This week at church and in our smaller community group, we are thinking and talking about happiness, the truest, deepest, longest kind. We read Proverbs 3 and saw such exhortation to trust God above ourselves, to honour and fear God first, knowing that what we need will be provided. We saw that gaining wisdom leads to life, for wisdom personified in Proverbs redirects us always to our Lord.
So we discussed the striking difference between our innate pursuit of happiness (what makes us feel good now) and the sweet happiness God delights to give (abiding contentment and blessedness). And during our conversation yesterday in our little family group, my thoughts went always back to a story I’ve treasured in my heart for so many years. I’m bursting to share it again.
This is a long passage, so I’ve taken some bits out, but really you will be transported and won’t even notice time passing, such is the wonder of Narnia.
Digory has been commissioned by Aslan, the Lion and Creator of Narnia, to retrieve an apple from a particular tree in a garden. Polly and Fledge accompany him.
When the travellers reached the top they walked nearly all the way round it outside the green wall before they found the gates: high gates of gold, fast shut, facing due east.
Up till now I think Fledge and Polly had had the idea that they would go in with Digory. But they thought so no longer. You never saw a place which was so obviously private. You could see at a glance that it belonged to someone else. Only a fool would dream of going in unless he had been sent there on very special business. Digory himself understood at once that the others wouldn’t and couldn’t come in with him. He went forward to the gates alone.
When he had come close up to them he saw words written on the gold with silver letters; something like this:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all, Take of my fruit for others or forbear, For those who steal or those who climb my wall Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.
“Take of my fruit for others,” said Digory to himself. “Well, that’s what I’m going to do. It means I mustn’t eat any myself, I suppose. I don’t know what all that jaw in the last line is about. Come in by the gold gates. Well who’d want to climb a wall if he could get in by a gate. But how do the gates open?” He laid his hand on them: and instantly they swung apart, opening inwards, turning on their hinges without the least noise.
Now that he could see into the place it looked more private than ever. He went in very solemnly, looking about him. Everything was very quiet inside. Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound. The lovely smell was all round him: it was a happy place but very serious.
He knew which was the right tree at once, partly because it stood in the very centre and partly because the great silver apples with which it was loaded shone so and cast a light of their own down on the shadowy places where the sunlight did not reach. He walked straight across to it, picked an apple, and put it in the breast pocket of his Norfolk jacket. But he couldn’t help looking at it and smelling it before he put it away.
It would have been better if he had not. A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit. He put it hastily into his pocket; but there were plenty of others. Could it be wrong to taste one? After all, he thought, the notice on the gate might not have been exactly an order; it might have been only a piece of advice—and who cares about advice? Or even if it were an order, would he be disobeying it by eating an apple? He had already obeyed the part about taking one “for others”.
Digory was just turning to go back to the gates when he stopped to have one last look around. He got a terrible shock. He was not alone. There, only a few yards away from him, stood the Witch. She was just throwing away the core of an apple which she had eaten. The juice was darker than you would expect and had made a horrid stain round her mouth. Digory guessed at once that she must have climbed in over the wall. And he began to see that there might be some sense in that last line about getting your heart’s desire and getting despair along with it. For the Witch looked stronger and prouder than ever, and even, in a way, triumphant; but her face was deadly white, white as salt.
All this flashed through Digory’s mind in a second; then he took to his heels and ran for the gates as hard as he could pelt; the Witch after him. As soon as he was out, the gates closed behind him of their own accord. That gave him the lead but not for long. By the time he had reached the others and was shouting out “Quick, get on, Polly! Get up, Fledge”, the Witch had climbed the wall, or vaulted over it, and was close behind him again.
“Stay where you are,” cried Digory, turning round to face her, “or we’ll all vanish. Don’t come an inch nearer.”
“Foolish boy,” said the Witch. “Why do you run from me? I mean you no harm. If you do not stop and listen to me now, you will miss some knowledge that would have made you happy all your life.”
“Well I don’t want to hear it, thanks,” said Digory. But he did.
“I know what errand you have come on,” continued the Witch. “For it was I who was close beside you in the woods last night and heard all your counsels. You have plucked fruit in the garden yonder. You have it in your pocket now. And you are going to carry it back, untasted, to the Lion; for him to eat, for him to use. You simpleton! Do you know what that fruit is? I will tell you. It is the apple of youth, the apple of life. I know, for I have tasted it; and I feel already such changes in myself that I know I shall never grow old or die. Eat it, Boy, eat it; and you and I will both live forever and be king and queen of this whole world—or of your world, if we decide to go back there.”
“No thanks,” said Digory, “I don’t know that I care much about living on and on after everyone I know is dead. I’d rather live an ordinary time and die and go to Heaven.”
“But what about this Mother of yours whom you pretend to love so?”
“What’s she got to do with it?” said Digory.
“Do you not see, Fool, that one bite of that apple would heal her? You have it in your pocket. We are here by ourselves and the Lion is far away. Use your Magic and go back to your own world. A minute later you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit. Five minutes later you will see the colour coming back to her face. She will tell you the pain is gone. Soon she will tell you she feels stronger. Then she will fall asleep—think of that; hours of sweet natural sleep, without pain, without drugs. Next day everyone will be saying how wonderfully she has recovered. Soon she will be quite well again. All will be well again. Your home will be happy again. You will be like other boys.”
“Oh!” gasped Digory as if he had been hurt, and put his hand to his head. For he now knew that the most terrible choice lay before him.
“What has the Lion ever done for you that you should be his slave?” said the Witch. “What can he do to you once you are back in your own world? And what would your Mother think if she knew that you could have taken her pain away and given her back her life and saved your Father’s heart from being broken, and that you wouldn’t—that you’d rather run messages for a wild animal in a strange world that is no business of yours?”
“I—I don’t think he is a wild animal,” said Digory in a dried-up sort of voice. “He is—I don’t know—”
“Then he is something worse,” said the Witch. “Look what he has done to you already; look how heartless he has made you. That is what he does to everyone who listens to him. Cruel, pitiless boy! you would let your own Mother die rather than—”
“Oh shut up,” said the miserable Digory, still in the same voice. “Do you think I don’t see? But I—I promised.”
“Ah, but you didn’t know what you were promising. And no one here can prevent you.”
“Mother herself,” said Digory, getting the words out with difficulty, “wouldn’t like it—awfully strict about keeping promises—and not stealing—and all that sort of thing. She’d tell me not to do it—quick as anything—if she was here.”
“But she need never know,” said the Witch, speaking more sweetly than you would have thought anyone with so fierce a face could speak. “You wouldn’t tell her how you’d got the apple. Your Father need never know. No one in your world need know anything about this whole story. You needn’t take the little girl back with you, you know.”
That was where the Witch made her fatal mistake. Of course Digory knew that Polly could get away by her own ring as easily as he could get away by his. But apparently the Witch didn’t know this. And the meanness of the suggestion that he should leave Polly behind suddenly made all the other things the Witch had been saying to him sound false and hollow. And even in the midst of all his misery, his head suddenly cleared, and he said (in a different and much louder’ voice):
“Look here; where do you come into all this? Why are you so precious fond of my Mother all of a sudden? What’s it got to do with you? What’s your game?”
“Good for you, Digs,” whispered Polly in his ear. “Quick! Get away now.” She hadn’t dared to say anything all through the argument because, you see, it wasn’t her Mother who was dying.
“Up then,” said Digory, heaving her on to Fledge’s back and then scrambling up as quickly as he could. The horse spread its wings.
“Go then, Fools,” called the Witch. “Think of me, Boy, when you lie old and weak and dying, and remember how you threw away the chance of endless youth! It won’t be offered you again.”
They were already so high that they could only just hear her. Nor did the Witch waste any time gazing up at them; they saw her set off northward down the slope of the hill.
They had started early that morning and what happened in the garden had not taken very long, so that Fledge and Polly both said they would easily get back to Narnia before nightfall. Digory never spoke on the way back, and the others were shy of speaking to him. He was very sad and he wasn’t even sure all the time that he had done the right thing; but whenever he remembered the shining tears in Aslan’s eyes he became sure.
All day Fledge flew steadily with untiring wings … till at last, when the sky was growing red with sunset behind them, he saw a place where many creatures were gathered together by the riverside. And soon he could see Aslan himself in the midst of them. Fledge glided down, spread out his four legs, closed his wings, and landed cantering. Then he pulled up. The children dismounted. Digory saw all the animals, dwarfs, satyrs, nymphs, and other things drawing back to the left and right to make way for him. He walked up to Aslan, handed him the apple and said:
“I’ve brought you the apple you wanted, sir.”
“WELL done,” said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake. Then Digory knew that all the Narnians had heard those words and that the story of them would be handed down from father to son in that new world for hundreds of years and perhaps forever. But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn’t think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan. This time he found he could look straight into the Lion’s eyes. He had forgotten his troubles and felt absolutely content.
“Well done, son of Adam,” said the Lion again. “For this fruit you have hungered and thirsted and wept. No hand but yours shall sow the seed of the Tree that is to be the protection of Narnia. Throw the apple towards the river bank where the ground is soft.”
Digory did as he was told. Everyone had grown so quiet that you could hear the soft thump where it fell into the mud.
“It is well thrown,” said Aslan. “Let us now proceed to the Coronation of King Frank of Narnia and Helen his Queen.”
And while Digory was still cheering he heard the deep voice of Aslan beside him, saying:
Everyone in that crowd turned its head, and then everyone drew a long breath of wonder and delight. A little way off, towering over their heads, they saw a tree which had certainly not been there before. It must have grown up silently, yet swiftly as a flag rises when you pull it up on a flagstaff, while they were all busied about the coronation. Its spreading branches seemed to cast a light rather than a shade, and silver apples peeped out like stars from under every leaf. But it was the smell which came from it, even more than the sight, that had made everyone draw in their breath. For a moment one could hardly think about anything else.
“Son of Adam,” said Aslan, “you have sown well. And you, Narnians, let it be your first care to guard this Tree, for it is your Shield. The Witch of whom I told you has fled far away into the North of the world; she will live on there, growing stronger in dark Magic. But while that Tree flourishes she will never come down into Narnia. She dare not come within a hundred miles of the Tree, for its smell, which is joy and life and health to you, is death and horror and despair to her.”
Everyone was staring solemnly at the Tree when Aslan suddenly swung round his head (scattering golden gleams of light from his mane as he did so) and fixed his large eyes on the children.”What is it, children?” he said, for he caught them in the very act of whispering and nudging one another.
“Oh—Aslan, sir,” said Digory, turning red, “I forgot to tell you. The Witch has already eaten one of those apples, one of the same kind that Tree grew from.” He hadn’t really said all he was thinking, but Polly at once said it for him (Digory was always much more afraid than she of looking a fool.)
“So we thought, Aslan,” she said, “that there must be some mistake, and she can’t really mind the smell of those apples.”
“Why do you think that, Daughter of Eve?” asked the Lion.
“Well, she ate one.”
“Child,” he replied, “that is why all the rest are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after.”
“Oh I see,” said Polly. “And I suppose because she took it in the wrong way it won’t work for her. I mean it won’t make her always young and all that?”
“Alas,” said Aslan, shaking his head. “It will. Things always work according to their nature. She has won her heart’s desire; she has unwearying strength and endless days like a goddess. But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want; they do not always like it.”
“I—I nearly ate one myself, Aslan,” said Digory. “Would I—”
“You would, child,” said Aslan. “For the fruit always works—it must work—but it does not work happily for any who pluck it at their own will. If any Narnian, unbidden, had stolen an apple and planted it here to protect Narnia, it would have protected Narnia. But it would have done so by making Narnia into another strong and cruel empire like Charn, not the kindly land I mean it to be. And the Witch tempted you to do another thing, my son, did she not?”
“Yes, Aslan. She wanted me to take an apple home to Mother.”
“Understand, then, that it would have healed her; but not to your joy or hers. The day would have come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness.”
And Digory could say nothing, for tears choked him and he gave up all hopes of saving his Mother’s life; but at the same time he knew that the Lion knew what would have happened, and that there might be things more terrible even than losing someone you love by death. But now Aslan was speaking again, almost in a whisper:
“That is what would have happened, child, with a stolen apple. It is not what will happen now. What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple from the Tree.”
For a second Digory could hardly understand. It was as if the whole world had turned inside out and upside down. And then, like someone in a dream, he was walking across to the Tree, and the King and Queen were cheering him and all the creatures were cheering too. He plucked the apple and put it in his pocket. Then he came back to Aslan.
“Please,” he said, “may we go home now?” He had forgotten to say “Thank you”, but he meant it, and Aslan understood.¹
I could sit in stillness pondering this for endless moments, I think. The grace that was with Digory when he at last refused the Witch’s temptation. And the thing that she claimed would make him happy all his life, truly would have been nothing but misery, as she was already beginning to know. So he chose obedience by faith, trusting that what Aslan had instructed was good, even though his heart was hurting. When he spoke with Aslan again, he had such clarity and peace, to accompany his sadness. And then, beyond hope, Aslan extended mercy to even him – who had by grave error brought the Witch into Narnia in the first place – and sent him home with a cure for his mother.
There’s so much beauty to behold here. And so much truth.
Happiness can’t be the fulfillment of our desires. To begin with, our desires are often wayward and unholy. The pursuit of our own gratification simply doesn’t lead us to life and joy. Further, even others-focused desires, such as healing for a mother, don’t get at what is truly, deeply needed before anything else.
I do believe that “all get what they want,” in a way. The reason it doesn’t lead to happiness is that so often what we want is to assume the role of God in our lives. Deep down, the implicit desire of our hearts is to decide for ourselves what is good, and to live on our own terms. Well, we can have that. But we can’t have it without the consequences of such living.
And the result of choosing our own way is most often despair, and death, and emptiness, and ultimate separation from God.
But God Himself is our good, and knowing Him is life to us. When we seek God first, and adore and revere and obey Him, we will experience the consequences: happiness, peace, and abiding contentment. He knows what’s good for us, and He wants us to have it. He wants us to have Himself.
No other person or thing can carry the weight of the burden of providing happiness to us. As our pastor said on Sunday, “Nothing but Jesus will ever say to you, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.'”
Sisters and brothers, let us desire Jesus. Let us recall His compassion and mercy and love Him with everything in us.
¹ The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis