C.S. Lewis, the Psalms, and Penitence

July 8, 2022 — 6 Comments

When do you feel closest to God? When you’ve been about holy business all day and are now praying at your bedside? Or, when everything in your life seems to have imploded, and you look about you helplessly, with nowhere else to turn than your heavenly Father?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis provides a brilliant insight into the nature of our souls.

Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?

This rings true as I ponder my own spiritual pilgrimage. Tribulation and suffering clear my vision of material distractions in a way that allows me to recognize more vividly my need for God’s grace. And, in relying more consciously on his mercy and compassion, I draw closer to my Lord.

It’s no accident, in my opinion, that among the Psalms of David most treasured by God’s people, are those in which he cries out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. Verses where David places no trust in his own strength or even in God’s previous beneficence. Poetry where this anointed king acknowledges that even the drawing of his next breath depends wholly on the providence of his Creator.

Seven of David’s songs are traditionally identified as the Penitential Psalms.* The great Saint Augustine’s regard for these Psalms is revealed in the manner in which he spent his final days.

As Augustine lay dying . . . he ordered those psalms of David which are especially penitential to be copied out [for example, “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love . . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” Psalm 51], and when he was very weak, he used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading, and copiously and continually weeping as he read (Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years).

Like this ancient saint, C.S. Lewis knew the Psalms – and the English language – intimately. This led to his appointment to a distinguished “Committee to Revise the Psalter” for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Joint service on this committee facilitated the healing of a previously strained relationship with the poet T.S. Eliot.

Lewis had largely taken on this task in order to discourage revisions, since he thought the Miles Coverdale version that had been in use for four hundred years more than adequate.

His opinion was shared by another member of the committee, T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis finally got to know. (They had met only once, very briefly, in the forties, though they had corresponded for a while about Charles Williams after their mutual friend’s death.)

The two men got along very well indeed; bygones could at last be bygones, it seems. (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis)

One of C.S. Lewis’ books is devoted to his thoughts about various themes in the Psalms. One such theme is judgment.

The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice;’ they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. (Reflections on the Psalms)

In the introduction to this work, Lewis explains, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.” This, readers, is not false humility. It’s the real thing.

One of his most valuable observations comes in the following passage:

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.

But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not (Reflections on the Psalms).

In C.S. Lewis’ monumental study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis does not discuss the Psalms per se. He does, however, refer to them as the occasional subjects of Renaissance writers.

The most interesting such discussion involves John Fisher (1469-1535), a Roman Catholic bishop who was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher was a scholar, whose works included Commentary on the Seven Penitential Hymns.⁑

His vernacular works include devotional treatises – a Consolation to his sister and The Ways to Perfect Religion – and sermons, a series on the Penitential Psalms, funeral orations for Henry VII, and for the Countess of Richmond, and the famous sermon against [Martin] Luther in 1521.

Fisher’s style is grave and a little diffuse, never comic (though the pulpit then admitted that excellence), mildly rhetorical, and at times really eloquent. . . . His chief weakness is that he is too leisurely he is in no hurry to end a sentence or to let an idea go. . . .

Some of the medieval sweetness and richness still hangs about the prose of Fisher . . . but for our present purpose he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith. In him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking. It was not in all respects what they imagined it to be. The Pelagianism of which they implicitly accused the Roman Church is, like the antinomianism of which the Papists accused them, a figment of controversy.

Some of Fisher’s statements seem, at least to a layman, to be very close to Tyndale’s own, as when Fisher writes: ‘From the eyen of almyghty God whiche may be called his grace shyneth forth a meruaylous bryghtnes lyke as the beme that cometh from the sonne. And that lyght of grace stereth and setteth forthwarde the soules to brynge forth the fruyte of good werkes.’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii)

And again, on Psalm li, ‘no creature of himself hath power to do good werkes without the grace and help of God’ What Tyndale would have regarded as the cloven hoof appears chiefly when Fisher is talking of penance By penance, on his view, sinners can ‘make due satysfacion’ so as to be ‘clene out of dette’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii), and so ‘mstyfyed by the sacrament of penaunce’ that ‘God can ask no more of them’ (ibid). . . .

One merit, very unusual in that age, Fisher can claim he is hardly at all scurrilous. His attack on Luther is not, indeed, masked under those forms of politeness which are usual between theological (though not between political) opponents today. But there is hardly any real abuse, compared with More, or even with Tyndale, Fisher is almost courteous.

Many readers of Mere Inkling already possess a high regard for the Psalms. In light of the affection felt for them by saints (including C.S. Lewis) for millennia, perhaps those who do not yet appreciate them, will reconsider their appraisals.


* They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The opening of the first expresses a theme common to all: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (ESV).

Likewise, the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV).

⁑ You can download John Fisher’s Commentary in two volumes at no cost, from Internet Archive (1 and 2).

Renaissance Fashions

Although it does not relate to the topic of this post directly, the following information from the “Medieval Manuscripts Blog” of the British Library is quite interesting. It describes “Girdle Books,” which frequently included selections from the Psalms.

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world.

The images on the page are fascinating. Of special historical interest is one that once belonged to Anne Boleyn (shown above), a gift from her murderous husband.

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree . . . It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning.

The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

6 responses to C.S. Lewis, the Psalms, and Penitence

  1. 

    Thank you for this post. I, too, love the Psalms. Have just, as it happens, ordered Lewis’ “Reflections on the Psalms”.

    • 

      Enjoy the book, Anna. Like so many of Lewis’ works, it is unique… in the sense that it stands on its own, not a clone of any of his other writings.

      In his Reflections, Lewis offers some insights he gleaned over an extended period of time, to reconcile the various themes and messages of the Psalms. Most people wrongly assume they are all similar to one another. When, in fact, some of them include very “challenging” passages.

  2. 

    Rob,

    Oh, Lord do we need this now in these days of sorrow and sadness.

    Thank you, Gary

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