Longing for Joy

“In a sense the central story of my life is about an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy….”

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

In a sense, the central story of Joy Davidman’s life was about this same unsatisfied desire. She just didn’t know what to call it.

In the biography Joy, Abigail Santamaria captures the soul of a woman whose name remains widely unknown but whose spirit and search for truth are more familiar than we would often like to acknowledge. Joy started life as a young Jewish woman in the Bronx, became a feisty academic who identified as an atheist, developed a successful writing career and contributed to popular publications, took on an active role in the U.S. Communist Party, married another writer (Bill Gresham) and gave birth to two sons, experimented with Dianetics as a financial and spiritual endeavor, and finally discovered and converted to Christianity through a few compelling experiences of grace and a series of letters across the ocean.

In short, Joy’s life was complex and confusing. How could this overly confident, often abrasive spokeswoman for communist ideals and Scientology methods end up pronouncing the truth of the Gospel? It just doesn’t add up.

And why did I find myself fighting for her through each page of the book, when virtually everything about her personality, attitudes and beliefs seemed in opposition to mine? What was it about her scattered search for meaning and purpose that kept drawing me in?

In each chapter of her life, she kept coming closer to the truth then pulling away, stepping forward and retreating. The back-and-forth struggle of her soul was both frustrating and beautiful to watch unfold. It is the struggle of my own soul, though I am not as quick to admit it.

While Joy relentlessly tried just about everything in her search for truth, a man named Jack was putting pen to paper in his Oxford office to share with the world his own perspectives on this very idea of longing. A former atheist himself, Jack (more widely known as C.S. Lewis) shared truths that shattered Joy’s understanding of the world, and she (along with countless others) began writing letters to this man who seemed to have all the answers. Through their lengthy correspondence, Joy not only began to fall in love with Jack but her heart began to long more deeply for the Gospel truth he shared. She eventually left her family behind to pursue this relationship in person, still seeking to fulfill a longing she couldn’t quite define.

(Side note: Reading Jack and Joy’s exchange of letters reminded me that I was most definitely born in the wrong decade. I find such beauty and power in the process of crafting, sending and waiting for letters, and I often ponder how our relationships have changed because well-thought letters to a few have been replaced by instantaneous messages to many. Alas, another post for another time.)

Perhaps even more beautiful was the way her journey unfolded alongside the most unlikely of travel companions. After all, she was a married mother of two who ventured across the ocean to win the heart of one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists. Not only that, Lewis slowly but surely allowed her into his life and heart, eventually seeking marriage to Joy as he was nearing the age of sixty and she was entering a battle with bone cancer.

It was all so unexpected, yet so very beautiful in its unexpectedness.

To say the least, their relationship defied conventions and expectations. At a time when divorce was shunned and Jack was expected to live a monastic, Oxford lifestyle, he was willing to marry the recently divorced Joy by her hospital bed, knowing how little time he had left to be her husband. Lewis had countless companions in his lifetime but none who showed him the kind of love Joy did, the Eros love he had written about in The Four Loves but never experienced. To the outside world, they were truly the most unlikely of couples, yet they challenged each other and refined each other’s faith. Joy also challenged Jack as a writer: “Though I can’t write one-tenth as well as Jack, I can tell him how to write more like himself.” (Side note 2: This may be one of the most simple yet beautiful illustrations of marriage I have ever heard. Again, separate blog post.)

Both Jack and Joy’s lives, and their unlikely relationship, are a testament to the deepest longing in each of our souls. Neither of them stopped seeking the truth, even at the final stage of their lives. While Joy’s life seems like a scattered mess of confused beliefs, it is ultimately a story of redemption through the Gospel. It is a story of knowing there is something much deeper, richer and more eternal than anything this world can offer and relentlessly pursuing it. I am in awe of the way she fought fearlessly to own and defend her beliefs, but just as fearlessly admitted when she had been following false hopes. I am humbled at the thought of how easily my soul is satisfied without the joy and hope found only in Christ. Joy’s soul was stirred by an unfulfilled desire, and she was not satisfied to leave this thirst unquenched.

In his book Surprised by Joy (which was an account of Lewis’ early years and ironically not at all related to his future wife), Jack expounded on the idea of longing the best way he could, as a search for deep joy:

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever…exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

I count it no accident that Joy herself appeared in his life as the living embodiment of this deep longing, and perhaps in the most unexpected way they guided each other toward the eternal joy that they would not exchange for all the world.

Next on our bookshelf: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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