C.S. Lewis on Religious Emotion


Lewis’ friend, Mary Neylan, sought his advice about returning to church after years of bitterness and theological uncertainty. It seems she knew the right way, but lacked the emotion she felt she should have about religious practice. Simply returning to church didn’t seem to her as a definite enough step toward repentance and forgiveness, and she wished she had the option of sacramental confession as the Catholic church practiced. What follows is part of Lewis’ response.

I don’t think this decision comes either too late or too soon. One can’t go on thinking it over for ever; and one can begin to try to be a disciple before one is a professed theologian. In fact they tell us, don’t they, that in these matters to act on the light one has is almost the only way to more light. Don’t be worried about feeling that, or about feeling at all. As to what to do, I suppose the normal next step, after self-examination repentance and restitution, is to make your Communion; and then to continue as well as you can, praying as well as you can . . . and fulfilling your daily duties as well as you can. And remember always that religious emotion is only a servant. . . . This, I say, would be the obvious course. If you want anything more e.g. Confession and Absolution which our church enjoins on no-one but leaves free to all—let me know and I’ll find you a directeur. If you choose this way, remember it’s not the psychoanalyst over again: the confessor is the representative of Our Lord and declares His forgiveness—his advice or ‘understanding’ though of real, is of secondary importance.

For daily reading I suggest (in small doses) Thomas à Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ” …  and of course the Psalms and New Testament. Don’t worry if your heart won’t respond: do the best you can. You are certainly under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, or you wouldn’t have come where you now are: and the love that matters is His for you—yours for Him may at present exist only in the form of obedience. He will see to the rest.

This has been great news for me I need hardly say. You have all my prayers (not that mine are worth much).

C.S. Lewis was a man of great empathy, and unlike many spiritual advisers, carefully considered the expressed need of anyone who sought his council. He well knew the power of religious emotion, both for well and for ill. Christians seem to live in two emotional camps: One needs to keep their joy bottled up, lest they seem “out of order.” The other spills it all over the place with little regard for propriety. The one commonality is appearance.

Though I can’t speak for anyone else in church, I have to confess my impulse to glance around when I want to raise my hands in praise, lest I appear conspicuous. But I suppose that’s not as bad as scowling at those who do express their joy, and labeling them “holy rollers.”

Worship is both corporate and individual. “Two or more” brethren who agree in praise and intercession can focus great spiritual power toward glorifying God and bringing about answers to prayer. But the “brethren” part must first be true, with each person praying from their love for God.

Lewis’ definitive statement about confession is worth noting. First, it’s not the clergyman who does the forgiving, that’s God’s job—unless God shows the need for confession and restitution to someone who was offended; even then, it’s the effort that counts, not the offended person’s forgiveness. Second, forgiveness depends in no respect on feeling forgiven. God will do his job if we do our job, which is responding to his Holy Spirit’s conviction for sin by confessing it to God, and repenting, or turning away from sin’t practice to live in holiness unto the Lord.

There is no freedom, no joy, like standing in right relation to our God. I seriously doubt he will begrudge us a little enthusiasm about it.

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