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.
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.