Excerpts from

Surprised by Joy

by C. S. Lewis, 1955

An autobiography describing his childhood and adulthood up to 1931, the year he logically decided to believe that Christianity was true.

See also Narnia - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 and Dom Bede Griffiths

Warnings - How mysticism & the occult are changing the Church

Personal note: Many of you are saddened by the questions we have raised about this beloved author. But we would be disobedient to our Lord if we failed to test Lewis' messages against God's Word. Much of what C. S. Lewis writes sounds logical and true. But when the truths are mixed with error, the latter corrupts the whole message. In fact, the truths make the errors all the more deceptive!

C. S. Lewis dedicated this autobiography to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B (a Benedictine monk). Griffiths was influenced by a Theosophist at an early age. He founded a "Christian ashram" in India and viewed all men -- Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim -- as brothers in Christ. [More about Bede Griffiths]

Lewis' childhood:

"...at the age of seven, and eight, I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else."[page 15]

Discovering Joy:

"The third glimpse [of Joy] came through poetry.... I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read, 'I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead.' ...I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted.... I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described....

     "The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.... I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic... in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again." [17-18]

Boarding schools.

"I also developed a great taste for all the fiction I could get about the ancient world: Quo Vadis, Darkness and Dawn, The Gladiators, Ben Hur.... Early Christians came into many of these stories, but they were not what I was after. I simply wanted sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters, the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way. ...

     "What has worn better... is ... the “scientifiction” of H. G. Wells....  'Joy' (in my technical sense) never darted from Mars or the Moon. This was something coarser and stronger. The interest, when the fit was upon me, was ravenous, like a lust. This particular coarse strength... is psychological, not spiritual." [35]

"But there, too, something far more important happened to me: I ceased to be a Christian...." [58]

"No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery....

     "She was floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition.... I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief.... [59]


"...for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms unchartered by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since -- the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean....

     "It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts. It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians....

      "The vagueness, the merely speculative character, of all this Occultism began to spread -- yes, and to spread deliciously -- to the stern truths of the creed. The whole thing became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) 'altering ‘I believe' to ‘one does feel.'"

      "And oh, the relief of it! ... From the tyrannous noon of revelation I passed into the cool evening of Higher Thought, where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting." [60] [The last phrase describes the Church Growth Movement!]

 "...without knowing it, I was already desperately anxious to get rid of my religion.... I [had] set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a 'realization,' by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections...."[61]

"...night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my 'realizations.'... This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith.... 

       "No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity....." [ 62]

"You might ask how I combined this directly Atheistical thought... with my Occultist fancies.... They... had only this in common, that both made against Christianity. And so, little by little... I became an apostate, dropping my faith....
       "My stay at Chartres lasted from the spring term of 1911 till the end of the summer term 1913....

       "Dear Miss C. had been the occasion of much good to me as well as of evil. ... Nor would I deny that in all her 'Higher Thought,' disastrous though its main effect on me was, there were elements of real and disinterested spirituality by which I benefited." [65-66]

Return to myth and "Joy"

"Siegfried belonged to the same world as Balder.... And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory Joy itself..."[page 73]

"I first heard a record of the [Wagner's] Ride of the Valkyries.... To a boy already crazed with 'the Northernness'... the Ride came like a thunderbolt.... it was ... a new kind of pleasure, if indeed 'pleasure' is the right word...." [page 75]

"We are taught in the Prayer Book to 'give thanks to God for His great glory.'...  I came far nearer to feeling this about the Norse gods whom I disbelieved in than I had ever done about the true God while I believed. Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship...." [page 77]


Lessons for today -- notice the warnings about seeking "thrills" and "experiences" -- a rising threat to true faith and joy in our postmodern culture. Not mentioned is the fact that occult or pagan thrills will often drown out genuine Christianity among those who seek truth.

"The history of Joy, since it came riding back to me on huge waves of Wagnerian music and Norse and Celtic mythology several chapters ago, must now be brought up to date." [165]

"You will remember how, as a schoolboy, I had destroyed my religious life by a vicious subjectivism which
made 'realizations' the aim of prayer; turning away from God to seek states of mind, and trying to produce those states of mind by “maistry.” [Mastery -- a word often used in the context of  spiritual formation through human effort and mystical practices]

   "With unbelievable folly I now proceeded to make exactly the same blunder in my imaginative life.... The first was made at the very moment when I formulated the complaint that the 'old thrill' was becoming rarer and rarer. For by that complaint I smuggled in the assumption that what I wanted was a 'thrill,' a state of my own mind. And there lies deadly error. Only when your whole attention and desire fixed on something else—whether a distant mountain, or past, or the gods of Asgard—does the 'thrill' arise." [168]


"To 'get it again' became my constant endeavor....

     "I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. Those who think that if adolescents were all provided with suitable mistresses we should soon hear no more of 'immortal longings' are certainly wrong. I learned this mistake to be a mistake by the simple, if discreditable, process of repeatedly making it." [169]


"No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly non-moral on that subject as a human creature can be." [170]


"...after Yeats I plunged into Maeterliflck.... In Maeterlinck I came up against Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Pantheism. Here once more was a responsible adult (and not a Christian) who believed in a world behind, or around, the material world....

     "Two things hitherto widely separated in my mind rushed together: the imaginative longing for Joy, or rather the longing which was Joy, and the ravenous, quasi-prurient desire for the Occult...."[175]

"The idea that if there were Occult knowledge it was known to very few and scorned by the many
became an added attraction.... That the means should be Magic... appealed to the rebel in me."

Imagination baptized by Phantastes -- another  pagan fantasy

"The glorious week end of reading was before me. Turning to the bookstall, I picked out... Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald.... That evening I began to read my new book.... I met there all that already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris.... But in another sense all was changed.... It was Holiness." [179]     

       [See Lilith; a similar "faerie romance" by MacDonald. It is anything but holy!]

That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes." [181]  

Converted to Theism - belief in the existence of some kind of god or deity

As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays; 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'...." [233]

"...my churchgoing was a merely symbolical and provisional practice.... My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence. [WE] were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian. In my mind (I cannot now answer for his, and he has told his own story admirably in The Golden String) the perplexing multiplicity of “religions” began to sort itself out."


Since C. S. Lewis dedicated Surprised by Joy to Bebe Griffith, this review of The Golden String at amazon.com helps explain Lewis' fascination with his close friend and former student:

"This book is a very truthful look at one man's struggle to find the meaning of life. [Bebe Griffith] details his... friendship with C. S. Lewis... his pantheistic pagan nature worship along with the poets who he was influenced by and finally his discovery of the orthodox Christian tradition, rebellion against rationality and journey to India. Griffiths reveals himself to be an unusually ecumenical man, finding wisdom in the Gita, Dhammapada and Dao de King as well as the gospels. ... The problem of his conversion was really still a mystery after I had finished the book -- it just didn't seem to fit somehow. Readers may do well to keep in mind that this book was written while he was in his late 40's and that he still had not assimilated the wisdom that he was to learn in his 40+ years in India...." www.amazon.com/gp/product/0872431630/104-8911504-8187164?v=glance&n=283155

"The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”

    "...the intellect and the conscience, as well as the orgy and the ritual, must be our guide.... Paganism had been only the childhood of religion. Where was the thing fully grown? (The Everlasting Man was helping me here.) There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity..." [235]


"But Hinduism seemed to have two disqualifications. For one thing, it appeared to be not so much a moralized and philosophical maturity of Paganism as a mere oil-and-water coexistence... with Paganism.... And secondly, there was no such historical claim as in Christianity. I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste...."
     "And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real... yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.... This is not 'a religion,' nor 'a philosophy.' It is the summing up and actuality of them all." [236]

Converted to Christianity - no real testimony, little evidence of a changed heart. His love for paganism never faded, but he became an expert in logical explanations of Biblical truth -- whether he agreed or disagreed with certain Scriptures. (This will be discussed on another page) See Tolkien: Truth, Myth or 'Discovered Reality'?


"Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance 'to call one’s soul one’s own.' To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction....

     "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven [by Warnie, his brother] to Whipsnade [Zoo] one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.... It was more like when a man, after long sleep... becomes aware that he is now awake." [238]


"But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian...." [238]

Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955).

2. Note: Higher Thought includes faith in the power of Self to control circumstances by a mystical power within each person. No need for faith in a heavenly God or a Source outside our being, since we can learn to manage "the Infinite source of our own inherent power."

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