There is so much overlap between literature and liturgy. Sometimes a liturgy will take central place in a novel, such as the baptism in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles or the wedding at the end of any marriage plot. Many liturgies themselves are a collection of literary genres, ranging from myth to poetry to exhortation, blended with ritual forms. And, in a way, everything is a genre, whether a sermon, a poem, or a sacred text. As Kirstie Blair notes, both literature and liturgy are made up of forms, whether ritual gestures or literary conventions of genre, that are already present in the minds of the congregation or audience.
And there’s a place where this cross-pollination is most apparent: ritual prayers concerning poets. I was delighted to see so many poetic heroes like Rossetti and Donne included in the Anglican calendar. We’ve already looked at Rossetti’s collect, and I thought we would return to a few others as their special days come up.
Today is the feast of C. S. Lewis, and here is his collect:
O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Source)
First, let’s look at the collect as a genre, and then examine this one in particular.
A collect is a liturgical prayer that follows a set structure, like a poetic form, and is designed to begin a service. The structure tends to begin with an invocation to the divine, followed by a clause concerning a divine attribute or promise. The attribute or promise tends to be looking backward through the shared memory of the religious group. Then the petition comes, usually based in the trust of the past promise or divine attribute. The purpose of the petition then comes signaled by a transitional phrase like “so that” or “ut” in Latin texts. Then finally there is a concluding praise of the divine called a doxology.
What I love about collects as a genre is how they distill down to the essentials what we most value about a hero. Often, these poetic collects will borrow language and concepts from the literary giant being celebrated.
In this short prayer, you have the mythopoetic concept of baptizing the imagination, the expansive audience of fairy tales and fantasy (Narnia isn’t just for kids), and the importance of joy/Joy. We have a God who, like Aslan, is dangerous and beautiful: his truth sears and his beauty is surpassing.
Abundant life may be a common request in varying genres of prayer, but here it seems to take on an added quality. It reminds me of the abundant life that George MacDonald (as Lewis’s Virgil in The Great Divorce) points to as filling and overflowing from “redeemed humanity”:
It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.
Today is the day to be surprised by joy and turn toward abundant life, even in the late November chill.