In Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalls his early childhood experiences with Christianity. He remembers the candles and incense, hymns and vestments. None of it offered an invitation. Instead, “What really mattered,” he says, “was that I heard the doctrines of Christianity… taught by men who obviously believed them.”
The year is 1908 and Lewis just turned 10-years-old. He and his family are in Belfast and Lewis enters Wynyard School with the infamous “Oldie” as headmaster. He’d stay at Wynward until 1910. During these tender years, Lewis gets exposed to church in a harsh way. “I feared for my soul,” Lewis recalls. “especially on certain blazing moonlight nights in that curtainless dormitory-how the sound of other boys breathing in their sleep comes back.” Though this early exposure to Christianity cast a long shadow, he didn’t think these early experiences were altogether scarring. “I began seriously to pray and to read my Bible and to attempt to obey my conscience,” he says. This is combined with healthy conversation, as best as he recalls.
After leaving Wynward due to health reasons and likely the headmaster, who later wound up in an insane asylum, Lewis becomes a boarding student at another school in Belfast before moving to England in 1914. It is in England, through the private tutoring of W.T. Kirkpatrick,”Great Knock”, that he is exposed to writers like George MacDonald, further seeding his conversion that would happen one late night in September 1931.
Even prior to his formidable conversion with friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson by his side, his opinions are shifting from a rooted atheism, to a lose paganism, to, finally, the possibility of a God.
“As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays,” Lewis recounts, “not because I believed in Christianity, nor because I thought the difference between it and simple Theism a small one, but because I thought one ought to ‘fly one’s flag’ by some unmistakable overt sign.
“I was acting in obedience to a (perhaps mistaken) sense of honour. The idea of churchmanship was to me wholly unattractive. I was not in the least anti-clerical, but I was deeply antiecclesiastical. That curates and archdeacons and churchwardens should exist, was admirable. … But though I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo. It was, to begin with, a kind of collective; a wearisome ‘get-together’ affair. I couldn’t yet see how a concern of that sort should have anything to do with one’s spiritual life.
“To me, religion ought to have been a matter of good men praying alone and meeting by twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters. And then the fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! The bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organising. Hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me. Of all musical instruments I liked (and like) the organ least. I have, too, a sort of spiritual gaucherie which makes me unapt to participate in any rite.”
I appreciate Lewis’s “spiritual gaucherie” identification because church going often creates awkwardness that we don’t always unwind. For many, a past experience with church is their excuse to never attend. For others, their attendance is so passive, there seems to be little embrace of anything, whether it be organ music, bells, or bustle, as Lewis describes it.
He is honest about his perception and experience in church, but he doesn’t stop there. He sees something beyond the clanging symbols, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13. Lewis leans into something he would later qualify as the myth made real, Jesus. “Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact,” he says, “the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not ‘a religion’, nor ‘a philosophy’. It is the summing up and actuality of them all.”