Chapter 9 - A Slip of the Tongue

Is your lifeline connected to spiritual or temporal things? Have you gone “all in” for God, or do you have a side bet on the here and now? This chapter from The Weight of Glory, by C. S. Lewis (Touchstone: NY 1980) p.137, is a great reflection on the true state of our hearts.

“What matters, what Heaven desires and Hell fears,
is precisely that further step, out of our depth, out of our own control.”

WHEN A LAYMAN has to preach a sermon I think he is most likely to be useful, or even interesting, if he starts exactly from where he is himself, not so much presuming to instruct as com­paring notes.

Not long ago when I was using the collect for the fourth Sun­day after Trinity1 in my private prayers I found that I had made a slip of the tongue. I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal;

I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I fi­nally lost not the things temporal. Of course, I don't think that a slip of the tongue is a sin. I am not sure that I am even a strict enough Freudian to believe that all such slips, without excep­tion, are deeply significant. But I think some of them are signif­icant, and I thought this was one of that sort. I thought that what I had inadvertently said very nearly expressed something I had really wished.

Very nearly; not, of course, precisely. I had never been quite stupid enough to think that the eternal could, strictly, be "passed through." What I had wanted to pass through without preju­dice to my things temporal was those hours or moments in which I attended to the eternal, in which I exposed myself to it.

I mean this sort of thing. I say my prayers, I read a book of " devotion, I prepare for, or receive, the Sacrament. But while I do these things, there is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my "ordinary" life. I don't want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall after­wards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don't want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then. It would be very disagreeable, for instance, to take the duty of charity (while I am at the altar) so seriously that after breakfast I had to tear up the really stunning reply I had written to an impudent corre­spondent yesterday and meant to post today. It would be very tiresome to commit myself to a programme of temperance which would cut off my after-breakfast cigarette (or, at best, make it cruelly alternative to a cigarette later in the morning). Even repentance of past acts will have to be paid for. By re­penting, one acknowledges them as sins—therefore not to be repeated. Better leave that issue undecided.

The root principle of all these precautions is the same: to guard the things temporal. And I find some evidence that this temptation is not peculiar to me. A good author (whose name I have forgotten) asks somewhere, "Have we never risen from our knees in haste for fear God's will should become too unmistakable if we prayed longer?" The following story was told as true. An Irish woman who had just been at confession met on the steps of the chapel the other woman who was her great­est enemy in the village. The other woman let fly a torrent of abuse. "Isn't it a shame for ye," replied Biddy, "to be talking to me like that, ye coward, and me in a state of Grace the way I can't answer ye? But you wait. I won't be in a state of Grace long." There is an excellent tragicomic example in Trollope's Last Chronicle. The Archdeacon was angry with his eldest son.  He at once made a number of legal arrangements to the son's disadvantage. They could all easily have been made a few days later, but Trollope explains why the Archdeacon would not wait. To reach the next day, he had to pass through his evening prayers, and he knew that he might not be able to carry his hos­tile plans safely through the clause, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive." So he got in first; he decided to present God with a. fait accompli. This is an extreme case of the precautions I am talking about; the man will not venture within reach of the eternal until he has made the things temporal safe in advance.

This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal.

It is different from the temptations that met us at the begin­ning of the Christian life. Then we fought (at least I fought) against admitting the claims of the eternal at all. And when we had fought, and been beaten, and surrendered, we supposed that all would be fairly plain sailing. This temptation comes later. It is addressed to those who have already admitted the claim in principle and are even making some sort of effort to meet it. Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope—­we very ardently hope—that after we have paid it there will still be enough left to live on.

And notice that those cautions which the tempter whispers in our ears are all plausible. Indeed, I don't think he often tries to deceive us (after early youth) with a direct he. The plausibil­ity is this. It is really possible to be carried away by religious emotion—enthusiasm as our ancestors called it—into resolu­tions and attitudes which we shall, not sinfully but rationally, not when we are more worldly but when we are wiser, have cause to regret. We can become scrupulous or fanatical; we can, in what seems zeal but is really presumption, embrace tasks never intended for us. That is the truth in the temptation. The lie consists in the suggestion that our best protection is a prudent regard for the safely of our pocket, our habitual indul­gences, and our ambitions. But that is quite false. Our real pro­tection is to be sought elsewhere: in common Christian usage, in moral theology, in steady rational thinking, in the advice of good friends and good books, and (if need be) in a skilled spir­itual director. Swimming lessons are better than a lifeline to the shore.

For of course that lifeline is really a death line. There is no parallel to paying taxes and living on the remainder. For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist's words are true: "He must increase and I decrease." He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a de­liberate compromise. For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls. Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing "of our own" left over to live on, no "ordinary" life. I do not mean that each of us will necessarily be called to be a martyr or even an ascetic. That's as may be. For some (nobody knows which) the Christian life will include much leisure, many occupations we naturally like. But these will be received from God's hands. In a perfect Christian they would be as much part of his "religion”, his "service," as his hardest duties, and his feasts would be as Christian as his fasts. What cannot be admitted—what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy—is the idea of something that is "our own," some area in which we are to be "out of school," on which God has no claim.

For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He can­not bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. There­fore, in love, He claims all. There's no bargaining with Him.

That is, I take it, the meaning of all those sayings that alarm me most. Thomas More said, "If ye make indentures with God how much ye will serve Him, ye shall find ye have signed both of them yourself." Law, in his terrible, cool voice, said, "Many will be rejected at the last day, not because they have taken time and pains about their salvation, but because they have not taken time and pains enough"; and later, in his richer, Behmenite period, "If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God, it will make in the end no difference what you have chosen instead." Those are hard words to take. Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satis­fies. Does it matter to a man dying in a desert by which choice of route he missed the only well?

It is a remarkable fact that on this subject Heaven and Hell speak with one voice. The tempter tells me, "Take care. Think how much this good resolve, the acceptance of this Grace, is going to cost." But Our Lord equally tells us to count the cost. Even in human affairs great importance is attached to the agreement of those whose testimony hardly ever agrees. Here, more. Between them it would seem to be pretty clear that pad­dling is of little consequence. What matters, what Heaven de­sires and Hell fears, is precisely that further step, out of our depth, out of our own control.

And yet, I am not in despair. At this point I become what some would call very Evangelical; at any rate very un-Pelagian2. I do not think any efforts of my own will can end once and for all this craving for limited liabilities, this fatal reservation. Only God can. I have good faith and hope He will. Of course, I don't mean that I can therefore, as they say, "sit back." What God does for us, He does in us. The process of doing it will appear to me (and not falsely) to be the daily or hourly repeated exer­cises of my own will in renouncing this attitude, especially each morning, for it grows all over me like a new shell each night. Failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal, the per­mitted, regularised presence of an area in ourselves which we still claim for our own. We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resis­tance, not in the Vichy3 government. And this, so far as I can yet see, must be begun again every day. Our morning prayer should be that in the Imitation: Da hodie perfecte incipere— grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done noth­ing yet.

Footnotes

  1. "O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, through being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, 0 heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ's sake our Lord. Amen."—ed.
  2. Pelagian- The theological doctrine propounded by Pelagius, a British monk, and condemned as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in a.d. 416. It denied original sin and affirmed the ability of humans to be righteous by the exercise of free will.
  3. Vichy- A city of central France south-southeast of Paris. A noted spa with hot mineral springs, it was the capital of unoccupied France (under the regime organized by Henri Pétain) from July 1940 until November 1942 during World War II. The Vichy government was widely considered a tool of the Nazis and was never recognized by the Allies.