Lewis, Augustine, and the Nostalgia that Transcends, pt. II

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” – St. Augustine

In a previous essay, we considered briefly the thoughts of C.S Lewis and St. Augustine on the restlessness of the soul created by that deepest longing known as nostalgia. I wish now to consider more fully what we are longing for. For a refresher, feel free to revisit the previous essay.

Saint Augustine famously suggests in his Confessions that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” If it is true that there is a God; and if it is true that He not only created mankind, but that He imprinted on each soul the imago Dei – the image of God; if these are true, then it makes good sense that our soul should long to return to Him from whom it receives its animation. Within the tradition of the Church there is the teaching of Divinization, that, as St. Athanasius wrote, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” He has given humanity something that no other created thing has – a soul; and into that soul He has poured the desire to know Him, but only that what He has given (perhaps, “what He has lent” is more appropriate) may return one day to Him.

Man spends so much of his life pursuing useless ends. He pursues wealth and pleasure and power, which are not in themselves bad things; it is when they are viewed as ends unto themselves that they are corrupted. But why does he pursue them? Ignoring the reason that is beyond the scope of this essay – that he pursues them because he is told he should want such things – he pursues them because he is led to believe that such things will fulfill. All action is driven by restlessness, by a desire to find a very certain thing, yet man is not born inherently knowing what that thing is; he knows only that he is restless and unfulfilled.

No man is born happy. He learns happiness, and he only learns happiness by encountering those truly good things in life and therefore by experiencing happiness. Having experienced these things, he wants more, because in the modern world is some is good then more must be better. Yet, man is not an animal guided by his baser instincts, but a spiritual being always being called home. What he seeks is happiness, yes, but the happiness that such things as he pursues gives is temporal and cheap. This brings us to Lewis.

Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory, that there are things in our past, experiences in our life that provide moments of true, transcendent happiness, and that our desire to revisit those moments is what we call nostalgia. But, he writes, if we were to return to such moments we would find only memories. Lewis suggests with haunting beauty that these things,

“… 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 not yet visited.”

These things that we experience, according to Lewis, are not the true goodness or happiness we seek, but rather a confirmation that such goodness or happiness exists. They are glimpses of the goodness beyond goodness intended to embolden out spirits to continue in pursuit. They are good breadcrumbs leading us out of the dark forest and into the light.

Revisit from the previous essay those who were “diagnosed” with nostalgia, and reconsider those for whom nostalgia is listed as the cause of their death. What do we find? We find men and women who, when separated from something truly good, were ruined. So sublime was the goodness of which they caught only a fleeting glimpse, that to be  anywhere else destroyed them.

What does this suggest? It suggests that there is something deeper and fuller, something much more meaningful beyond life itself. It suggests that within each of us there is a deep and violent longing for something real, and yet something that is not to be had in this life. It suggests that what each of our restless souls want is home, where our soul may find its rest. We were made for this world, for a time, but we have very determinedly made this world a place for which we were never meant.

When one is forced to be away from the one the love, there is that deep desire to be reconciled. One second’s separation is two seconds too long. When a new mother must for a moment hand over her newborn child to be cleaned and blanketed, the seconds become days. Love is the good we seek, and love is found in the things that spring from the essence of love itself. Nostalgia, then, is not so much a desire for home, with its walls and gardens, though they are certainly good. No, nostalgia is a desire to return to the state of being and experiencing the goodness that was “news from a country we have not yet visited.”

So many today wish to re-experience their childhoods. Why? Because in childhood things are simple, while in adulthood things become much more complicated. Adulthood is both a blessing and a necessity, but this cultural longing for simpler times says something. In a time when spiritual formation and resilience is very much on the wane, it is no surprise that a world so crushing and discouraging to the life of the spirit as our might cause so many to long for yesterday before tomorrow.  Our society is recognizing more and more that our lives are needlessly complicated with the sort of things stolen by thieves and eaten by moths. When life is ordered, there is harmony. Everything works precisely as it should. When life is disordered, there is chaos. Everything requires correction and constant vigilance. We are seeing a generation, particularly of young people brought up in a modern world preaching the lie that disorder and complication are “progress” and “innovation”, who subconsciously desire to reject the very world in which they were brought up, in the very world that so many outwardly labor to create and perpetuate.

The modern world is stuck in a dysfunctional loop. It began long ago to pursue those things that ruin the soul. The soul, accordingly, began to fall into ruin, and man in response sought more of the same, all the while believing that the reason he had not yet received the happiness he was promised was because he did not have enough of the thing in the first place. Sir Roger Scruton put it this way:

“It is one of the marvels of the modern world that human beings, having proceeded along a path that manifestly leads to error, yet cannot but must always exhort themselves to go further in the same direction. It is with modern architecture as it has been with socialism, sexual liberation, and a thousand other modern fads; those who defend them draw no other conclusions from their failure than the thought that they have not yet gone far enough.”

Quite so.

Toward the end of the fifth chapter of Orthodoxy, titled The Flag of the World, G.K. Chesterton writes,

“But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in the world.”

This is the fulcrum on which this entire issue pivots. If we are, as Saint Augustine says, restless until we rest in God, then so long as we sojourn in this world, by the rules set forth by the powers of this world, we will be restless. This world is not our home. We are only passing through.

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