During my Christmas holidays I read through C. S. Lewis’ “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” and had found that many of my recent contemplations on the nature of prayer were addressed, and very well I might add – then again I wouldn’t expect any less of Lewis. The book is arranged in a similar fashion to “The Screwtape Letters”. Its written in the context of various letters to a fellow named Malcolm chiefly, but not restrained to, on prayer. If you’ve read “The Screwtape Letters” and enjoyed it, I would HIGHLY recommend “Letters to Malcolm”. One of the letters that I’ve read today was quite profound. I will now replicate the letter in full for you here,
I hadn’t realized that Betty was the silent third in this dialogue. I ought to have guessed it. Not that her worst enemy ever accused her of being The Silent Woman – remember the night at Mullingar – but that her silences during a prolonged argument between you and me are usually a very emphatic, audible, and even dialectical character. One knows she is getting her broom ready and will soon sweep up all our breakages. On the present point she is right. I am making very heavy weather of what most believers find a very simple matter. What is more natural, and easier, if you believe in God, than to address Him? How could one not?
Yes. But it depends who one is. For those in my position – adult converts from the intelligentsia – that simplicity and spontaneity can’t always be the starting point. One can’t just jump back into one’s childhood. If one tries to, the result will only be an archaising revival, like Victorian Gothic- a parody of being born again. We have to work back to the simplicity a long way around.
In actual practice, in my prayers, I often have to use that long way at the very beginning of the prayer.
St. Francois de Sales begins every meditation with the command Mettez-vous en la presence de Dieu. I wonder how many different mental operations have been carried out in intended obedience to that?
What happens to me if I try to take it – as Betty would tell me – “simply,” is the juxtaposition of two “representations” or ideas or phantoms. One is the bright blur in the mind which stands for God.The other is the idea I call “me.” But I can’t leave it at that, because I know – and it’s useless to pretend I don’t know – that they are both phantasmal. The real I has created them both – or, rather, built them up in the vaguest way from all sorts of psychological odds and ends.
Very often, paradoxically, the first step is to banish the “bright blur”- or, in statelier language, to break the idol. Let’s get back to what has at least some degree of resistant reality. Here are the four walls of the room. And here am I. But both terms are merely the facade of impenetrable mysteries.
The walls, they say, are matter. That is, as the physicists will try to tell me, something totally unimaginable, only mathematically describable, existing in a curved space, charged with appalling energies. If I could penetrate far enough into that mystery I should perhaps finally reach what is sheerly real.
And what am I? The facade is what I call consciousness, I am at least conscious of the colour of those walls. I am not, in the same way, or to the same degree, conscious of what I call my thoughts: for if I try to examine what happens when I am thinking, it stops happening. Yet even if I could examine my thinking, it would, I well know, turn out to be the thinnest possible film on the surface of a vast deep. The psychologists have taught us that. Their real error lies in underestimating the depth and the variety of its contents. Dazzling lightness as well as dark clouds come up. And if all the enchanting visions are, as they rashly claim, mere disguises for sex, where lives the hidden artist who, from such monotonous and claustrophobic material, can make works of such various and liberating art? And depths of time too. All my past; my ancestral past; perhaps my pre-human past. (Poster’s note: I am simply replicating Lewis’ words as they are written, I am not plunging myself into the waters of whether or not Lewis was a Theistic Evolutionist – which his final words here seem to imply – or a literal six day Creationist. Either way, Lewis believed that God is the first cause, read his book “Miracles” to find an elegant dismantling of Naturalism.)
Here again, if I could dive deeply enough, I might again reach at the bottom that which simply is. And only now am I ready, in my own fashion, to “place myself in the presence of God.” Either mystery, if I could follow it far enough, would lead me to the same point – the point where something, in each case unimaginable, leaps forth from God’s naked hand. The Indian, looking at the material world, says, “I am that.” I say, “That and I grow from one root.” Verbum superne prodiens, the Word coming forth from the Father, has made both, and brought them together in this subject-object embrace.
And what, you ask, is the advantage of all this? Well, for me – I am not talking about anyone else – it plants the prayer right in the present reality. For, whatever else is or is not real, this momentary confrontation of subject and object is certainly occurring: always occurring, except when I am asleep. Here is the actual meeting of God’s activity and man’s – not some imaginary meeting that might occur if I were an angel or if God incarnate entered the room. There is here no question of a God “up there” or “out there”; rather, the present operation of God “in here,” as the ground of my own being, and God “in there” as the ground of the matter that surrounds me, and God embracing and uniting both in the daily miracle of finite consciousness.
The two facades – the “I” as I perceive myself and the room as I perceive it – were obstacles as long as I mistook them for ultimate realities. But the moment I recognized them as mere facades, as mere surfaces, they became conductors. Do you see? A lie is a delusion only so long as we believe it; but a recognized lie is a reality – a real lie – and as such may be highly instructive. A dream ceases to be a delusion as soon as we wake. But it does not become a nonentity. It is a real dream: it may also be instructive. A stage set is not a real wood or drawing room: it is a real stage set, and may be a good one. (In fact we should never ask of anything “Is it real?,” for everything is real. The proper question is, “A real what?,” e.g., a real snake or a real delirium tremens?) The objects around me, and my idea of “me,” will deceive if taken at their face value. But they are momentous if taken as the end-products of divine activities. Thus and not otherwise, the creation of matter and the creation of mind meet one another and the circuit is closed.
Or put it this way. I have called my material surroundings my stage set. A stage set is not a dream nor a nonentity. But if you attack a stage house with a chisel you will no get chips of brick or stone; you’ll only get a hole in a piece of canvas, beyond that, windy darkness. Similarly, if you start investigating the nature of matter, you will not find anything like what imagination has always supposed matter to be. You will get mathematics. From that unimaginable physical reality my senses select a few stimuli. These they translate or symbolise into sensations, which have no likeness at all to the reality of matter.Of these sensations my associative power, very much directed by my practical needs and influenced by social training, makes up little bundles into what I call “things” (labelled by nouns).Out of these I build myself a neat little box stage, suitably provided with properties such as hills, fields, houses, and the rest, In this I can act.
And you may well say “act.” For what I call “myself” (for all practical, everyday purposes) is also a dramatic construction; memories, glimpses in the shaving glass, and snatches of the very fallible activity called “introspection” are the principle ingredients. Normally I call this construction “me,” and the stage set “the real world.”
Now the moment of prayer is for me – or involves for me as its condition – the awareness, the re-awakened awareness, that this “real world” and “real self” are very far from being rock-bottom realities. I cannot, in the flesh, leave the stage, either to go behind the scenes or to take my seat in the pit; but I can remember that these regions exist. And I also remember that my apparent self – this clown or hero or super – under his grease-paint is a real person with an offstage life.The dramatic person could not tread the stage unless he concealed a real person: unless the real and unknown I existed, I would not even make mistakes about the imagined me. And in prayer this real I struggles to speak, for once, from his real being, and to address, for once, not the other actors, but – what should I call Him? The Author, for He invented us all? The Producer, for He controls all? Or the Audience, for He watches, and will judge the performance?
The attempt is not to escape from space and time and from my creaturely situation as a subject facing objects. It is more modest: to re-awake the awareness of that situation. If that can be done, there is no need to go anywhere else. This situation itself is, at every moment, a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground; the Bush is burning now.
Of course this attempt may be attended with almost every degree of success or failure. The prayer preceding all prayers is “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking “But I never knew before. I never dreamed…” I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, “It reminds me of straw.””