Prayer – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a British writer, professor, and thinker. He is well known for his creative works The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters. He is also well known for some of his non-fiction Christian writings, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Lewis is celebrated as one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Simply put, he was brilliant. But Lewis was not a pastor or a theologian, so he does not write like one. He is not bound by the same obligations and vows that would guide a minister, nor was he trained as a theologian. So his theology is somewhat disjointed. There is no underlying tradition that serves as a binder for all his writings. You will not find much exegetical work through the Biblical text; wrestling with the meaning of the Scriptures. Instead, you’ll find a brilliant man who carefully ponders the meaning and wonder of God. C.S. Lewis wrote between the two poles of cold rationalism and deep romanticism.[1] He managed to hold these two in a workable tension. As a consequence, there are times that he writes and I find myself thinking, “I don’t think anyone has ever said this more clearly.” And other times I find myself scratching my head wondering, “Where in the world did this come from?”

One of the last works of C.S. Lewis to be published was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. This work is a collection of 22 letters written to a fictional friend named Malcolm. In Letters to Malcolm Lewis records half of a dialogue about prayer. He had always wanted to write a book on prayer, but felt ill-equipped to do so. So this letter format allowed him to record his reflections without the authority of a theologian. C.S. Lewis scholar Marjorie Lamp Mead highlights a few themes in the book:

…prayer is more than something we do. It is a relationship into which we are invited. We learn that what we say to God and how we say it are of only secondary importance. Prayer involves an unveiling. In prayer we let God see our true self as we make our deepest longings known to God. Further, through prayer, we are invited to participate with God as privileged partners in his divine work in the world.[2]

Though he will address primarily private prayer, the first letter addresses the nature of public worship and corporate prayers. Primarily, Lewis objects to the idea of novelty in public worship. It isn’t that Lewis believes there should be nothing new in public worship. But novelty requires constant change. Lewis would prefer to have one set form that he could get used to so that his attention is on God and not the form. Novelty “fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is different from worshiping…. A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.” (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 4) He also notes in Letter 2 that “the more ‘up to date’ the book is (i.e. The Common Book of Prayer), the sooner it will be dated” (Lewis, p. 12). There is much wisdom in that.

Written prayers have great value, but for Lewis were secondary. Any words in prayer, whether written or spontaneous, are only “anchors.” The original author of the words is irrelevant because the one praying must actually mean the words prayed regardless of their source. We can mindlessly and thoughtlessly pray our own words every bit as much as the words of a printed prayer.

Lewis spends a good deal of the book trying to understand why we pray if God already knows everything. And why we are to make petitionary prayer if God is sovereign. The answer is that in prayer we are “unveiled” before God. Prayer is our making ourselves known to God. It isn’t that God could not see us before, but prayer is our assent to that intimacy. “The change is in us” (Lewis, p. 21). In Letter 10, Lewis notes that the remarkable aspect of petitionary prayer is not that God grants what we request. The remarkable aspect is that God considers or hears our request. The importance does not lay in the receiving but in the asking (Lewis, p. 52).

One final note about Lewis’ Letters, Lewis addresses the very real problem of the “irksomeness” of prayer. “Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome” (Lewis, p. 113). He is describing the universal reality that we often fail to pray. We are slow to begin, quick to stop, and delighted to finish. The problem, of course, is sin. We fail to grasp the transcendence of prayer and God. Our minds are too bound to the practical. We need to light our eyes up to Heaven and consider the joys therein. “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (Lewis, p. 93). There is a place for duty, but our prayers should flow frequently from delight.

 

[1] “The Key to C.S. Lewis by Gene Edward Veith,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/key-cs-lewis/.

[2] Marjorie Lamp Mead, “Letters to Malcolm: Chielfly on Prayer, Study Guide” (The CS Lewis Institute, 2011), 1, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/2855.