PSALMS: The Fair Beauty Of The Lord (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

The Fair Beauty Of The Lord (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

When the mind becomes more capable of abstraction and analysis this old unity breaks up.  And no sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God himself.  Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own.  There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter.  I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began, “Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.”  This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.  But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity.  He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental.  And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first.  If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat.  They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.  Either at some period in Judaism, or else in the experience of some Jews, a roughly parallel situation occurred.  The unity falls apart; the sacrificial rites become distinguishable from the meeting with God.  This does not unfortunately mean that they will cease or become less important.  They may, in various evil modes, become even more important than before.  They may be valued as a sort of commercial transaction with a greedy God who somehow really wants or needs large quantities of carcasses and whose favors cannot be secured on any other terms.  Worse still, they may be regarded as the only thing he wants, so that their punctual performance will satisfy him without obedience to his demands for mercy, “judgment,” and truth.  To the priests themselves the whole system will seem important simply because it is both their art and their livelihood; all their pedantry, all their pride, all their economic position, is bound up with it.  They will elaborate their art more and more.  And of course the corrective to these views of sacrifice can be found within Judaism itself.  The prophets continually fulminate against it.  Even the Psalter, though largely a Temple collection, can do so; as in Psalm 50 where God tells his people that all this Temple worship, considered in itself, is not the real point at all, and particularly ridicules the genuinely Pagan notion that he really needs to be fed with roast meat.  “If I were hungry, do you think I would apply to you?” (v. 12)  I have sometimes fancied he might similarly ask a certain type of modern clergyman, “If I wanted music – if I were conducting research into the more recondite details of the history of the Western Rite – do you really think you are the source I would rely on?”

This possible degradation of sacrifice and the rebukes of it are, however, so well-known that there is no need to stress them here.  I want to stress what I think that we (or at least I) need more; the joy and delight in God which meet us in the psalms, however loosely or closely, in this or that instance, they may be connected with the Temple.  This is the living center of Judaism.  These poets knew far less reason than we for loving God.  They did not know that he offered them eternal joy; still less that he would die to win it for them.  Yet they express a longing for him, for his mere presence, which comes only to the best Christians or to Christians in their best moments.  They long to live all their days in the Temple so that they may constantly see “the fair beauty of the Lord,” (Psalm 27:4).  Their longing to go up to Jerusalem and “appear before the presence of God” is like a physical thirst, (Psalm 42).  From Jerusalem his presence flashes out “in perfect beauty,” (Psalm 50:2).  Lacking that encounter with him, their souls are parched like a waterless countryside, (Psalm 63:2).  They crave to be “satisfied with the pleasures” of his house, (Psalm 65: 4).  Only there can they be at ease, like a bird in the nest, (Psalm 8:3).  One day of those “pleasures” is better than a lifetime spent elsewhere, (Psalm 84:10).

I have rather – though the expression may seem harsh to some – called this the “appetite for God” than “the love of God.”  The “love of God” too easily suggests the word “spiritual” in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired.  These old poets do not seem to think that they are meritorious or pious for having such feelings; nor, on the other hand, that they are privileged in being given the grace to have them.  They are at once less priggish about it than the worst of us and less humble – one might almost say, less surprised – than the best of us.  It has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical desire.  It is gay and jocund.  They are glad and rejoice, (Psalm 9:2).  Their fingers itch for the harp, (Psalm 43:4), for the lute and the harp – wake up, lute and harp! – (Psalm 57:9); let’s have a song, bring the tambourine, bring the “merry harp with the lute,” we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise, (Psalm 81:1-1).  Noise, you may well say.  Mere music is not enough.  Let everyone, even the benighted gentiles, clap their hands, (Psalm 47:1).  Let us have clashing cymbals, not only well tuned, but loud, and dances too, (Psalm 150:5).  Let even the remote island (all islands were remote, for the Jews were no sailors) share the exultation, (Psalm 97:1).

I am not saying that this gusto – if you like, this rowdiness – can or should be revived.  Some of it cannot be revived because it is not dead but with us still.  It would be idle to pretend that we Anglicans are a striking example.  The Romans, the Orthodox, and the Salvation Army all, I think, have retained more of it than we.  We have a terrible concern about good taste.  Yet even we can still exult.  The second reason goes far deeper.  All Christians know something the Jews did not know about what it “cost to redeem their souls.”  Our life as Christians begins by being baptized into a death; our most joyous festivals begin with, and center upon, the broken body and the shed blood.  There is thus a tragic depth in our worship which Judaism lacked.  Our joy has to be the sort of joy which can coexist with that; there is for us a spiritual counterpoint where they had simple melody.  But this does not in the least cancel the delighted debt which I, for one, feel that I owe to the most jocund psalms.  There, despite the presence of elements we should now find it hard to regard as religious at all, and the absence of elements which some might think essential to religion, I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than his presence, the gift of himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.  What I see (so to speak) in the faces of these old poets tells me more about the God whom they and we adore.

But this characteristically Hebraic delight or gusto finds also another channel.  We must follow it in the next chapter.

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