Friday, November 22, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner)

Finally, we wrap up the week with my favorite C.S. Lewis book:

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1964.

We've reached the zenith of our week and of my feelings about the Lewis oeuvre: today is the 50th anniversary of Jack's death and today's book is my favorite work by him.

Letters to Malcolm isn't one of the "marquee" books that people associate with Lewis. It's small, quiet, and on a topic that is very specifically aimed at religious people (i.e. prayer). It was one of the very last things he wrote before he died, so it didn't have time to build notoriety in his lifetime. And it doesn't have a sexy premise like in The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce

Nevertheless, this book is teeming with wisdom, humor, and insight into the human condition. It is Jack at his most pastoral and practical- I think there are few places where his personal warmth and spirit come through more clearly, save his personal letters. For those who pray, it is also a tremendously helpful volume to cultivate and deepen your prayer life, or at least to understand it better. 

The excerpt I chose for today has Jack describing the "festoons" that he has placed around the Lord's Prayer - the explanatory framework that he uses to think through each element of the prayer. This passage was when I fell in love with the book on my first read:

"Thy kingdom come. That is, may your reign be realized here, as it is realized there. But I tend to take there on three levels. First, as in the sinless world beyond the horrors of animal and human life; in the behavior of stars and trees and water, in sunrise and wind. May there be here (in my heart) the beginning of a like beauty. Secondly, as in the best human lives I have known: in all the people who really bear the burdens and ring true, and in the quiet, busy, ordered life of really good families and really good religious houses. May that too be 'here.' Finally, of course, in the usual sense: as in Heaven, as among the blessed dead.

And here can of course be taken not only as 'in my heart,' but as 'in this college' - in England- in the world in general. But prayer is not the time for pressing our own favorite social or political panacea...

Thy will be done. My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God's will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. Not, to be sure, that I supposed God's will for me to consist entirely of disagreeables. But I thought it was only the disagreeables that called for this preliminary submission - the agreeables could look after themselves for the present. When they turned up, one could give thanks...

But at other times other meanings could be added. So I add one more. The peg for it is, I admit, much more obvious in the English version than in the Greek or Latin. No matter: this is where the liberty of festooning comes in. 'Thy will be done.' But a great deal of it is to be done by God's creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God's will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given 'the same mind which was also in Christ.' 

Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn't always - or we don't always have reason to suspect that there is - some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. 'Thy will be done - by me- now' brings one back to brass tacks...

I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings... It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good...These occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we're still looking for the old one. And of course we don't get that. You can't, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.

This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervors of their conversion have died away. They think - sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always- that their sins account for this. They may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervors - the operative word is those- ever intended to last?

I would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. and how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once. 

And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths...

I expect we all do much the same with the prayer for our daily bread. It means, doesn't it, all we need for the day - 'things requisite and necessary as well for the body as for the soul.' I should hate to make this clause 'purely religious' by thinking of 'spiritual' needs alone. One of its uses, to me, is to remind us daily that what Burnaby calls the naif view of prayer is firmly built into Our Lord's teaching. 

Forgive us... as we forgive. Unfortunately there's no need to do any festooning here. To forgive for the moment is not difficult. But to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offense again every time it recurs to the memory - there's the real tussle. My resource is to look for some action of my own which is open to the same charge as the one I'm resenting. If I still smart to remember how A let me down, I must still remember how I let B down. If I find it difficult to forgive those who bullied me at school, let me, at that very moment, remember, and pray for, those I bullied...

I was never worried myself by the words lead us not into temptation, but a great many of my correspondents are... So that the petition essentially is, 'Make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.'... It adds a sort of reservation to all our preceding prayers. As if we said, 'In my ignorance I have asked for A, B, and C. But don't give me them if you foresee that they would in reality be to me either snares or sorrows.'...If God had granted all the silly prayers I've made in my life, where should I be now?

I don't often use the kingdom, the power, and the glory. When I do, I have an idea of the kingdom as sovereignty de jure; God, as good, would have a claim on my obedience even if He had no power. The power is the sovereignty de facto - He is omnipotent. And the glory is - well, the glory; the 'beauty so old and new,' and 'light from behind the sun.'" - pp.24-28

C.S. Lewis is my favorite author and this is my favorite book by him. So I guess this is the best answer I have to the question, "what's your favorite book?"... And I am quite content to have this wonderful little tome as my answer.

That wraps up my countdown of favorite Lewis books... I'll finish off our week o' Jack tomorrow with recommendations on where to start for Lewis newbies.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

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