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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
It can be as genuine as learning to dance.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.