Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.
But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.
He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:
“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.
What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.
Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.
But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?
It can be as genuine as learning to dance.
“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).
Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.
Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.
Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.
But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.
He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.
It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.