In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis talks about “sehnsucht”, an inconsolable joyward longing for something that life in this world never quite gives us, though we may sometimes catch an enticing whiff of it.
“it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty… [But] the books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing….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 never visited.”
It doesn’t take grand scenery or high art to trigger this feeling. C. S. Lewis recounts his first flash of it occurred when he was a small child. His older brother
“brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature — not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory.” [Surprised by Joy]
The memory of the toy garden arose a couple of years later (when he was six or seven):
without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries…. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhat near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past…. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. [Surprised by Joy]
I know just what he’s talking about. I remember one hot summer afternoon when I was a child. I’d been pedaling my bicycle aimlessly around the neighborhoods near my house, squinting in the light reflecting off the street, and I had reached a street where houses were set back further from wider streets than in my neighborhood. I was arrested by the sight of a lovely sloping lawn shaded by pointed conifers along its distant borders. There was a stately weeping willow tree in the middle of it. I wheeled off the sunny street into the shade and laid my bike down in the grass by the curb. I crossed the lawn and passed into the willow’s arching cascade of branches. Inside was a secret little world unto itself from which I could look out through the lacy fall of willow boughs to survey the beautiful lawn all around. I thought I had found Fairyland, and yet I knew it wasn’t really–couldn’t be–and I felt a heart-stopping longing. When I got home, I told my little brother of my enchanted discovery and I tried to take him there the next day, but I couldn’t find my way back. I think I often looked for “Fairyland” after that.
Certain passages in Anne of Green Gables evoked that feeling, and I re-read it many times to catch the glimpse again. The first time I heard Gregorian chant it caught me up in that same way. Light slanting down through stained glass windows and certain liturgical phrases, gestures, and architecture–these contain, for me, powerful “echoes,” “news of a country we have never visited” and of course help explain the allure, for me, of Anglican worship. But I don’t expect these things to affect everyone the way they affect me.
Lewis, too, observed that what evokes this feeling for one person, leaves another person quite unmoved:
You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw—but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . .[The Problem of Pain]
It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.
—Till We Have Faces