It was a late autumn day and I was in Oxford with my parents. We had just enjoyed a sumptuous late lunch at the cosy The Eagle and Child – the public house famed for hosting the The Inklings literary group – and were walking through the city’s busy streets back to the car. En-route we passed the deceptively large Blackwells Bookshop (the store is a lot bigger than its exterior suggests). It was a bitterly cold day, so the offer of a warm haven to browse an endless supply of books was a welcome one for us all. We quietly ventured in and were immediately greeted by a selection of books on The Inklings. How apt. Following a brief browse, we headed downstairs to the theology/Church section, host to a vast array of books. Whilst giggling through the section’s more light-hearted titles (there is a lot of mileage in church humour!), I noticed my Mum secretively asking my Dad to look at a book she had spotted. It didn’t take me long to work out her game. She was in the CS Lewis section (my favourite writer) and Christmas was near. My Dad returned to me a few minutes later, likely to “distract” me, whilst my Mum made straight for the til, mysterious book in hand.
Christmas Day arrives. Amongst the sea of wrapped gifts is one that is clearly a book. And a very thick one at that. I excitedly unwrap to find a volume consisting of five titles written by CS Lewis, all of which I have not read. Good job, Mum. Included in the esteemed collection is Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, the last book Lewis wrote and the one I had been itching to read for months. I immediately got to work on it and within a month of Christmas I was done. As its title implies, the publication brings together a set of letters penned by Lewis to his imaginary friend, Malcolm, on the discipline of prayer. It is a wonderfully creative way of discussing the subject, here serving to bring out a delightful mixture of theory, practice and affectionate wit, not to mention the odd rant. It brims with personality.
In one letter, Lewis describes his “festoonings” of the Lord’s Prayer, or what he also calls “the private overtones I give to certain petitions.” I found the below excerpt particularly helpful:
“But now, more than that, I am at this moment contemplating a new festoon. Tell me if you think it a vain subtlety. 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. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. 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. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life — in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experience — we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all others by comparison. But these other 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 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 fervours 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 fervours — the operative word is those — ever intended to last?
“It 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. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year’s blooms, and you will get nothing. ‘Unless a seed die…'”
There are moments in books that so captures my imagination and heart, and so resonates with some part of my life, that I read the words at a quicker pace than normal, purely because I am so eager to reach their conclusion. I then read it again, carefully taking each word in light of what I know is coming. Reading the words above was one of those moments, for a variety of reasons. It struck a welcome chord that is still playing as I write.