“True and Laughable Service”
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
Madeleine L’Engle in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974).
She says, “I can’t take Communion because I’m not worthy.” “Oh, Mother, if we had to wait till we were worthy, no one could ever take Communion.” … The only God worth believing in is neither my pal in the house next door nor an old gentleman shut up cozily in a coffin where he can’t hurt me. I can try to be simple with him, but not vulgar. He is the mysterium tremedens et fascinans; he is free, and he understands the ousia of this frightened old child of his. No wonder I can’t believe in him very often! That morning, sitting with mother over coffee, I read the collect for the day and made a beautiful mistake, reading, “Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laughable service.” Surely laughable is a more appropriate word than laudable, for even with the prodding and companionship of the Holy Spirit the best we can do must provoke much merriment among the angels. I get glimmers of the bad nineteenth-century teaching which has made Mother remove God from the realm of mystery and beauty and glory, but why do people half my age think that they don’t have faith unless their faith is small and comprehensible and like a good old plastic Jesus?
“You know what, Mother, lots of people, ages varying from fifteenish to seventyish, talk to me about the books they could write, if only … The reason they don’t ever get around to writing the books is usually, in the young, that they have to wait for inspiration, and you know perfectly well that if an artist of any kind sits around waiting for inspiration he’ll have a very small body of work. Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it. With people around my age the excuse is usually that they don’t have time, and you know perfectly well that if a writer waited until there was time, nothing would ever get written.” She nods. “Yes, but what does that have to do with the Creed?” “Wait, I’ve talked with a lot of people who think that any kind of formal prayer like that gorgeous Collect we just read, is wrong, that we should wait for inspiration to pray.” “Well?” “I don’t think it works that way. I prayed very badly in church yesterday. I often pray badly when I try to say my prayers at home. But if I stop going to church, no matter how mad church makes me, if I stop praying at home, no matter how futile it sometimes seems, then ‘real’ prayer is never going to come. It’s- well, it’s something like playing the piano. You know what happens when I don’t have the time to play the piano for a week or so- my technique falls apart.” “It certainly does. It’s never very good.” “Okay, but at least the very small amount of technique I have is needed when I try to play the C minor Toccata and Fugue.” She nods. “You’re beginning to play it quite nicely.” “Well, then, do you think prayer is any easier than the fugue? If I didn’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”
L’Engle, Madeleine. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. Print. (142-144).