No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

Archives: C S Lewis

Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 2: Not Pursuer but Pursued

C. S. Lewis’ poem “No Beauty We Could Desire” begins by acknowledging that the task of finding God by exploring the natural world is beyond us.  We pick up God’s scent, but we can never catch Him.  Some people would then argue that even if we can’t find God in the surrounding world, we should be able to find God in other people, and maybe even in ourselves, since after all human beings are made in God’s image.  In the last post, I quoted Dorothy Sayers on knowing the Trinity from her great book The Mind of the Maker, and much of her argument there is that we can find things out about God when we examine our own creative process.  But – at least in this poem – Lewis is having none of it.  He dismisses this option as well:

Therefore I turn my back on the unapproachable

Stars and horizons and all musical sounds,

Poetry itself, and the winding stair of thought.

He turns away not only from the stars, but also from the quintessentially human qualities of music, poetry, and thought.  At this point, we might be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.  C. S. Lewis is turning his back on poetry and thought?  Really?  The great writer of imaginative fiction and of Christian apologetics is rejecting both poetic imagination and reason?  It seems unlikely.  And then too, he’s telling us about his turning away from poetry in a poem.  So is this Lewis looking back on his career and, like Thomas Aquinas, seeing it all as just so much straw?  I don’t think so.  He’s not denying that music, poetry and reason are all valuable.  However, even though these are all good things, they are not a net in which we can capture God.

Lewis is saying no to one thing in order to say yes to something else.  No, we can’t catch God.  Yes, God is hunting for us.  Which is much better news than any reassurance about being able to see God in the world or in ourselves.

Leaving the forest where you are pursued in vain

– Often a mere white gleam – I turn instead

To the appointed place where you pursue.

This is the real issue, isn’t it?  We are not the pursuers.  We are not the hunters.  We are the prey.  As a Calvinist, I believe that God always captures what he hunts, but here as elsewhere Lewis stops short of endorsing the irresistible nature of grace.  He must allow himself to be caught.  He must “turn … to the appointed place,” where God is ready to pursue him if only he will show up.

Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 1 : The Futile Hunt

It seems fitting to begin this blog with a few posts exploring the poem by C. S. Lewis from which I’ve taken the blog’s name: “No Beauty We Could Desire.”  The poem begins by acknowledging the possibility of natural theology, a path to God that leads along the way of affirmation.  This kataphatic approach understands every good quality in the creation as pointing to God, who is then understood as both the source and the preeminent exemplar of that quality.  I see beauty in the world, and I conclude that God is the greatest Beauty from which all other beauty flows.  I see goodness in the world, and I conclude that God is Goodness itself, the source of all that is good.

          Lewis acknowledges that such a path can be followed in theory, but argues that it’s not so easy to find in practice.

Yes, you are always everywhere.  But I,

Hunting in such immeasurable forests,

Could never bring the noble Hart to bay.

,

The scent was too perplexing for my hounds;

Nowhere sometimes, then again everywhere.

Other scents, too, seemed to them almost the same.

These lines make me think of the confused, meandering journey of The Pilgrim’s Regress, in which John tries in vain to reach a beautiful island he has seen only in glimpses from afar.  Of course God is present in the world.  God is omnipresent; there is no spot in the cosmos where He is not fully present.  But that doesn’t mean that we are equipped to capture Him.  When we try to take on the role of the hunter and make God into the hunted, everything is backwards.  Or, to use a metaphor that’s closer to home for most of us than that of hunting, when we try to take on the role of the scientist and make God into the specimen we are studying, everything is backwards.

Image           It is God’s very omnipresence that makes Him so difficult to pursue.  As Dorothy Sayers explains in The Mind of the Maker, everything in the world reflects God’s Triune nature, so the mysterious quality of the Trinity is not a function of God’s distance from us.  Quite the reverse.  It is a function of His presence.  “[T]he Trinitarian structure of activity is mysterious to us just because it is so universal – rather as the four-dimensional structure of space-time is mysterious because we cannot get outside to look at it” (chapter 3).

Lewis himself says much the same thing in Miracles.

“[T]he fact which is in one respect the most obvious and primary fact, and through which alone you have access to all the other facts, may be precisely the one that is most easily forgotten – forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious. . . . The Supernatural . . .  is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.  Denial of it depends on a certain absent-mindedness.  But this absent-mindedness is in no way surprising.”

But in “No Beauty We Could Desire,” Lewis is saying more than that he is too absent-minded to find God.  Even when he tries, even when he is focused and attentive and searching, the hunt is beyond his ability – whether because of finitude or because of sin, he does not say.  His theory has been that he has only to change his point of view, and he will see God all around him.  But in this poem he acknowledges that he is not capable of making that change.   The poem will end optimistically, but to get there requires this confession as a starting point.