The Prayer Life of C.S. Lewis - page 1


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From the Summer 2006 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

The Prayer Life of C.S. Lewis

by James M. Houston
Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute

 

rayer, perhaps more than anything else, is a true test of a Christian’s devotion and intimacy with God. Its presence in a Christian’s life says it all. Its absence is the evidence of a merely theoretical framework of faith. So to try to enter into the understanding of Lewis’ prayerlife is an attempt to penetrate his very mind and spirit in the most intimate way. Can we do so without presumption? Is it speculative to try to do so? I knew Lewis personally, enough to have a clear impression of his personal faith in the years between 1946 and 1953, when we met in a group discussion that was held in the home that I shared with Nicholas Zernov, during those years. Zernov was then leader of the Society of St. Albans and St. Sergius. It was through him that I got to know Lewis.
  While he was a witty raconteur and provocative debater, Lewis was essentially shy about his inner life, so it would be an impossible task to describe his prayer-life unless he had written significantly about prayer. But he made a substantial contribution to the theology of prayer. His last work, published posthumously, Letters to Malcolm, he completed in April 1963, just seven months before his death. It deals frankly with issues that he faced privately in prayer. His Reflections on the Psalms, published two years earlier, deal with his personal difficulties in reading the Psalms, and also his appreciation of the Christian liturgy of the Psalter. But Lewis was never enthusiastic about his own church life, which in the setting of college chapel was atypical of parish life. So his own focus upon prayer was more personal than corporate. Several of his essays, notably “Work and Prayer” and “The Efficacy of Prayer,” challenge us with specific issues of personal prayer. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and The Screwtape Letters also contain personal comments on prayer.
  In my own encounters with Lewis, he never spoke about prayer. I did communicate once with him directly about the daily prayer meetings of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union where much prayer had been made for the conversion of Sheldon Vanauken, whose wife was active in our prayer-group. Indeed, I told Lewis of Sheldon’s conversion the da after it happened. But Lewis was never forthcoming about his own prayer life. A shy man, he was all the more sensitive to the Oxford atmosphere then prevailing, that you no more discussed religion too intimately than you talked about your kidneys. So he simply responded positively to Vanauken’s news as a confidant who expected it anyway.
  Lewis suffered enough from the cynical reactions of some of his colleagues when his first religious books were published. For he, an English don, should not be dabbling in theology, much less getting cheap publicity in this way. To trespass into another academic discipline was questionable to say the least. So Lewis was very careful to introduce his own theological views modestly, though he did have the support of his friend Austin Farrar and other theologians when he did so. In his Reflections on the Psalms he begins, “I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties that I have met, or lights I have gained, reading
the Psalms, with the hope this might at any rate interest and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am ‘comparing notes,’ not presuming to instruct.”1 It is only now that some of us have wakened up to the fact that if all of life is carved up among the professions, so that there is likewise no room left for being dilettantes or amateurs in the arts or culture generally, then we shall all be cheated of humanness itself. Lewis got away with it in his day, for when he was questioned about his preaching as a layman at RAF stations during the Battle of Britain, he could genuinely reply he was just doing his war work, like any other old don who did his duties as an air-raid warden, certainly not very trained but doing his best in an emergency. In such a crisis there is no need for anyfurther apology than what he writes in the preface to his published BBC talks given during the war, when he first came to public attention:

There is no mystery about my position. I am a very ordinary layman, of the Church of England, not especially ‘high’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else.2

  When I first met him in the 1940s he looked like Mr. Badger from The Wind in the Willows3: stout, in an old rumpled brown tweed jacket, brown shoes, pipe in mouth, looking like an Oxford farmer. However, once he began to speak, I realized that few people I had ever met, other than perhaps his friend Dyson, could articulate so well, so humorously, and exactly to the point.
  In this paper, I want to describe six traits that I think characterize the personal prayer-life of Lewis, and then to look at three aspects of his own theological reflections on prayer.

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