The Prayer Life of C.S. Lewis - page 2


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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

 
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1. The Earthy Realism of His Prayer-Life
  Lewis was no mystic. He admits this several times in his letters. Others might climb daringly in the mountains of mysticism, but he simply slogged around in the foothills. Rather then, his spirituality is earthy, full of realism, for he was dead scared of sentimentalism. It was expressive of a no-nonsense kind of faith. The first poem of his collection edited after his death spells out his similar poetic credo:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening—any evening—would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet crowded shore
Of a ship whose freight with everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally without farewells, marooned mankind—
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him for ever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things...4

   Lewis is admitting to us all that his spirituality, like his poetry, is prosaic, ordinary, about the world around him. This down-to-earthness about him, is perhaps the greatest impression he left upon me. Neo-platonism was anathema to Lewis. So instead of saying “we must be spiritually regenerated,” he confesses, “we’re like eggs at present. And you can’t go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”5 Thus his style is vivid, concrete, practical, empty of “gas,” full of solid stuff. So too his faith is all for “sound doctrine,” not the woolly-mindedness of contemporaries he debated with, who wanted “religion without dogma.” Growing up as a child in a “low” church milieu, he felt later that it did tend to be too cosily living at ease in Zion,6 not the tough, realistic faith and prayer-life Lewis was to develop later.

2. The Practical Realism of His Prayer-Life
  Prayer is not something simply to talk about. It is not even something we “do,” for Lewis. “Saying one’s prayers” was for Lewis only a small part of his experience of prayer. “For many years after my conversion,” he admits, “I never used any ready-made forms except the Lord’s Prayer. In fact I tried to pray without words at all—not to verbalize the mental acts. Even in praying for others I believe I tended to avoid their names and substituted mental images of them. I still think that the prayer without words is the best—if one can really achieve it.”7 But we have to remember that our exercise of prayer is only effective as we take ourselves as we really are, and not idealize how we would like to be, and thus try and exercise an unrealistic form of expressing prayer. So Lewis had to learn himself, that “to pray successfully without words one needs to be at ‘the top of one’s form.’”8 Thinking that we can do always, what we can do on occasion, is an error that makes our prayers also unrealistic, and this Lewis had to discover, as we all must.
  The practical rhythm of Lewis was simple enough each day. He would rise at about 7 a.m., take a walk, attend matins at 8 a.m. in college chapel, breakfast, and start tutorials at 9 a.m. Late in the afternoon he would make time for prayerful thought and contemplation, as he walked around the college grounds. Never would he recommend saying one’s prayers last thing at night. “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. My own plan when hard pressed, is to seize any time, and place, however unsuitable, in preference to the last waking moment. On a day of travelling...I’d rather pray sitting in a crowded train than put it off till midnight when one reaches a hotel bedroom with aching back and dry throat, and one’s mind partly in a stupor and partly in a whirl.”9 In a letter to a friend in 1955, that is to say shortly after he had taken up his professorship at Cambridge, when he used to return home to Oxford at weekends, he said:

Oddly enough, the week-end journeys (to and from Cambridge) are no trouble at all. I find myself perfectly content in a slow train that crawls through green fields stopping at every station. Just because the service is so slow and therefore in most people’s eyes bad, these trains are almost empty—I get through a lot of reading and sometimes say my prayers. A solitary train journey I find quite excellent for this purpose.10
  All this is consistent with Lewis’ earlier observations, that much of prayer is really a disposition of heart that is in tune with God’s presence in one’s life, so that the more our hearts are in tune with and obedient toward God, the less fuss do we need to make about how vocal and articulate we are in “saying our prayers”; provided, of course, that we do not succumb to merely having “warm feelings” or vaguely imaginative thoughts we mistake for real communion with God. This will always demand the most rigorous attentiveness and serious intent to be called real prayer.

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