Letters to Malcolm 17: Pathways to Adoration

This past Tuesday at the Christian Classics Reading Group, we read three of C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  This book is a series of  imaginary letters to an imaginary interlocutor named “Malcolm” (naturally).  They revolve around prayer primarily (naturally).  The letters we read were 17, 18, and 19, if you wish to catch up with us.

Letter 17 is essentially about pathways to adoration.  Lewis reminds Malcolm about a time they were walking in a wood and Malcolm recommended him to start where he was to move towards adoration — with splashing cool water from a spring on his warm face.  From there, Lewis discusses the use of pleasure as a pathway to the worship of Almighty God, saying that he finds it easier to move to adoration from tangible pleasures than from thinking about the doctrines of God.

He makes a good point about “bad” pleasures, that it is not the pleasure itself that is bad, only the method of acquiring it:

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.  The sweetness is still a beam from the glory.  That does not palliate the stealing.  It makes it worse.  There is sacrilege in the theft.  We have abused a holy thing.

This is important to consider, although Lewis later in Letter 18 does point out that there are pleasures that are actually bad, such as the pleasure derived from nursing a grievance.  Yet by and large, the pleasures of this life are “patches of Godlight”.  As a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton says:

Life is like a waking up after a shipwreck and moments of pleasure are remnants washed ashore from the wreckage, pieces of paradise extended through time. We must hold these relics lightly and use them with gratitude and restraint, never seizing them as entitlements.

I believe this is important advice to take hold of.  The world is God’s creation — by nature, it is good, even having been pronounced so by the Almighty in Genesis 1.  In Soliloquy of the Soul, St. Thomas a Kempis contends that the pleasures of this world, being transient, are not to be sought, but that we are, instead, to live lives of self-deprivation (a form of the Way of Negation).

Lewis and Chesterton would vehemently disagree.  Yes, there is pain in this life.  Yes, we are destined for the New Country, for the Kingdom of the Heavens, for the New Heaven and the New Earth, for the Resurrection, for the Recapitulation of All Things.  Yet here we are on Earth.  The present life is transitory, but the pleasures of it are not to be shunned.

And Lewis shows us a way forward, a way to enjoy transient pleasures without compromising the future life — these pleasures are from the God of Glory Himself.  They are moments where the Kingdom of the Heavens breaks through into our transitory lives and shows us a bit of His glory.  They are vehicles of grace and pathways to adoration.

We live in a world of pain and sorrow — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where the Church is having something of a crisis around public worship — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists tell us that this material thing is all the reality there is — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists of a different ilk tell us that the value of this material thing lies within the thing itself — pathways to adoration are necessary.

Seek to worship God daily through pleasure, beauty, theology, hymns, Psalms — follow the paths to the adoration of the Majestic One seated on the Sapphire Throne.

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“worthily lamenting our sins”

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  As we prayed the various penitent prayers and Psalms at church, I couldn’t help but think of the strongly penitential tone of the BCP and its emphasis on actual sorrow for sins.  Indeed, in 1662, we “moan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” although by 1962 this is mellowed to “acknowledge and confess”.  One of the beautiful prayers in Compline prays that “we may so abound in sorrow for our sins . . .”

Sorrow?  Lament?

We live in a world where, even amongst Christians, the very idea of sin is very unpopular, where the wickedness of the average human heart is ignored and denied — as in the modern liturgy used by my evangelical Anglican church last night where we confessed our “brokenness,” not our “wickedness.”  Yet, as Christine Watt preached boldly from the pulpit at last night’s service, Sin is real.  It is the root of so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our world.  It is the inner condition of humanity, the reason for our many daily small rebellions, let alone the big, flashy wrongdoings.

Yet even if we admit the reality of Sin and its insidious presence in our lives, damaging our relationships, distorting the beautiful image of God within us, do we lament?  We fight sin, surely.  We are good at the linguistic approach to repent, knowing that what it means is to turn 180 degrees and walk a new direction, as Josephus encouraging a Jewish soldier to repent and fight for Rome, or John the Baptist telling that brood of vipers to repent and live holy lives.

However, whenever we think of sorrow, we think of things quite repugnant to the modern mind.

We imagine ashes on our heads, rending our garments, rubbing excrement on our faces, shedding tears, flagellating ourselves, grovelling at the feet of a fierce, wrathful God who will destroy us with fire if we do not repent and live according to his rules.

We remember St. Ambrose saying that if we do not shed tears, we are not truly repentant.

We remember St. Thomas a Kempis’ endless sorrow for his sinful state that hung as a shadow over much of Soliloquy of the Soul.

Sorrow need not be so extreme.  Indeed, I do not believe that the Christian should spend his or her entire life weeping over sin and grovelling in the dust, for we are called to rejoice in the Lord always.  Christ says that if we love one another, our joy shall be full.

Nevertheless, sorrow for sin can be real.  I think it should be real.  If we know God, if we are in a real relationship with him, should we not grieve to harm him?  If we have compassion for the people around us, should we not grieve to harm them?  Indeed, we should.  Just as we rejoice to bring joy to our beloved, so it strikes me as natural to sorrow when we bring sorrow to our beloved.

Maybe this lament will be nothing more than an inner pang of regret when we do something wrong.  Maybe it will be larger, depending on the sin or its frequency.

And once this lament is done, once we have sorrowed for our sins, we should enter the joy of repentance.  We can live the new life.  We are reconciled to our Friend.  There is no longer any need for sorrow, for we are forgiven through our mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ.  Sorrow for sin, if real, should ever turn to joy in forgiveness, hope for resurrection.