to search for the object of their desire, and will perhaps continue to feel incomplete to not acknowledge it as a desire for God.

However, a desire for something does not prove its existence. Although, these thoughts seem to be a good indication that God and Heaven do exist, and nothing other than obtaining these can be one's ultimate bless. John's far-off island was not an island at all, but rather the other side of the Eastern Mountains, where the Landlord lived; John's deep longing was always a misunderstood longing for God, and the island was only meant to be a signpost to lead him in the right direction. The long conversation John has with History, explains the meaning of his picture of the island: "It does not always take the form of an Island. The Landlord sends pictures of many different kinds. What is universal is not the particular picture, but the arrival of some message, not perfectly intelligible, which wakes this desire and sets men longing for something East or West of the world; something possessed, if at all, only in the act of desiring it, and lost so quickly that the craving itself becomes craved; something that tends inevitably to be confused with common or even with vile satisfactions lying close to hand, yet which is able, if any man faithfully live through the dialectic of its successive births and deaths, to lead him at last where true joys are to be found." Perhaps if John had stepped out, followed his true desire in the very beginning, his story would have been totally different, and maybe he would not have had to take the long journey to find his island. Recognizing the message from within, from God, as a desire for God, can be a way to know or find God; to begin on a journey of a godly life.

People pursuing a godly life, can still wander away from their goal, and can still mistakenly pursue somethng in hopes of obtaining satisfaction, obtaining the desire; can end up looking for God in the wrong places. Standing at the ocean, John, Virtue, and the Guide discuss where they will go from there. John and Virtue become down-hearted when they learn that they must return the way they came. Virtue says, "after the water and earth, I thought we had already crossed the brook in a sense." Then the guide responds, "You will always be thinking that. You will meet that brook more often than you think: and each time you will suppose that you have done with it for good. But some day you really will." The crossing of the brook signifies baptism; giving up the old self-seeking self for somebody to love, or as Paul says, dying with Christ, so to rise with him. In a relationship with God, one must continually renew his faith and seek the benifits of baptism and forgiveness. Yet keeping the focus on God and knowing that the desire is a desire for God, does not insure traveling in a straight line to find God, or that God will be found on earth. The desire is the motivation. Happiness or desire is not something that is tangible. This world will come to an end, but it was never meant to be our real home; that lies elsewhere. Lewis writes, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither."

Reading about John's search for his island, in C.S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress, gives a worthy example of the power of desire, and its significance to the purpose and meaning of life on earth being a desire for God. Even though the meaning or purpose of life has been figured out, the hard part is now living life, because everyone must still get from now to the hereafter. Yet, perhaps by having the knowledge of what to aim at, then hopefully people can get there in a straighter line. Along the way, one might have to keep crossing a few brooks, until the last one is finally crossed. Yet hoping for heaven, a continual looking forward to the eternal world, is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. Heaven is the real thing of which earth is an imperfect copy. "The great essentials of happiness are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for..." Therefore, everyone needs to take time to explore their own thoughts and world to discover what gives joy and happiness, and hopefully they realize its connection to God.