In the spring of 1963, C.S. Lewis found himself confined by heart trouble to an armchair in his living room, wearing a catheter, and unable to go upstairs. Despite this forced inactivity—or possibly because of it—he had the chance to finally get his thoughts straight about a project he’d contemplated for some time, but had never figured out how to write: a book on prayer. The solution he found was elegantly similar to one of his earlier books, The Screwtape Letters, consisting of a one-sided correspondence with a fictional character. But this time Lewis wrote simply in his own character, from his own perspective, illness and all. He even gives an insight into why he chose this style: “But however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but intstruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.”
Lewis’ modesty serves him well, for Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer is a much better book as discussion rather than instruction. The discussion keeps the subject grounded in real human experience and questions, acknowledging and living the truth that our questions sometimes go unanswered. The avoidance of any kind of systematic treatment or formula for the act of prayer allows Lewis to wander into the wider consideration of how finite mortal creatures relate to their omniscient eternal Creator. What he finds is an intimate connection, a bond closer than even a parent to their child:
…He is the ground of our being. He is always both within us and over against us. Our reality is so much from His reality as He, moment by moment, projects into us. The deeper the level within ourselves from which our prayer, or any other act, wells up, the more it is His, but not at all the less ours. Rather, most ours when most His…To be discontinuous from God as I am discontinuous from you would be annihilation.
The paradox of being both intimately related to God and being separate from Him, is the real ground of prayer. For Lewis, it is about relationship between Persons rather than simply submitted requests; we submit them, of course, but because we wish to be seen and heard and known.
To put ourselves thus on a personal footing with God could, in itself and without warrant, be nothing but presumption and illusion. But we are taught that it is not; that it is God who gives us that footing. For it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry ‘Father’. By unveiling, by confessing our sins and ‘making known’ our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, descending…reveals Himself as Person.
This takes care of some of the basic difficulties people often have with prayer: Why make known our desires to Someone who should already know them? Why appeal for help to Someone who ought already to be helping us if He is good? Lewis thinks that we pray not simply so that we get something, but so that we meet Someone. It also deals with another difficulty we might have, the difficulty of not feeling fit or worthy to pray. If prayer is about truly relating to God, then we must not pretend to be anything other than what or who we are: “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”
This last point is one of my own chief difficulties in prayer and in life; I am constantly berating myself for not doing things properly, for not thinking in the correct way—not even, as I perceive it, feeling the ‘right’ emotions. I am, in other words, usually measuring myself against impossibly high standards and obviously coming up short. Lewis reminds his friend ‘Malcolm’ (and me) that we are not even “half-done work.” We are created beings, but still unfinished masterpieces.
The last letter of the book, appropriately, extends this theme to its last conclusion: namely, the bodily resurrection of the dead and the nature of the life to come—and stressing the importance of sensual matter to the spiritual reality. It is our whole world and our whole selves that will be reborn and renewed, not just our own souls (however those might be defined). “Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ. And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing out and the waters flow, and lights and shadows move across the hills, and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition.”
“Guesses, of course,” he cautions, “only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.” And he closes with a cheerful note about his upcoming visit and the train he’ll be arriving on; the mundane and trivial things of friendship, but that is what Lewis loved to celebrate the most, what he took such joy in. His balanced awareness of the heights of theology with the breadth of real life is partly what makes him, in my estimation, one of the finest modern Christian thinkers, whether I agree with his conclusions or not.
There is also a pathos in the way Letters to Malcolm ends. It would turn out to be Lewis’ final book, published posthumously. He died a few months after completing it. One hopes that he is finding rest in the paradoxes resolved and the questions laid down, fully knowing even as he is fully known, unveiled and mutually revealed to the One who made him.