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Glimpses of Glory

Glimpses of Glory

A while ago, a young man I sometimes work with started talking about the future, and what he thought it held. He wasn’t someone with any religious or spiritual beliefs, I fancy, which made his words all the more curious.

After a while, he said, wars and conflicts will soon be put behind us, they will be ended, and then things in the world will be wonderful, and human life too, just wonderful … His eyes shone.

This was at a time when there were killings and bombings in Israel, civil wars in Africa, renewed tensions in Northern Ireland, and war in Iraq was on the horizon. Wars ending? A bright future for humankind on this earth? Where oh where does Humanist/this-worldly optimism come from? – I wondered.

What fantasy world or desperate, hopeless mind? But a few days later, it suddenly dawned on me. I was wrong to dismiss my colleague’s ideas as groundless wishful thinking – and I realised exactly what (unknowingly, surely) he had been doing.

C. S. Lewis preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory” in the University church of Oxford, St. Mary’s; probably in the late 1930s (books don’t seem to record exactly when). It was published in 1941, and re-published many times since.

Within a small compass, Lewis considers many important questions (such as the exact nature of this “glory” the scriptures assure us we are going to inherit), but most significantly of all, in my view, is his suggestion that so many of our positive experiences and valuable insights in this life – our hopes, and the source of our hopes – are actually pointers to (and products from) something quite different, something above and beyond them.

He spends much time considering the powerful experiences of joy and longing that many people get, particularly in youth, and particularly, in his case, when one has no religious beliefs of any kind.
It is easy to call these the experience of “beauty”, or some such – he says – but they are much more than that; or to think of them – as Wordsworth did – as normal concomitants of early life (for long, speaking personally, I had the unshakeable idea that some glorious future awaited me, and for years, foolishly, I thought of it in terms of this-worldly success, fame, importance; now, I understand that the future glory will be much more than any of that, but not to be found in this world).

Generally, this longing is the desire for something more, something which seems to have no specific referent, so it is easy to think of it, as I did, as intimation of some future happening in this life.

Its source, also, is easy to misunderstand, it is very easy to see it as being caused by, and bound up with, physical objects found in our world, usually products of nature – but not always so (my own experiences of this “longing” have generally been associated with beautiful things created by people, people surely acting directly as media whereby God’s glory and love may enter the world, if they will it, if they freely choose to act beside him).

Lewis talks as though everyone has these experiences, and that may not be so, but if we are to connect such things with so-called “religious experience”, studies have shown that they are very much more prevalent than we may suppose.

Perhaps the most valuable of Lewis’s insights is the location of all purely-this-worldly programmes, and humanistic/political ambitions, in the same misunderstood, ineluctable urges, ideas which immediately, to those who are looking, betray their nature and origin.

Immediately, he tells us, the humanists locate, or re-locate, their ambitions into a future which is essentially unlike anything we naturally know, or which exists at all in our (this-worldly) experience; its reality must be in some other realm (” … it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere.”) – and hence my work-mate’s idea of a glorious future: yes indeed, but not here, not within our own sphere of actions.

The central message of The Weight of Glory concerns the oft-misunderstood transcendent nature of our earthly experience, that so much that we know in this life actually hints, if we will seek and know it, of something far beyond our present sight; that we must not be misled by the semblances and shadows, and never be caused to divert our wills and efforts into purely-this-worldly ambitions.

And here, surely, we can see a golden chain linking Lewis’s urging to much in Christian traditions, leading back to the scriptures (and, people will surely suggest, far from absent in the writings of medieval theologians and the Church’s fathers).

This idea is very important in the present age because of Christianity’s ubiquitous this-worldly focus, and because always dangling before us are a myriad enticements towards present pleasures and satisfactions; but when we realise the true nature and object of our desires, then finally can we be freed from the counterfeits that their signposts can become, and realise that even the good and true things of this world are only pointers to the real end.