Lessons on Prayer

In a brief letter in August 1949, Lewis says, “I don’t feel I could write a book on Prayer: I think it would be rather ‘cheek’ of my part.” Nevertheless, he did end up writing Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer in which he writes to a fictitious friend about what he knows of prayer. It’s a book posthumously published and struggled to pull together.

In January 1953, he writes to Father Giovanni Calabria, his Catholic friend, “I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of prayer. I tackled the job because I saw many no doubt very beautiful books written on this subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct tyros and those still babes (so to say) in the Faith. I find many difficulties nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete this task or not.” 

No matter, the book did publish and it does provide helpful insights on prayer. For example, “The moment of prayer is for me — or involves for me as its condition,” says Lewis, “the awareness, the re-awakened awareness, that this ‘real world’ and ‘real self’ are very far from being rock bottom realities.” Or, “And, talking of sleepiness, I entirely agree with you that no one in his senses, if he has any power of ordering his own day, would reserve his chief prayers for bed-time—obviously the worst possible hour for any action which needs concentration.”

But Lewis says a good deal about prayer throughout his publications, and in his many letters he wrote in correspondence with friends and fans. I wanted to point out several of these occasions, not as a comprehensive list, but as a list to tease us further in his works and in the hope that Lewis’s observations might help us in our devotions today.

Starting the Day Well
“Our morning prayer should be that in the Imitation: Da hodie perfecte incipere -grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet.” – The Weight of Glory, “A Slip of the Tongue”

Praying for Our Enemies
“The practical problem about charity (in our prayers) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler & Stalin, how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real? The two things that help me are (a) A continual grasp of the idea that one is only joining one’s feeble little voice to the perpetual intercession of Christ, who died for those very men (b) A recollection, as firm as one can make it, of all one’s own cruelty wh. might have blossomed, under different conditions, into something terrible. You and I are not, at bottom, so different from these ghastly creatures.” – Collected Letters, 16 April 1940

God Knows, But We Should Still Pray
“I suppose the solution lies in pointing out that the efficacy of prayer is, at any rate no more of a problem then the efficacy of all human acts. i.e. if you say “It is useless to pray because Providence already knows what is best and will certainly do it”, then why is it not equally useless (and for the same reason) to try to alter the course of events in any way whatever — to ask for the salt or book your seat in a train?” – Collected Letters, February 21, 1932, To his brother

In Dry Patches of Life, We Need to Keep Praying
“…the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him [God] best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.” (This is from Screwtape, the senior demon in The Screwtape Letters, so his encouragement is consistently against Christian living)

Because of God’s “Free Bounty”, He Accepts Us 
“Of course none of us have “any right” at the altar. You might as well talk of a non-existent person “having a right” to be created. It is not our right but God’s free bounty.” – Collected Letters, To Mrs. Sonia Graham from Magdalen College, May 15, 1952

The Paradox of Suffering and Praying through It
“There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by ‘judgement’ (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying from city to city, and may pray to be spared it, as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane. But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.” – The Problem of Pain

Keeping Lists When We Pray
“I have two lists of names in my prayers, those for whose conversion I pray, and those for whose conversion I give thanks. The little trickle of transferences from List A to List B is a great comfort.” – Collected Letters, July 6, 1949, to Arthur Greeves

There are more encounters with Lewis and prayer. As we read through his canon of literature and letters, it’s interesting to unpack the small and large areas where he instructs his readers in the habits of Christian living, including prayer. His intellectual placement as a don or his ability to properly present academic research does not unhinge him to also want to dance like David, as he says in Reflection on the Psalms: The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance. I am not saying that this is so pure or so profound a thing as the love of God reached by the greatest Christian saints and mystics. But I am not comparing it with that, I am comparing it with the merely dutiful ‘church-going’ and laborious ‘saying our prayers’ to which most of us are, thank God not always, but often, reduced. Against that it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read.” 

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