Book review: “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” by C. S. Lewis

I always love coming back to Lewis, and I’m glad I left one of his books yet unread so I could still have that pleasure of a reading a Lewis for the first time. I picked up Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer last week after I was asked to write a short talk on prayer for our ward bulletin. We don’t have sacrament meeting talks during the pandemic, but our bishopric has ward members provide a few short thoughts in the bulletin.

I came up stumped from the start. I began trying to follow the pattern of prayers that were answered miraculously, or experiences where I had a deeply profound experience. At least from my experience in the Church, this is the primary purpose for prayer. We certainly mention that prayers won’t be answered the way we expect, but the primary purpose of prayer is to get an answer. After all, our Church was founded on the answer to a very miraculously answered prayer.

But even when I reflect on all the prayers I have ever said, I have very few that I would mark as miraculously answered. In fact, on my mission I thought I was spiritually handicapped because I couldn’t testify to such powerful experiences. I still believe prayer is important, and like most, my prayer life is a series of ups and downs. I look back fondly on the time after my mission when I was able to maintain a constant conversation with God throughout the day, punctuated by my formal prayers. I had read somewhere– in Dostoevsky I believe– the story of a man who literally tried to pray always. I have never been able to find the quote again (please let me know if you know what I’m talking about!), but I wanted to model my own prayer life off of that.

And Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm were a beautiful reflection on one man’s personal experiences with prayer. Lewis doesn’t write as an “expert” on prayer, nor does he seek to tell you the “right” way to pray. He writes: However badly 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 instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence. And in another passage, I think the business of us laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it.

I don’t mean to say that Latter-Day Saints primarily frame the purpose of prayer as to receive answers. But it very clearly becomes central, from the First Vision to Moroni’s promise to those who ask “with sincere heart and real intent.” Lewis lays out in several chapters different kinds or purposes of prayer– penitence, gratitude, worship– petitionary prayer receiving its fair due. In fact, Lewis defends petitionary prayers, which others sometimes view as “lesser” prayers:

We can get no help from those who keep on reminding us that this is the lowest and least essential kind of prayer. They may be right; but so what? Diamonds are more precious than cairngorms, but the cairngorms still exist and must be taken into account like anything else.

In fact, one of the main themes of Lewis’s book is that we must begin where we are at. We shouldn’t try to force ourselves to be spiritual when we pray. We can pray about our ordinary everyday concerns. We can begin to pray when we are angry or in sin, and God will help us. Trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps into a spiritual state can confuse us into what prayer is truly about:

We must not encourage in ourselves or others any tendency to work up a subjective state which, if we succeeded, we should describe as “faith”, with the idea that this will somehow ensure the granting of our prayer. We have probably all done this as children. But the state of mind which desperate desire working on a strong imagination can manufacture is not faith in the Christian sense. It is a feat of psychological gymnastics.

One of the most practical chapters was near the end on the “irksomeness of prayer.” I have prayers where I feel joy, where I feel in communion with God. And I wish I could always pray like that. But others become tedious, the quick blessing on the food, the prayers with giggles at nighttime with my children, the prayers I quickly pass through to get to bed. Lewis writes of these:

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, it casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish…

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be a delight. Some day, please God, it will be. The same is true of many other behaviours which now appear as duties. If I loved my neighbour as myself, most of the actions which are now my moral duty would flow out of me spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower. Why is this not so yet? Well, we know, don’t we? Aristotle has taught us that delight is the “bloom” on an unimpeded activity. But the very activities for which we are created are, while we live on earth, variously impeded: by evil in ourselves or in others. Not to practice them is to abandon our humanity. To practice them spontaneously and delightfully is not yet possible. This situation creates the category of duty, the whole specifically moral realm.

Finally, the book is threaded with meditations on many topics other than prayer, some of which seem of particular relevance to Latter-Day Saints. In one passage, Lewis admits that he prays for the dead, as if he were coming clean. This leads to a reflection on the existence of purgatory, which has its own historical baggage. But the Lewis’s explanation should ring true to Latter-Day Saints:

On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask?

But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask…

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”– “Even so, sir.”

Lewis’s letters left me feeling more reflective, on my own prayer life and my relationship with God.

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