In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.
There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.
And if we are ineffective in this world, Lewis suggests that it because “we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world.”
Think about it: what education have you deliberately sought out to fix your mind on the world to come? What does this education entail? And, what difference is it making?
One winter, I had the opportunity to visit the Chartres Cathedral in the course of participating in the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in Paris program.
It had been a beautiful train ride from Paris to Chartres. Upon arriving, we stood outside the church and read aloud some Latin prayers and sermons together.
Our instructor shared with us that Malcolm Miller would be our guide for the day. He told us that, when Malcolm Miller was in his twenties, he visited Chartres for the first time and was so taken by the Cathedral that he decided to move to to Chartres where he has lived ever since for 65 years!
At the time I went, he was still giving tours every day and almost all of the books about Chartres in the gift shop were written by him.
This elderly and exuberant British character greeted us. “Now we have an hour and a half together,” he began, “which, as you know, is much too short. I wish we had more time together. We need an hour for this one window!” he exclaimed, pointing up.
Mr. Miller began by explaining to us that the windows are meant to be didactic.
“As Latin students, you know this word.”
He continued, “I think of Chartres as a book. It’s too long. We cannot read it all, but it’s one story. Once you know the text, it won’t matter which chapter you choose to focus on when you come. It’s a long story, you’ll agree– from the beginning of the world until the end of it.”
He was so knowledgeable and funny.
“You’re getting a lot theology today because you’re visiting a church– can’t avoid that!” he said.
He explained a couple of the cathedral windows to us in detail and it was really quite awe-inspiring.
Ending the tour he said, “Now promise me you won’t go home and tell everyone you’ve seen Chartres because you haven’t! I’ve been here 65 years and I hardly know anything about it. Promise you’ll come and visit again. I promise you that I’ll be here ’til Judgment Day.”
And that, I think, is a bit about what constitutes an education in fixing our minds on eternity because, as C.S. Lewis says, “The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.”
The greatest goods of this world remain but a “copy, or echo, or mirage” of our ultimate longings.
It is, therefore, a gift to be disappointed by the best this world has to offer us because this can be the beginning of our education that we are made for another world and to fix our minds on that.