Sunday, July 15, 2018

Why did C.S. Lewis think that "Contemporary Free Worship" was impossible for him?


C.S. Lewis is a beloved author among Christians around the world. His popular works of children’s fantasy, Christian apologetics, theology, allegory, science fiction, devotional works, as well as his less familiar but equally profound works on literature are sold by the millions. 

But many Christians don’t consider that C.S. Lewis not only worshipped with a liturgy (the Book of Common Prayer) but was a strong proponent of liturgical worship. The same service we use here at Saint Francis nourished Lewis on a daily basis as he employed its daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in both public and private worship, and as he frequently participated in the service of Holy Communion. 

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Lewis not only fed his own spiritual life using the framework of a Biblical and beautiful liturgy, he thought that a fixed liturgy was vital to healthy worship. Some assert that a prescribed service stifles devotion. Lewis celebrated the fixed nature of the service precisely because it sets our hearts free to pray and to worship

In a letter to a friend dated April 1, 1952, Lewis wrote: 

“The advantage of a fixed form of service is that we know what is coming. Extempore public prayer has this difficulty: we don’t know whether we can mentally join in it until we’ve heard it—it might be phony or heretical. We are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible. In a fixed form we ought to have ‘gone through the motions’ before in our private prayers: the rigid form really sets our devotions free.” 

The rigid form sets our devotions free! Try it, you may find that it’s true. Prayers and Psalms from the Bible, and written prayers that draw deeply from the rich soil of the history of the people of God can become a springboard for our hearts to rise up to God without distraction. But other distractions are also removed by a fixed liturgy which takes us to the essence of the Faith: 

“I also find the more rigid it is, the easier it is to keep one’s thoughts from straying. Also it prevents any service getting too completely eaten up by whatever happens to be the preoccupation of the moment (a war, an election, or what not). The permanent shape of Christianity shows through. I don’t see how the extempore method can help becoming provincial and I think it has a great tendency to direct attention to the minister rather than to God.” 

The modern American church celebrates novelty as an indication of spontaneity and vibrancy. Lewis valued liturgy for the very reason that it eradicates novelty. Novelty is narcissistic. Novelty turns our focus upon what we are doing, and away from God. In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, he writes: 

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it ‘works’ best— when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. 
  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 service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping . . .
  ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’ A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was ‘Feed my sheep’; not ‘Try experiments on my rats’, or even, ‘Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’” 

These are words which our contemporary church culture would do well to consider.

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