Surprised by Joy is the wonderful title of the autobiography of C.S. Lewis: for therein lies a clever dual meaning. Considering the title of one of his other texts, The Joyful Christian, it appears that the “surprise” refers primarily to his movement away from atheism to Christianity – through the intervention of his best friend and devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien – and the “joy” points to his newfound sense of meaning in his life. But considering his later-in-life marriage to the American poet Joy Davidman, the title can also be seen as a romantic nod to his beloved spouse.
Yet early on in this autobiography Lewis reveals his long-held and rather personal sense of joy as he speaks of his lifelong love of the season of autumn. He references his memory of the Beatrix Potter book Squirrel Nutkin as the catalyst: “It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season, but that is something like what happened.”
For Lewis, this feeling of the autumnal had in it something from “another dimension” and represented an ache caused by “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” This, he states, was his earliest glimpse of joy.
The linking of autumn with that “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” has great resonance in my household. My wife and I understand that of which Lewis speaks, and we share his love of that beautiful melancholy elicited by all that people think of when they think of the word “autumn,” and last Friday we immersed ourselves in the season by visiting the world-famous Lake View Cemetery.
Ann is the expert on where to go and what new things to look for, always finding some hidden gem like the elf statue at the Vail family plot or the built-into-the-side-of-a-hill Schofield family mausoleum or the world renowned Angel of Death Victorious, otherwise known as the Haserot Angel, the guardian of the Haserot family plot.
She also helps to guide me through the winding roads of the cemetery as we venture to the one spot that is never omitted on our visits: the graveside of Jim Skerl ’74.
This visit, one week off from the sixth anniversary of his death on October 23rd, was different from all other previous visits because there was a new grave at which to say a prayer – that of Gene Skerl, Jim’s dad, who had been buried only minutes before our arrival.
There are few things more moving than a newly-filled grave. The mound of dirt under which rests the earthly remains of the deceased, and upon which rests the flowers placed by the mourners. The scene took on an even greater poignancy because flowers had been set on Jim’s grave as well.
Autumn takes its name from several possible ancient roots, but the general sense is that this is a time where things begin to turn cold and the year is coming to an end. It is natural, considering the weather conditions and the movement toward the year’s conclusion, to see autumn as a time of sadness, melancholy, and death. And yet amidst that, for many – like Ann and I – it is a time of great joy in the sense meant by Lewis.
That sense of joy rests in the belief that we are not to despair even as we look to the end of this year and to the end of this life. What awaits us as we pass from what Lewis called “the Shadowlands” of earthly existence is already known to Jim and Gene and all those beloved dead who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It is the eternal joy to be found, at long last, in the satisfaction of that desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.