I was thinking just now about how I’d like to return to this little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Newcastle, which I had occasion to walk around for about 5 hours one summer a few years ago, with my best friend. We didn’t really know where we were, but we spent the afternoon walking around, playing little storefront casino games and drinking some sort of ale in the lobby of a fancy hotel. The air smelled salty and vaguely Nordic. There were green mountains all around, and low-lying gray clouds, and a famous golf course that someone said Tiger Woods really enjoyed. It was a lovely afternoon.
The town of Newcastle lies in the County Down, which was an area of Northern Ireland that C.S. Lewis was partial to (he once said that his vision of heaven was Oxford picked up and set down in the middle of County Down). Now I’ve only been in County Down for about half of a day, but I can see what Lewis meant. It’s a magical place. And—like so many places we find ourselves rushing through between the last and the next thing—it feels more immense and wonderful in memory than it was in brief encounter.
Today I felt, as I sometimes do, a little bit distant from the world. A number of thoughts—none wholly new or original—collected in my mind. The thoughts included, in no particular order: “there is always something more that can be known about someone,” “humans are so aggressively distant from one another,” “the best moments in life are fleeting,” and “I shouldn’t have left that homemade focaccia uncovered—it’s totally dry now.”
I also thought about how, at the end of the day, almost all of life is just one big, reckless, haphazard attempt to be known. Every human—in seeking love, affirmation, success, significance—is ultimately just working through this most rudimentary existential dilemma: to be known, both by others, by oneself, by God. The little blips of joy when we feel known by another person, or by a place—what Martin Buber calls “queer lyric-dramatic episodes” and what I like to call “Lost in Translation moments”—become our sustaining nourishments, our water in the desert. But these moments are rare; they’re not the norm. Most of life exists in the lack, in the divine discontent. We can look back and towards the knowing, and experience it in fits and starts as we daily live, but it’s always elusive. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)
Another moment I’d like to return to also occurred in the UK, this time in Oxford. It was a hot summer night inside University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and an audience was gathered to hear a British actor deliver a re-creation of the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which C.S. Lewis preached on June 8, 1941. Up in the pulpit, the actor—who resembled Lewis in appearance and tone—bellowed the epic, soul-stirring sermon for the better part of an hour. It was hot, sticky, crowded, and not air-conditioned, which is how epic summer night sermons should be received. I think a thunderstorm might have been happening outside the church walls too (though I might be mixing memories here).
In the sermon, Lewis describes the word “glory” in two ways. On one hand, the “glory” that weighs heavy on our being is the glory of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by him (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), and we dread being cast away from him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23). But the other sense of glory, says Lewis, is more literal: luminosity. It is the idea that we don’t want to merely see beauty, but to be united with it, to “shine like the stars.”
But we are not allowed to do that yet, Lewis points out: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”
There is, of course, a deep sadness to the inability to fully touch this glory, to mingle with the splendours we see. This is probably why sunsets are so equally beautiful and tragic, why our strongest sense of “home” can sometimes occur on a brief afternoon on the Irish Sea. It’s the source of so much of our tension, our unsettledness, our petty preoccupations and quirks and insensitivity and malaise. It’s the thing that continually reminds us that we aren’t what we ought to be, that the world is aching for something better, that sometimes we just have to shrug our shoulders, take an aspirin, and be okay with a world that occasionally seems so present and yet so far.