C.S. Lewis prayed often. He says in one letter, “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.” It’s comforting to know that such a mountainous person of intellect, did not use it as a weapon to ward off the mystical aspects of Christianity, of which prayer is a daily reminder.
In Miracles, Lewis says that it is in Mary, in the Incarnation of Jesus, that all history gets narrower and narrower, reminding us of the humble scene – “a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.” It’s a scene layered and layered again in mystery and profound revelation. It’s this paradox of finding God and discovering how far we really are from him that the act of prayer gives to us.
In Poems, Lewis says,
Pitch your demands heaven-high and they’ll be met.
Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in)
Your earthly love. Why, yes; but how to set
One’s foot on the first rung, how to begin?
How to begin? We get there through sheer obedience, by setting a course for prayer despite our unbelief (and maybe because of it). “The question then arises,” Lewis says in “The Efficacy of Prayer”, and essay in The World’s Last Night, “What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer? The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? Even if the thing were indisputably miraculous it would not follow that the miracle had occurred because of your prayers. The answer surely is that a compulsive empirical proof such as we have in the sciences can never be attained.”
In the same article he presents the idea that might echo a version of our own idea. Let’s prove prayer works, he rationally says. Let’s set up two groups of people, A and B, who will pray earnestly about this and that. The achievements of both groups will be analyzed to see which prayed longer or better by the number of requests answered. But the experiment fails at the start because, Lewis says, you are not praying, “in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying. The experiment demands an impossibility.”
But we engage the experiment all the time, maybe not to consciously see if prayer works, but questions are always in the shadows that build on one another: Did I pray enough? Did I ask enough of the right people to petition God? What about my timing and fasting and sentence structure? We must stop. We’re, “tackling the whole question in the wrong way and on the wrong level,” Lewis says. “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. (Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.) In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.”
Prayer is more about us than about whether God will act. Lewis poses another question: “Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?” he asks. “For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries.”
“Instead,” Lewis continues (and this is key), “He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. ‘God,’ said Pascal, ‘instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.’ But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”
And this is the beauty, the humility, the burden that is human, and one that fashions us into belonging, into imago dei: God, “seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures,” Lewis says. “He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.”