As you prepare for Lent, meditate upon (and share with a friend) these words from C.S. Lewis’ Miserable Offenders: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language:
The Lenten season is devoted especially to what the theologians call contrition, and so every day in Lent a prayer is said in which we ask God to give us “contrite hearts.”1 Contrite, as you know, is a word translated from Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now modern people complain that there is too much of that note in our Prayer Book. They do not wish their hearts to be pulverized, and they do not feel that they can sincerely say that they are “miserable offenders.”2 I once knew a regular churchgoer who never repeated the words, “the burden of them (i.e. his sins) is intolerable”,3 because he did not feel that they were intolerable. But he was not understanding the words. I think the Prayer Book is very seldom talking primarily about our feelings; that is (I think) the first mistake we’re apt to make about these words “we are miserable offenders.” I do not think whether we are feeling miserable or not matters. I think it is using the word miserable in the old sense — meaning an object of pity. That a person can be a proper object of pity when he is not feeling miserable, you can easily understand if you imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded express trains that are traveling towards one another along the same line at 60 miles an hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision. I think it would be very natural to say about the passengers of these trains, that they were objects of pity. This would not mean that they felt miserable themselves; but they would certainly be proper objects of pity. I think that is the sense in which to take the word ‘miserable.’ The Prayer Book does not mean that we should feel miserable but that if we could see things from a sufficient height above we should all realize that we are in fact proper objects of pity. …
Does that sound very gloomy? Does Christianity encourage morbid introspection? The alternative is much more morbid. Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one’s own. It is the reverse of morbid. It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and really to know one’s own sins is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of the tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.
Now that you’ve had a taste from one who grew up in a dental office 😉 … I encourage you to take a few minutes to prayerfully consider the rest of C.S. Lewis’ short piece Miserable Offenders: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language (Also in C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans. 1994).Â By-the-way, the prayers referred to by Lewis are provided in the footnotes.
PS.Â In 2011 0ur family continues the 2010 Lenten prayerful seeking after patience 😉
About the author:
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the Northeast Regional Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). For a number of years, the Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine was the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!