Learning to Long with C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth of the Trinity
Some six months ago I penned my first editorial for the Rover, waxing (somewhat) poetic about the most unusual Fall semester and the places I did or did not find home. Now, midway through another abnormal semester, I find myself contemplating many of the same things, plagued by the late-pandemic fatigue that seems to be weighing upon our campus like a South Bend perma-cloud in mid-April. As I do so, two conversation partners have come center stage: the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and a little-known Carmelite mystic from a convent in France. Bear with me!
LaFun booths remain closed to (proper) late night medicine balls and decaf Americanos. Adirondack chairs still fill the lawns, and string lights still twinkle aplenty. The lodges came, and the lodges went, not providing relief so much as inexplicable portraits of bears and cheap felt mini-golf. There are signs of hope: Easter celebrations restored to our campus community, a first dose of the vaccine, and a mercifully mild South Bend winter and early spring. But we remain “HERE”(™), sprinting through another set of midterms without a break in sight and we must continue to refuse that this is “normal.” The mini-break won’t cut it, nor will virtual concerts or food trucks set up on the quad. Our lives are different, and an almost physical pain comes with acknowledging that — even as that acknowledgement sets us free to enjoy the good things that God is giving us. I long for life before and beyond the pandemic, and that longing reminds me just how much I loved about the before- and beyond- times.
That infuriating paradox — the pain and the freedom it brings; the longing and the love which it reminds me of — has turned my thoughts to aches and pains of more eternal consequence. Let’s talk about Heaven!
In a sermon entitled “the Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis expresses the pining that plagues our human experience: we long for a world we know we were made for, even as we cannot articulate why our present world fails to suffice. There is an abiding sense “that in this universe we are treated as strangers,” whether that universe be campus in the age of coronavirus or our earthly lives.
On campus, there is a transience to any sense of “normalcy” that dulls the ache. I miss bustling dining halls (with real plates!) and crowded common spaces; I remember packed dance floors and lively lecture halls fondly. But I can lessen that grief with the knowledge that those were never to last: my time at Notre Dame was going to come to a close with or without a pandemic. My imperfect experience of home these days is as much a product of the impermanence of college as they are the consequences of our present uncertain circumstances (Author’s Note: at what point do the times become certain again? Were they ever truly so? Existential musings for another time).
There is no avoidance of the more transcendent ache. For all of our lives, I will long for a homeland I have not yet experienced. If I pretend to be pleased by the life I do know, I will “go on making mud pies in a slum because [I] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” This “desire for our own faroff country” is, Lewis says, “the inconsolable secret in each one of you.” We may explain it away, but “we cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.”
There is a discomfort to this “lifelong nostalgia”! Acknowledging an ache that nothing on this earth will (perfectly) satisfy feels almost useless. But, Lewis insists: “our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” Our ache betrays its own remedy; our lack points to the means of filling. By our dissatisfaction, we learn that we were made for more than what we now know.
But to accept this “more,” we must reject the immediate satisfactions of this world. We have to admit that mud pies and quad lodges grow boring—that our inconsolable secret is something much deeper than mere adolescent innocence. When we do so, accepting the long wait for the fulfillment of the deepest desires of our lives in docility to the will of God, “poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”
It’s that third transformation that stops me in my tracks: longing transforms obedience. Too often, I allow my longing to justify a stubborn disobedience: a prideful insistence that my desires ought to be fulfilled and that my plans are the best means of doing so. C.S. Lewis offers a gentle but stern correction of this tendency, reminding me that “at present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door,” even as I long for the day when I shall, God-willing, get in, and “the door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
In the interim, as the knocking continues, I’d like to invite us to be schooled in this longing, so as to grow in obedience. For such a teacher, I turn not only to C.S. Lewis but to a twentieth century mystic and dear saint friend: Elizabeth of the Trinity.
A Carmelite in Dijon, France, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity is perhaps best known for her prayer, “O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore,” quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§260). Recently canonized, the saintly bride of Christ has much to teach us about the pangs of longing. She waited nearly four years to enter Carmel — dying just six years later — and yet could pray faithfully: “what I love above all is to do your will, and since You want me to still remain in the world, I submit with all my heart for love of You.” In Elizabeth I find a companion who knows the acute growing pains that come with an unwelcome wait, and in her joyful acceptance of the will of God, she calls us into the same posture.
“Meanwhile,” Lewis quips towards the end of his sermon, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” Whether it be for the long-awaited end of our pandemic times, or the long-awaited heavenly banquet, the ache of longing is bound to define our lives. We could sulk, dragging our feet and pouting until the Lord opens the door which we knock upon or we could take up St. Elizabeth’s invitation, submitting with all our hearts for love of God: “While waiting, let us be all adoring, / Because our Lamb wishes to purify us.” In so doing, may we become what Elizabeth identified as her heavenly name: Laudem Gloriae — a praise of His glory.
Maggie Garnett is a junior studying theology and living in Walsh Hall. She is confident that each sunrise and sunset is painted to remind her of the glory of God and has been known to take off running to catch the best view. Send a “SKY!” alert to firstname.lastname@example.org if you see a good one.