The Longing…

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country … the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.


Why does it feel like going back? Why does the longing feel like a vague memory? Perhaps the answer can be found in something that the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarded as the biographical foundation for a child’s subsequent sacramental experience: the effect on the newborn infant of his mother’s smile. In Balthasar’s view that moment is pivotal, as are its many repetitions in the early stages of an infant’s life. By Balthasar’s account, the mother’s smile gives the child her first experience of the goodness of existence, and it is the origin of her subsequent longing to retain or regain access to the “place where all the beauty came from.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. … everything – “I” and “Thou” and the world – is lit up from this lightening flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God. … This awareness is joined to the primal experience that one has arrived at participation in the world-fellowship of beings by means of a summons coming from outside one’s own “I”. It is not through the perfection of one’s own power that one has entered this fellowship.

The mother’s smile carries ontological weight. With it the child enters a world loved and affirmed at the deepest and most ineradicable level. Without it, the most promising mitigating efforts notwithstanding, the child’s ontological circumstances are impaired.

The father’s responsibility is threefold: First, his obligation to both the child and the mother is to foster and safeguard an ordered and peaceful domestic environment, one in which the love and promise awakened in the child by the mother’s smile can grow into an enduring predicate for the child’s life. Beyond the task of preserving and protecting the home from whatever forces antithetical to its spiritual tranquility might threaten, it falls to the parents, and traditionally at least to the father of the family, to influence to the degree possible the larger social and cultural environments, with a determination equal to the proximity and spiritual efficacy of these influences. No less important is the need to provide children with a link to their cultural, religious, and family history, their spiritual patrimony. There is nothing inherently either masculine or feminine about this task, save for the danger of turning attention to political and social matters at the expense of those features of the domestic environment that will have greater and more enduring consequences in the lives of the young. On the other hand, the fact that we use the word patrimony for the spiritual treasures received from prior generations should not be dismissed as a vestige of gender inequality.


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