Clive Staples Lewis was a celebrated Anglo-Irish novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, lay theologian and Christian apologist whose impact and influence lives on.

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"A Cleft in the Walls of the World": A Meditative Review of CSL's Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

June 3rd, 2008 | Skip to comments

malcolm coverby Megan J. Robinson

“Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point.”
— C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

In taking up a book on prayer, I am never without the feeling that the better action would be to take up prayer itself. There is always in my mind a paraphrase of the old dictum: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, read. As much as I love Lewis, this is why I have so long bypassed his final work Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, posthumously published in 1964. Give me to read massive tomes of long-returned-to-dust theologians and their complex theories, make me write papers on the nature and substance of the Trinity, but do not ask me to read a book on prayer, because then I cannot avoid the knowledge that prayer is for, well, praying. I can easily imagine Lewis listening to this, leaning back in a chair, pipe in hand and a faint smile on his face, saying, “Well, get on then.”

Yet I think that Lewis would sympathize with this trepidation, for if merely reading about prayer – let alone praying – causes tremors in the soul, how much more so could writing about it? He first essayed an attempt at a book on prayer in December 1952, and referenced it in correspondence throughout the subsequent year, until February 1954, when he abandoned that first manuscript, saying, “It was clearly not for me.” A decade later, in March and April 1963, he revisited the format used twenty-three years earlier to great effect in The Screwtape Letters, and in Letters to Malcolm wrote a series of twenty-two letters between himself and an imagined correspondent, “Malcolm.”

Lewis keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek, writing in Letter XII that “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. […] 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.” I freely confess that I am absolutely unequal to the task of writing on prayer, or on Lewis on prayer, seeing as I have neither the benefit of time nor wisdom in either. I shall attempt it anyway. (Where is the impudence now?) Perhaps Lewis’ earlier difficulty in writing on prayer stemmed from the recognition that sometimes it is easy to reduce aspects of Christian thought and living to distant, metaphysical abstractions, while prayer – in its command and purpose – is so insistently Other, and yet equally insistently here. It takes life to learn this.

As does Hamlet’s friend Horatio, I find that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” regarding prayer, and trying to summarize Letters begets the impulse to further explain the summary. Lewis quickly dispenses with the issue of corporate prayer in Letter I, preferring instead to explore aspects of private prayer: advantages to “ready-made prayers,” and his own festoonings of the Lord’s Prayer in Letters II and V; questions such as why should we pray, and what should we pray about flow into examining whether or not prayers act as genuine causes in Letters IV and IX; Letters XIII and XV ponder questions that often loom in our minds – do we have a Listener, and if so, what does it then mean to be in an evolving relationship with Him? For such a slim work, there are a lot of rabbit holes down which we could go.

One of the greatest truths I have learned about this discipline comes from one of Lewis’ countrymen, Oswald Chambers. He writes, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater works; prayer is the greater work. We think of prayer as a common-sense exercise of our higher powers in order to prepare us for God’s work.” I am reminded of this when I read Letter VI, in which Lewis discusses the danger inherent in the concept of “religion.” He writes:

“It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious, and irreligious.” (emphasis added)

It is all too easy to recite a few requests, confess small grievances, say amen, and check prayer off our to-do list, feeling at the end of the day that we have been properly religious and appropriately penitent or petitionary. We’ve got that out of the way; now for the real stuff. But, to conflate Chambers and Lewis: Prayer is not a department. By it, we approach the Infinite, for prayer is at once deeply private and determinedly communal. No matter how quietly or secretly we might utter a confession, request, or benediction, the substance of our prayers comes out in our conversations and our actions, because our prayers are worked out in our lives.

The fact remains, however, that prayer “is irksome,” and an excuse to leave off our prayers is “never unwelcome.” But, as Lewis goes on to point out in Letter XXI, the painful reality of praying is no proof that we weren’t created to do it at all. Prayer, at its core, is a dialogue with God to understand Who He is, and who we are in relationship with Him. In a perfect world, we would love this conversation; it would be as easy and delightful as a conversation with a beloved friend. Delight, as Lewis observes from Aristotle, is the “bloom” on an unimpeded activity. A conversation with a friend becomes a duty when there lies between the two a specter of an issue unresolved; the ease of communication is impeded. Our divine dialogue is then also impeded by the earthly specter of evil within ourselves, and others. Thus, to be consistently battered against that impediment tints the command and action of prayer with difficult duty, as well as hope for, someday, perfect delight.

Lewis once wrote of having his imagination baptized, that is, shaped and prepared for the Christian story, by reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes. This idea of a “baptized imagination” followed him throughout his life, and provides illumination when interacting with his various works, or in playing them off one another. A literary or apologetic work may provide structure to a fictional one; the fictions ensoul the muscles and bones of his intellectual writings. Had I not recently read The Space Trilogy, and specifically Perelandra, my imagination would not have been so ready to receive a lesson from Letter XVII, when I finally read it. In Chapter 3 of Perelandra, the protagonist Ransom explores the alien, though not unpleasant, planet to which he has been summoned. At the close of his first day, he finds trees with great yellow fruits, one from which he tentatively samples the juice.

That taste “was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. […] It could not be classified.” His unthinking reaction upon finishing that first fruit is to take a second, but he realizes that he is no longer hungry or thirsty, and that to repeat the pleasure appeared, against “reason,” wrong. It had been an experience “so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity – like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” Ransom then ponders this experience, “wondering how often in his life on earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism […].” It is this idea of restraining from repeated (perhaps gluttonous is the better word) enjoyment of pleasures that Lewis explores in Letter XVII.

Lewis writes about prayer as adoration, using the “beauties of nature” as an example of the manifested natural wonders that are “an exposition of the glory itself.” But even then, Lewis realizes, he is learning “the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility.” And far from simply giving thanks for the pleasure as it is received, Lewis tries to make “every pleasure into a channel of adoration.” Gratitude recognizes the goodness of God in giving the pleasure; adoration follows the finite goodness up the channel to the infinite Goodness – “one’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

Of course, as Lewis observes, we don’t attain this adoration every time, because of inattention, or accepting the pleasure as a mere event of the nervous system. But then Lewis points out the “fatal Encore.” Back in Letter V, he questions whether or not a past “golden time” in personal devotions or spiritual fervencies should be sought after in the present time, for, as he asks, “How should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.” As the author of Lamentations writes in chapter 3, verse 23: His mercies are new every morning. Sometimes, I think, we would rather bear the ills – and the blessings – we have than pray with that faith and hope that would fly us to other ills, but even greater blessings we know not of. Encore leaves us little room for Bravo!

And tomorrow is another morning. One wonders if our prayers even originate within us, or if they first come from the Spirit, so that they want, are compelled, to go back to God. At any rate, Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm is a book I will take up again, and his thoughts on prayer shape my own, and prepare my spirit to continue in this difficult, necessary discipline. We have much to pray about in this “vale of tears,” and much to wrestle with in our dialogue with God. It is a dialogue made possible by the Cross, and it often becomes the scene of our own small, though significant, crucifixions. In prayer, the eternal glory of Heaven seeps through and stains every aspect of our earthly lives, and it is in prayer that we follow our great Captain through the opened cleft in the world on into the Holy of Holies, the throne of grace.


  • Chambers, Oswald. “October 17.” My Utmost for His Highest. Westwood: Barbour, 1963. 291.
  • Hooper, Walter. C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. San Francisco: Harper, 1996.
  • Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. San Diego: Harvest, 1964.
  • —. Perelandra. 1944. New York: Scribner, 1972. 37-8.
  • —. Surprised by Joy. San Diego: Harvest, 1956.
  • —. “The Weight of Glory.” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. 1949. San Francisco: Harper, 2001. 45.
  • Schakel, Peter J. “Annotations and Study Guide to Letters to Malcolm.” C.S. Lewis, Literature, and Life. 1 May 2008. Hope College. 30 May 2008 .


    1. I liked the article. However, my favorite of all you said could be found in the very first sentence:

      “In taking up a book on prayer, I am never without the feeling that the better action would be to take up prayer itself.”

      I feel the same way in regards to alot of things in my life that I chose to read about. I could, very well, be doing those things instead of reading about them. It would make for a more interesting life.

      Comment by Courtney F — 14 June 2008 @ 12:20 PM

    2. Courtney, thanks for the response. That seems to be the general consensus: to do is better than to read. At least in this case. 🙂

      Comment by Megan R. — 17 June 2008 @ 3:07 PM

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