I recently read an illustration by C.S. Lewis from his chapter on “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory. He is trying to explain the challenge of understanding (much less communicating!) spiritual things from the perspective of our physical/material world. (HT to Rebecca Reynolds for posting the Lewis chapter that prompted this reflection).
Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like.
He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?” “What?” says the boy. “No pencil marks there?” And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it.
He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition – the waving treetops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shape at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mothers’ pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.
I find that it is something like that trying to raise children in the faith or share the faith with those who do not yet believe. We can teach all the stories and behavior and beliefs (and we should!), but until they have their own experience of the Triune God, it is something like that dutiful boy believing in his mother’s artistic depictions of something greater… and also that feeling of ‘blankness’ – or sometimes anger – when a the faith of a parent (or pastor) cannot substitute, finally, for personal faith and experience.
Yet I also find infinite hope that one’s experience of God is not, ultimately, up to my human effort. That final (or kindling) spark that is faith comes from God alone, and God is indeed faithful.
*The image above comes from “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott. It is an analogy-story exploring the limitations of seeing what we can’t see using math and geometry. I read it in 5th grade and was taken with the (intended) application to spiritual matters.