Hoping for Heaven, with C.S. Lewis

During the month of November, in the magnificent quadrangle of St Patrick’s College Maynooth, designed by Augustus Pugin, a stunning tree has been glowing gold, orange, red and copper.  This majestic creation is a larger-than-life burning bush, ablaze with God.  Even now in early December, well into a season of supposed decline and death, this tree is more alive than ever. It does not seem to be dying, but rising. 

The best-selling Irish writer of all time, C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago, in November 1963, saw autumn in terms of awakening, and not as a time of decline. Of all the seasons of the year, autumn was the one that affected him the most. As a child, he had three deep experiences of wonder and longing. One of these was connected with the season of autumn.  This longing came upon him unexpectedly as he was a reading a story by Beatrix Potter called Squirrel Nutkin. In his autobiography he writes: “It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season, but that is something like what happened.”  This bittersweet and poignant desire was so appealing that he returned to reading the book so that he could somehow reignite it.  He says: “It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’.” 

Years later, in a letter to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis commented: “I think almost more each year in autumn I get the sense, just as the mere nature and voluptuous life of the world is dying, of something else coming awake. You know the feeling, of course, as well as I do. I wonder is it significant – in stories the nymphs slip out of the tree just as the ordinary life of the wood is settling down for the night.  Does the death of the natural always mean the birth of the supernatural?  Does one never sleep except to let something else awake?” 

Emotional power

Even before this experience of the emotional power of autumn, C.S. Lewis had another deep moment of awe and longing, where he sensed an extraordinary world beyond the ordinary. It was a summer’s day, and he was standing beside a currant bush that was in flower. Suddenly he remembered another day when his older brother Warren had showed him a toy garden he had made on the lid of a biscuit-tin. For Lewis, this was a golden moment. It was not the biscuit-tin itself that awakened his pang of longing. It was as though the toy garden on the biscuit tin were the messenger of something else, something he could not put his finger on, a sensation of beauty that lasted a moment, and then vanished. In that moment, C.S. Lewis caught a glimpse of something that opened up a deep desire he had never known before, something he would later identify as the desire for his true homeland, Heaven. 


Many of us can at least partly resonate with C.S. Lewis here. At the most unexpected moments, we’ve had a sense of mystery, of the beyond.  Without knowing it, we’ve experienced God in the midst of our everyday lives.  I say ‘without knowing it’ because these moments are so quick and fleeting that we easily forget them, do not give them the attention they deserve, and do not always realise that God is speaking to us. But even if only for a few seconds, we are brought face to face with something profound, a desire deep in our hearts, that longs for a love beyond love, a happiness beyond happiness. 

C.S. Lewis later wrote: “As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.” 

There was a third moment from childhood that also deeply moved the young C.S. Lewis, and stayed with him all his life.  By sheer chance, as he idly leafed through a book, he came across a poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poem called Tegner’s Drapa.  The young C.S. Lewis was overwhelmed by the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem:

“I heard a voice that cried

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead”

These three lines from Longfellow spoke powerfully to the imagination of C.S. Lewis.  This is how he describes their effect upon him: “Instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with an almost sickening intensity something never to be described… and then… found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.”

Boundless longing

Behind and beyond the images of the ‘northern sky’ was a boundless longing for something which would give Lewis complete and infinite happiness.  Later he was to realise that these lines of poetry echoed an even deeper voice, a voice that all the surface noise of life cannot ultimately drown out: the voice of God. 

According to Lewis, the whole pilgrimage of human existence is a journey toward joy, a trek toward our real home, a voyage that will ultimately fulfill our deepest longings. As he wrote in his book Mere Christianity: “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.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” 


For Lewis, reaching our true country means being transformed, not just into better people, but into new creations, into children of God. Our destiny is to become by grace what God is by nature.  God became similar to us, so that we can be raised up to Him.  We are invited to become other Christs: this is the amazing and wonderful goal of Christianity.

The seeds of Heaven are already present all around us, and we can make our Earth into a little bit of Heaven by how we treat each other.  As Lewis so wonderfully expresses it in his sermon The Weight of Glory:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you may talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.” 

May the soul of C.S. Lewis, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Fr Thomas Casey SJ lectures in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.