altLetters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963)

Unlike Lewis's Letters to Children, this "correspondence" between Lewis and the fictional Malcolm is a literary device, a platform he used for writing speculatively, rather than authoritatively, on prayer. He had tried years earlier to write an ordinary book on prayer, but found it coming out too much like "teaching" for him to feel comfortable writing, as a layman. In a sense this is more like The Screwtape Letters, but without the humor and the skewed perspective.

Authoritative or not, there's a lot of wisdom in this, the last book Lewis wrote.

The crisis of the present moment, like the nearest telegraph-post, will always loom largest. Isn't there a danger that our great, permanent, objective necessities—often more important—may get crowded out? By the way, that's another thing to be avoided in a revised Prayer Book. "Contemporary problems" may claim an undue share. And the more "up to date" the book is, the sooner it will be dated. (p. 12, emphasis mine)

I find that problem with Holy Eucharist Rite II of the Episcopal Church. Rite I is older, but to me feels more relevant and less dated than some of the passages in the newer version, introduced in the late 1970's. There are a few things I like better about Rite II, but really, some of the prayers there actually make me wince. Not in a good, convicted-of-sin way; more like when I see a 1970's hairstyle in an old photograph. Bringing out still another version of the Prayer Book would not solve the problem, but only make it worse—it would become dated even sooner.

The increasing list of people to be prayed for is ... one of the burdens of old age. I have a scruple about crossing anyone off the list. When I say a scruple, I mean precisely a scruple. I don't really think that if one prays for a man at all it is a duty to pray for him all my life. But when it comes to dropping him now, this particular day, it somehow goes against the grain. And as the list lengthens, it is hard to make it more than a mere string of names. (p. 66)

That one hit home. Not only with my own prayers, but especially with our church's prayer ministry. Once upon a time, the prayer list was small enough that we could receive details and regular updates and felt connected with those we were praying for, even those we didn't know. Now it has grown so large that it is indeed little more than a string of names of strangers. God knows who and what we are praying for—but something has been lost.

As Lewis said, it's very hard to take someone off a prayer list, especially those with long-term needs. But when my own list approaches a certain critical size, I find my reluctance to pray (instead of just thinking about it) increases exponentially. As with so many things in life, the trick is finding the right balance, I guess.

In Pantheism God is all. But the whole point of creation surely is that He was not content to be all. He intends to be "all in all." (p. 70)

I talked to a continental pastor who had seen Hitler, and had, by all human standards, good cause to hate him. "What did he look like?" I asked. "Like all men," he replied. "That is, like Christ." (p. 74)

God is present in each thing but not necessarily in the same mode: not in a man as in the consecrated bread and wine, nor in a bad man as in a good one, nor in a beast as in a man, nor in a tree as in a beast, nor in inanimate matter as in a tree. I take it there is a paradox here. The higher the creature, the more, and also the less, God is in it; the more present by grace, and the less present (by a sort of abdication) as mere power. By grace he gives the higher creatures power to will His will ("and wield their little tridents"): the lower ones simply execute it automatically. (pp. 74-75)

It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy ... will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment. But if these holy places, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm. (p. 75)

Joy is the serious business of Heaven. (p. 93)

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?

On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask?

But don't we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.

"Yes," it will be answered, "but the living are still on the road. Further trials, developments, possibilities of error, await them.  But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact, you are bringing in something like Purgatory."

Well, I suppose I am. ... I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on "the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory" as that Romish doctrine had then become. I don't mean merely the commercial scandal. If you turn from Dante's Purgatorio to the sixteenth century you will be appalled by the degradation. In Thomas More's Supplication of Souls Purgatory is simply temporary Hell. ... Its pains do not bring us nearer to God, but make us forget Him. It is a place not of purification but purely of retributive punishment.

The right view returns magnificently in Newman's Dream. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. ... My favorite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am "coming round," a voice will say, "Rinse your mouth out with this." This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But [they] shall not persuade me that it will be disgusting and unhallowed. (pp. 107-109)

Let's now at any rate come clean. 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. ... And we know that we are not alone in this. The fact that prayers are constantly set as penances tells its own tale. (p. 113)

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. 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. ... If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight. Some day, please God, it will be. (pp. 113-114)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 2, 2020 at 9:20 am | Edit
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