I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis – a clever little book comprised of a collection of imagined letters from a senior demon of temptation, named Screwtape, and his nephew, Wormwood. It’s not a formal theological document, but it does reflect Lewis’ theological convictions as a Christian. And since he was something of a high-churchman, I’m particularly interested in learning more about his perspectives, since I also consider myself an Anglo-Catholic of sorts.
In letter #4, the subject of prayer comes up, and some very interesting insights are quickly revealed.
The best thing… is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. … this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.
Step one is to get us preoccupied with the “boring” or “rote” pre-written liturgical prayers that we may have learned as children. Once that concern is raised up in us, the demons push us to the opposite extreme:
In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.
This is quite the statement! How many churches today put so much effort into creating the perfect “atmosphere” of worship? It’s almost exactly the same thing: if we can just be convinced to switch off our brains and “feel” our way into prayer or worship, then the demons have won a great victory over us already. Screwtape describes it as having “a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in [God’s] service.” In other words, that contemplative prayerful silence is not something that we should safely assume to be normal for all Christians; it’s a spiritual discipline that takes work to learn.
A positive solution to counter this demonic intention would be to avoid the wild pendulum swing from dry “parrot-like” prayers to ethereal mood-based prayers, and strive to get our hearts and minds working together. A compromise between the spontaneous and the formal is, I expect, the best way through this: one could start with a pre-written prayer such as a Collect from the Book of Common Prayer, or the Lord’s Prayer, or a Psalm, and pray that aloud, and then meditate on it inwardly and see where the Spirit takes us from there. Emptying our mind of worldly distraction is one thing; emptying our mind of all activity whatsoever is another thing entirely.
Another consideration in prayer, besides our hearts and brains, which we often overlook, is our bodies. Turning again to Screwtape:
At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget… that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.
It matters if we’re sitting or standing, kneeling or laying down? Yes! It really does matter. Now, it doesn’t matter to God, and Screwtape admits that with notable annoyance in the next paragraph, but our bodily posture does matter to us. Many of us today have been tricked into this Neo-Platonic dualist idea that our bodies are of no consequence, and that prayer is a completely spiritual activity. While it’s true that we can pray in any position or posture, that doesn’t mean certain postures help us to pray better.
A serious heart-baring confession to God is far more heart-felt delivered on our knees than it is while walking through a forest. Walking through a forest is much more conducive to praising God for his masterful work of creation than for plumbing the depths of sinful humanity. When we stand up, there’s a level of formality that reminds us that we’re addressing the King of the Universe. When we sit down, there’s a level of comfortableness that highlights the friendship that we share with Jesus.
Although it may be overkill to switch between standing, sitting, and kneeling every time we change the genre of our prayers, regulating when we stand, sit, or kneel in corporate worship is a lot more doable, especially when we’re sharing in a common liturgy. We kneel together for the prayer of confession and pronouncement of absolution; we stand together to state the Creed; we stand together in intercession for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world, we sit while we listen to the Word of God read to us, and so on. These aren’t just actions to keep us awake, nor are they expected to please God; these postures are real aids to help us and teach us to pray. It’s discipleship through liturgy.
It breaks my heart that so many otherwise healthy evangelical churches have been tricked into thinking this is all irrelevant and old-fashioned. Screwtape’s lies have taken hold of our generation. Lord, have mercy.