“I don’t feel I could write a book on Prayer: I think it would be rather ‘cheek’ of my part” (9 Aug 1949 letter to Mary Van Deusen).
But something must have triggered Lewis in that letter. Lewis talked about the book in 1953 letters to Chad Walsh and St. Giovanni Calabria about problems of prayer he was thinking through. One of these problems he brought to a group of clergy in “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” and he ends this way:
“I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?” (Christian Reflections, 151).
All of that activity in 1953, but the book never materialized. In early 1954, Lewis writes his religious friend and mentor, Sr. Penelope, admitting that he had to abandon the project because “it was clearly not for me” (15 Feb 1954 letter). In the decade that follows, though, Lewis became the famous Narnian author, a Cambridge professor, the author of his academic magnum opus and a dozen other books, a memoir writer, a lover, and a widower. It is a lot of life to live through, and as he was recovering from his loss of Joy, he returned to the topic to write a cheeky book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm.
In doing so, Lewis returned to the letter style of writing that worked so well for The Screwtape Letters. To get some of the technical side of what epistolary fiction looked like for Lewis, see Charles Huttar’s “The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction” in the Journal of Inklings Studies (2016). Not many people include Letters to Malcolm in Lewis’ fiction as the fictional veneer is, admittedly, pretty thin. I teach a class at The King’s College each winter on the fantasy and sf of C.S. Lewis, but we don’t include this book. I think most people read it as a peculiar and curious text about prayer—though I think it is really a work of speculative theology by a mature Christian thinker with prayer as the steadying thread throughout the narrative.
However, I think we move too quickly past the fiction. The entire book is a one-sided correspondence with a fictional friend—someone close enough that he can give advice to, and someone he cares enough to spar with, someone he “nearly came to blows” and that experience made their friendship stronger (92). “Nothing makes an absent friend so present as a disagreement” (3), Lewis writes, and a give-and-take, back-and-forth style continues throughout the book.
There is debate, but the friendly dialogue also allows for moments that personalize the book. Just as Lewis is tuning himself up for a big theological debate, the fictional Malcolm gets news that his son may have a life-threatening health diagnosis:
What froth and bubble my last letter must have seemed to you! I had hardly posted it when I got Betty’s card with the disquieting news about George-turning my jocular reference to his descendants into a stab (at least I suppose it did) and making our whole discussion on prayer seem to you, as it now does to me, utterly unreal. The distance between the abstract “Does God hear petitionary prayers?” and the concrete “Will He-can He-grant our prayers for George?” is apparently infinite (40).
And this is one of the strengths of the book: the personal connection with Malcolm—including dinner plans and train schedules—roots the discussion, so that there is an easy, organic movement between abstract questions and concrete concerns.
Perhaps the real-life friend is Owen Barfield, or an Inklings mesh-man, but the fictional encasement of the book goes further. Making Letters to Malcolm a fictional correspondence instead of a straight-on nonfiction approach is a really intriguing move.
For one, Lewis admits in the text, “I have never met a book on prayer which was much use” (62). Lewis is here thinking about his own intellectual class, so in some ways Letters to Malcolm is the bookend to A Pilgrim’s Regress—two thinly veiled fictions of Lewis’ thoughts written to a very specialized group of academics, writers, theologians, and public intellectuals.
But I think Lewis is also setting himself against books about prayer by specifically undercutting his own work.
“If I am right…” (34) Lewis says as one of several moments where he pulls back from the kind of assertive teaching that fills much of his Christian writing. The Lewis of Malcolm is not the didactic, pedantic, narrow-visioned absolutist, as Screwtape is. Lewis reminds Malcolm that his thinking is just a “guess” (60-61), that “I don’t at all know whether I’m right or not” (33), and consistently asks for ideas from the near-silent Malcolm. “Guesses,” are, Lewis admits of his speculation, “only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be” (124). While Lewis is limited in his understanding now,
“If I ever see more clearly I will speak more surely” (73).
I suppose this is intellectual and theological humility, but I think it is also a smart writing move that is tucked into the “fictional” aspect of the book. In this book on prayer, Lewis writes, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it” (63). Is this not a book on prayer? We see this rhetorical device throughout:
I were preaching it in public, instead of feeding it back to the very man who taught it me (though he may by now find the lesson nearly unrecognisable?), I should have to pack it in ice, enclose it in barbed-wire reservations, and stick up warning notices in every direction” (91).
“If one said this in public one would have all the Freudians on one’s back” (34).
Lewis goes further, saying that “in a book it would need pages of qualification and insurance” (21)—but this is not a book, of course, so he’ll just leave the problem as it is. The sum total of the rhetorical effect is that Lewis is writing a book on prayer that is not, in his mind and hopefully in the mind of the readers, a book on prayer.
The importance is key, for
“in a book [on prayer] one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence” (63).
It would be “cheeky” of him to write a book about prayer just as I would never write a blog post about prayer. This is the elegant irony of the whole epistolary project. He is being cheeky here in the way he presents the fiction, and this allows him to ask questions about humanity, society, God, time, work, sin, and the church in the context of a conversation about prayer–without having to speak dogmatically as he does in books like The Four Loves or much of Mere Christianity. He is playful in those books and in most of his fiction, flirting with speculative theology while trying to root himself to Christian orthodoxy. It is that rooted experimentation laced with humour and hopeful invitation that draws me to Lewis’ theological project.
The rhetorical device that says that “this book is not a book” reveals a kind of reluctance in Lewis’ public writing. We see this in the prefaces to The Problem of Pain and the early BBC talks. The Malcolm conversations about the puzzles of prayer, as a result of the fictional framing, create a deepened sense of reluctant contribution: “I have found no book that helps me,” Lewis admits, and goes further:
I have so little confidence in my own power to tackle them [i.e., difficult questions about prayer] that, if it were possible, I would let sleeping dogs lie. But the dogs are not sleeping. They are awake and snapping. We both bear the marks of their teeth. That being so, we had better share our bewilderments. By hiding them from each other we should not hide them from ourselves (57).
While some might balk at an author who undercuts his own book, I think this gives Malcolm a real-life feeling rooted not just in speculative ideas but in everyday experience. Rather than a book for payer from an expert, with a robust conscious and a healthy self-image Lewis is able to write,
I haven’t any language weak enough to depict the weakness of my spiritual life. If I weakened it enough it would cease to be language at all. As when you try to turn the gas-ring a little lower still, and it merely goes out (113).
While some find this off-putting and want to seek the experts on prayer and the saints who have trod many ways of devotional life, I admit in the article I am writing that prayer is a real struggle for me. I am pleased to enter this conversation with Lewis and Malcolm because, frankly, he is able to admit his weakness while still inviting deeper thinking and greater living. I find this combination is in many places in Letters to Malcolm, but this one works to close this post. Here Lewis links his own bereavement of Joy and Malcolm’s anxiety about losing his son to illness. It is here we see that sharing darkness has its own advantages to the bright ways lit by the experts:
I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road (44).
I think we should attend seriously, then, to what Lewis is doing when he writes a non-book book on prayer.