Have you ever “felt” something and didn’t know what it was? Or perhaps tasted something that intrigued you and appealed to you, but didn’t know the ingredients? Have you ever been aware of “something other” than what you can touch and see?
When I was a very young boy my mother read a story to me; not a nursery rhyme, not a Little Golden Book, but a story that took me on an adventure beyond myself, and beyond anything I could touch with my fingers or see with my eyes…and yet…yet I could “see” what she was reading, I could feel it; it drew me, beckoned me, invited me. As she read, my mother’s words transported me beyond my surroundings and I found myself with the Princess Irene, and her grandmother, and Curdie, and with the goblins. George MacDonald’s book, The Princess and the Goblin, awakened the numinous within me – or perhaps better – the numinous broke through to me and touched something within me.
C.S. Lewis termed George MacDonald “my master”. When Lewis was an adolescent, after having rejected Christianity, he purchased and read MacDonald’s Phantastes (Lewis didn’t know MacDonald was a Christian); the story stirred Lewis and he excitedly wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves about it – he didn’t know what it was but he had touched something, or perhaps we should say that something had touched Lewis. Not until years later would Lewis understand what had happened with Phantastes, not until he was surprised by joy – the joy of finding his desire, the joy of finding that for which he had always yearned, and had often denied, in his struggle between materialism and the numinous. The seed planted by MacDonald would be nurtured by Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien – and one day Lewis would know that “this is that which has been drawing me all these years” (my words) and he would surrender to God “a most reluctant convert” (his words).
I never forgot my experience with The Princess and the Goblin, but I didn’t understand it – not until in my 50s, and even now I am still discovering its depths and heights. When Chesterton writes that all he needed to know was to be found in the nursery, he is writing about the numinous, the sense of “other”, the experience of adventure and journey, of being surprised by joy. Alas, as Chesterton also writes, the world does its best to extinguish it, it educates it out of us, it shames us, it tells us to grow up. Lewis’s tutor, Kirkpatrick, educated the sense of the divine out of Lewis…or at least tried to…it was nonsense, illogical (really?), you couldn’t see it or touch it. But Phantastes remained with Lewis, lingered, hung in the background; and it would knock on the door, whisper its voice, beckon him to come…Lewis thought that there must surely be something more than the material world, he knew there would be no surprises of joy in materialism but he felt constrained to force himself to think like an atheist or agnostic…and yet his heart told him that there must be something more.
I never forgot The Princess and the Goblin, and there were times I would sense that experience I had when listening to my mother, but like a fool I sought to find it in places where it was not to be found – sometimes in frivolous places, sometimes in sinful places, many times in places where the world told me that I should go, such as career, position, recognition, accomplishment, material things.
The church was not helpful either, for coming to know Jesus in the context of my experience was like joining a subculture among a subculture with competing subcultures. Intellectual theological propositions have their place, but in and of themselves they are at best Stoicism; spiritual/emotional experiences have their place, but in and of themselves they are akin to riding a roller coaster – perhaps we can call them religious Epicureanism. I had a longing for “home” but I didn’t know it, and had I known it I may not have known where home was.
How many times did I read Hebrews Chapter 11 and miss the theme of “longing” for home? The men and women of faith longed for their true home, they lived with a sense of the numinous – and yet I reduced what I read to either the intellectual or emotional and did not see the holistic, did not see the cosmic. I thought I was living in the penthouse, or at least a floor or two below it, when all the time I was in the basement depending on artificial light.
We underestimate what happens when the numinous is educated out of us – whether by the church or by the world. As Lewis wrote, we are men without chests; without hearts, without souls, without higher desire, without a sense of who we really are. It is not my intention to offend, I write this clinically, but when I see the drivel contained in popular catalogs of “Christian” books, enticing us to engage in the latest and greatest revelatory teaching, or self-help program, I want to shout – “We are being dumbed-down in an opium den of the little universe of self and religious entertainment – we are reinforcing heavens of brass and shutting the Divine Presence from our lives, obscuring the call of Jesus Christ to belong to Him and to Him alone.” Yes, there are substantive writings, past and present, to be had but the general “Christian” population is generally unaware of them and has little patience with that which does not appeal to our short-attention spans and obsession with self.
Are you longing for home?
A few years ago I read The Princess and the Goblin to Vickie, and then its sequel, The Princess and Curdie; I highly recommend them to you.
I will return to The Princess and the Goblin in my next post in this series.