I love this short chapter on Communion by Lewis. In fact the whole book is awesome, probably one of my faves, if not my favorite book on prayer, by a man who didn’t want to write a book on prayer, so he played pretend.
Letters to Malcolm, Letter 19 C.S. Lewis
Tell Betty that it you hadn’t whisked me off onto the subject of repentance, I was just going to say the very thing she blames me for not saying. I was going to say that in adoration, more than in any other kind of prayer, the public or communal act is of the utmost importance.
One would lose incomparably more by being prevented from going to Church on Easter than on Good Friday. And, even in private, adoration should be communal–“with angels and archangels and all the company”, all the transparent publicity of Heaven.
On the other hand, I find that the prayers to which I can most fully attend in church are always those I have most often used in my bedroom.
I deny, with some warmth, the charge of being “choosy about services.” My whole point was that any form will do me if only I’m given time to get used to it. The idea of allowing myself to be put off by mere inadequacy–an ugly church, a gawky server, a badly turned out celebrant–is horrible. On the contrary, it constantly surprises me how little these things matter, as if
never anything can be amiss. When simpleness and duty tender it.
One of the golden Communions of my life was in a Nissen hut. Sometimes the cockney accent of a choir has a singularly touching quality. A tin mug for a chalice, if there were good reason for it, would not distress me in the least. (I wonder what sort of crockery was used at the Last Supper?)
You ask me why I’ve never written anything about the Holy Communion. For the very simple reason that I am not good enough at Theology. I have nothing to offer. Hiding any light I think I’ve got under a bushel is not my besetting sin! I am much more prone to prattle unseasonably. But there is a point at which even I would gladly keep silent. The trouble is that people draw conclusions even from silence. Someone said in print the other day that I seemed to “admit rather than welcome” the sacraments.
I wouldn’t like you and Betty to think the same. But as soon as I try to tell you anything more, I see another reason for silence. It is almost impossible to state the negative effect which certain doctrines have on me–my failure to be nourished by them–without seeming to mount an attack against them. But the very last thing I want to do is to unsettle in the mind of any Christian, whatever his denomination, the concepts–for him traditional–by which he finds it profitable to represent to himself what is happening when he receives the bread and wine. I could wish that no definitions had even been felt to be necessary; and, still more, that none had been allowed to make divisions between churches.
Some people seem able to discuss different theories of this act as if they understood them all and needed only evidence as to which was best. This light has been withheld from me. I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood Our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood. I can find within the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man–and it is as Man that the Lord has flesh–and entering into any spiritual oneness or community or [Greek: koinônia] with him. And I find “substance” (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. My effort to do so produces mere nursery-thinking–a picture of something like very rarefied Plasticine. On the other hand, I get on no better with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ.
They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that. But it would be profane to suppose that they are as arbitrary as they seem to me. I well believe there is in reality an appropriateness, even a necessity, in their selection. But it remains, for me, hidden. Again, if they are, if the whole act is, simply memorial, it would seem to follow that its value must be purely psychological, and dependent on the recipient’s sensibility at the moment of reception. And I cannot see why this particular reminder–a hundred other things may, psychologically, remind me of Christ’s death, equally, or perhaps more–should be so uniquely important as all Christendom (and my own heart) unhesitatingly declare.
However, then, it may be for others, for me the something which holds together and “informs” all the objects, words, and actions of this rite, is unknown and unimaginable. I am not saying to any one in the world: “Your explanation is wrong.” I am saying: “Your explanation leaves the mystery for me still a mystery.”
Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern, in me have no privilege over the savage or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic. Favete linguis.
When I say “Magic” I am not thinking of the paltry and pathetic techniques by which fools attempt and quacks pretend to control Nature. I mean rather what is suggested by fairy-tale sentences like: “This is a magic flower, and if you carry it the seven gates will open to you of their own accord”, or: “This is a magic cave and those who enter it will renew their youth.” I should define magic in this sense as “objective efficacy which cannot be further analyzed.”
Magic, in this sense, will always win a response from a normal imagination because it is in principle so “true to nature.” Mix these two powders and there will be an explosion. Eat a grain of this and you will die. Admittedly, the “magical” element in such truths can be got rid of by explanation; that is, by seeing them to be instances or consequences of larger truths. Which larger truths remain “magical” till they also are, in the same way, explained. In that fashion, the sciences are always pushing further back the realm of mere “brute fact.” But no scientist, I suppose, believes that the process could ever reach completion. At the very least, there must always remain the utterly “brute” fact, the completely opaque datum, that a universe–or rather this universe with its determinate character–exists; as “magical” as the magic flower in the fairy tale.
Now the value, for me, of the magical element in Christianity is this. It is a permanent witness that the heavenly realm, certainly no less than the natural universe and perhaps very much more, is a realm of objective facts–hard, determinate facts, not to be constructed a priori, and not to be dissolved into maxims, ideals, values, and the like. One cannot conceive a more completely “given”, or, if you like, a more “magical”, fact than the existence of God as causa sui.
Enlightened people want to get rid of this magical element in favour of what they would call the “spiritual” element. But the spiritual, conceived as something thus antithetical to “magical”, seems to become merely the psychological or ethical. And neither that by itself, nor the magical by itself, is a religion. I am not going to lay down rules as to the share–quantitatively considered–which the magical should have in anyone’s religious life. Individual differences may be permissible. What I insist on is that it can never be reduced to zero. If it is, what remains is only morality, or culture, or philosophy.
What makes some theological works like sawdust to me is the way the authors can go on discussing how far certain positions are adjustable to contemporary thought, or beneficial in relation to social problems, or “have a future” before them, but never squarely ask what grounds we have for supposing them to be true accounts of any objective reality. As if we were trying to make rather than to learn. Have we no Other to reckon with?
I hope I do not offend God by making my communions in the frame of mind I have been describing. The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand. Particularly, I hope I need not be tormented by the question “What is this?”–this wafer, this sip of wine. That has a dreadful effect on me. It invites me to take “this” out of its holy context and regard it as an object among objects, indeed as part of nature. It is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal. To me, I mean. All this is autobiography, not theology.