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Another special friend was Sister Penelope Lawson. His first letter to her he wrote in 1939, saying: “Though I’m forty years old, I’m only about twelve as a Christian.... So it would be a maternal act if you found time sometimes to mention me in your prayers.”24 Then on October 24, 1940, he told her: “I’m going to make my first confession next week, which will seem an odd experience. The decision to do so was one of the hardest I have ever made; but now that I am committed (by dint of posting the letter before I had time to change my mind) I began to be afraid of the opposite extreme—afraid that I was merely indulging in an orgy of egoism.”25 A month later, he wrote again to say, “well—we have come through the wall of fire, and find ourselves (somewhat to our surprise) still alive and even well. The story about an orgy of egoism turns out, like all the Enemy propaganda, to have just a grain of truth in it, but I have no doubt that the proper method of dealing with that is to continue the practice as I intend to do. For after all, everything—even virtue, even prayer—has its dangers and if one heeds the grain of truth in the Enemy propaganda, one can never do anything at all.”26
A particular thorn in the flesh for Lewis was Mrs. Moore, who was the mother of a friend killed in the First World War, and with whom Lewis had had an unfortunate romance that turned sour. She continued to live with Lewis and his brother for many years,
and her last years in the household got progressively worse. During one particular crisis over her, Lewis wrote to Sister Penelope, “It was a bad time, but I almost venture to say I felt Christ in the house as I have never done before.” Signing himself “Brother Ass,” he added contritely, “but alas such a house for Him to visit!” Years before his brother had wistfully compared their own troubled household with that of the Dysons, where life seemed one long series of delightful picnics! So again Lewis wrote to Sister Penelope on January 3, 1945: “Pray for me, I am suffering incessant temptations to uncharitable thoughts at present; one of those black moods in which nearly all one’s friends seem to be selfish or even false. And how terrible that there should be even a kind of pleasure in thinking evil.”27 As Mrs. Moore sunk into senility and kept the household in constant discord, he wrote, I have been feeling that very much lately: that cheerful insecurity is what our Lord asks of us.”28 Again, on June 5, 1951, Lewis wrote her “I especially need your prayers because I am (like the pilgrim in Bunyan) travelling across a plain called Ease! Everything without, and many things within, are marvelously well at present.”29 It was at this time that he began to think of writing a book on prayer.
Perhaps it began to dawn upon him that he could not do this without more experience of its reality in his own life, for on February 15, 1954, Lewis wrote again to Sister Penelope, “I have had to abandon the book on prayer, it was clearly not for me.”30 He kept this postponement for the next nine years of his life, indeed to the year he died. But while he was writing it, his wife Joy Davidman commented how excited she was about his project, as perhaps one of the most important things Lewis would ever do.
6. Prayer-Life is Matured by Suffering
Perhaps in the meantime, Lewis began to think of what was involved symbolically in the change of locale from Magdalen College, Oxford, to Magdalene College, Cambridge. “My address will be Magdalene, so I remain under the same patroness,” he wrote to Sister Penelope on July 30, 1954. “This is nice because it saves ‘admin.’ readjustments in Heaven.” At the end of the year, he wrote to his friend Veto Gebbert, “I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen.” “It is a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old-fashioned, pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hardboiled, huge Magdalen” that had caused Lewis so much hurt.31 In a letter to Bede Griffiths on November 1st, he asked: “Has any theologian (perhaps dozens) allegorized St. Mary Magdalene’s act in the following way, which came to me like a flash of lightning the other day!…The precious alabaster box which we have to break over the holy feet is her heart. It seems so obvious, once one has thought of it.”32
So Lewis had come to see that prayer grows in the breaking of the human heart before God. His perhaps was broken since Oxford never recognized his worth to offer him a university professorship, and later still, it was broken again by the far more poignant grief of losing his wife in bereavement. Like all of us do, Lewis continued to struggle with God when,
By now I should be entering on the supreme stage
Of the whole walk, reserved for the late afternoon.
The heat was over now; the anxious mountains,
The airless valleys and the sun-baked rocks, behind me….33
Yet in June 18, 1962, he writes: “the plumbing often goes wrong....I need to be near a life-line.”34 Worse was to come.
After the loss of his wife, he asks the raw and naked question:
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