Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, by C.S. Lewis
As someone who has read a lot of the writings of C.S. Lewis, this book is a fascinating one. For one, it should be noted in deference to the author that this book was not published until after his death. It is a strange thing to read the correspondence of other people, especially in a case like this where we are only seeing one side of what is at least a three-sided conversation. As it happens, we only read C.S. Lewis’ side of the story. As far as I know, Malcolm never published the letters that he wrote in this correspondence with Lewis, and moreover we know even less about Betty, who was the third member of the correspondence and is referred to as such by Lewis in several of the letters. This is a short book, and if one would have included the other two correspondents it would have been a much longer book of 300 or 400 pages, but it would have been worthwhile, I think at least, to have seen the whole conversation. As it is, one must construct the other participants’ statements through Lewis’ responses to them, but reading anything by Lewis is a worthwhile task so this is obviously not a problem.
This book is an incomplete but fascinating exchange of letters between C.S. Lewis and a close friend named Malcolm that chiefly concerns questions about the subject of prayer. Covering just over 120 small pages, the book is composed of generally fairly short letters where Lewis discusses the matter of prayer, looking at his own personal practices and preferences, the sort of prayers we find in the Bible (for example, in the book of Psalms), and the relationship between our personal habits and matters of ritual like the public prayer that takes place within congregations. Lewis reflects on why it is important for us to pray when we believe that God knows everything but still wants us to communicate with Him anyway, and how we deal with the problem of analogy and symbol when it comes to our religious life and spiritual realities. Lewis at times chides his correspondent about the language that is used and how words and concepts are understood and seeks to describe his thoughts about prayer and its importance to the lives of believers in a gentle and conversational way that shows him in his best light as a gracious correspondent.
As a letter writer myself, I was pleased and a bit surprised at the way in which this particular book demonstrated some of the most serious problems I have faced in writing letters. One gets distracted by what someone says in a letter and does not always write what is most important in the larger scheme of what one is talking about, to the impatience of those involved in the correspondence. One writes things that are misunderstood by the reader and this requires further explanation that is interesting but which distracts from the main point. The letters included here are real and genuine correspondence and they show Lewis’ attempts to form his thoughts as he was expressing them, not always intending what the reader interprets, and aware that he is sometimes spitballing and improvising what he is saying rather than saying something he has reflected on or is fully confident or fully understanding of. And that is a style of communication I can relate to very well as a fluent but not necessarily very restrained writer. This is a small book of an incomplete conversation, but it is still a very worthwhile book, simply because of who was writing the letters involved.