Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis (Book Reaction)
Can C.S. Lewis’ voice point out simple, helpful wisdom for the life of prayer?
Letters to Malcolm is a great conversation starter. Far from a theological essay, Letters is a collection of letters Lewis wrote to a friend, whose replies we have to guess at through context. Lewis writes his opinions and experiences in the life of prayer in these pages, speaking from a subjective rather than objective angle.
I think this is what most readers might desire. Many have heard all kinds of theology of prayer, enjoying much of what we’ve read. But, instead of delight and ease with prayer, we feel what Lewis wrote in Letters:
“Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us. (Loc. 1228)
“…the disquieting thing is not simply that we skimp and begrudge the duty of prayer. The really disquieting thing is it should have to be numbered among duties at all. (Loc. 1232)
“For we believe that we were created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And if the few, the very few, minutes we now spend on intercourse with God are a burden to us rather than a delight, what then? If I were a Calvinist this symptom would fill me with despair. What can be done for—or what should be done with—a rose-tree that dislikes producing roses? Surely it ought to want to? (Loc. 1234)
“If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight. (Loc. 1247)”
Letters included intermittent guidance, moments when Lewis wrote about his practice. He didn’t write long on it, just a sentence here and there, but enough to set bearings by, not so much to imitate Lewis (I think shirking imitation is part of why he writes so slim on his rhythms) but to discover a resonance and feel a permission to step into prayer. Once the grandeur of prayer funnels down into a simple posture, we can feel permission to actually step into the act of praying instead of continuing a dumbfounded stare into the void.
Here are some of Lewis’ personal steps and inclinations:
“…the prayer without words is the best—if one can really achieve it. – Loc. 107
“…words are in any case secondary. They are only an anchor. – Loc. 113
“…find it best to make “my own words” the staple but introduce a modicum of the ready-made. – Loc. 117
“Begin where you are.” – Loc. 967
“…we want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we now are. – Loc. 241
“We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us. – Loc. 243
“…we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than of God’s. – Loc. 257
The Letters best section was right in the beginning. Here, he wrote about worship; this section would surely cause some good conversation:
“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. – Loc. 33
“…they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. – Loc. 33
“…it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. – Loc. 35
“…The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. – Loc. 38
“Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. – Loc. 41
“I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.” – Loc. 43″
May your read and life of prayer be blessed!