I’ve been reflecting on Lewis’ words about silent prayer in Letters to Malcolm off and on for a while. He talks about it in the early letters of the book. As he explains the role that words play in our prayers, he mentions that silent prayer is better than prayer with words. It is common for people to wonder just what he is talking about when he says this.
In Letter III, he says that he is not referring to what mystics will call silent prayer. We understand that to be a reference to some sort of fixed vision, in which case the mind is not attempting expression but is filled with revelation. Rather, as he writes in Letter II, he means a prayer when the Lord is quickly bringing people and situations to our minds and we know that we express our desires concerning these things as they move through our consciousness with that intensity of concentration that one knows as a real communication. He also admits that such praying requires one to be unusually fit both in body and spirit. It is not in this life an experience we should consider as “the norm.”
I have tried to understand why Lewis thought this kind of praying superior to prayer with words. I have thought that perhaps he considered it somehow as a more purely spiritual experience. But that is not what is going on here. It’s actually an application of definition and logic.
What are words? They are vehicles of communication for our thoughts. Words serve thoughts. Words are thus secondary to thoughts; it’s “the thought that counts.” True, the use of words may have an inherent art or beauty and be the focus of attention in certain cases. But when we consider the main purpose of words, we recognize their serving function. That is why Lewis considers a prayer without words a better prayer – if it can be achieved – because it is “purer” in a sense. It is filled with the main issue, which is the petition itself.
Yet, Lewis recognizes our limitation in this area, as I’ve mentioned above. That is why words are still very important in this life. Since our thoughts are so easily distracted or adversely affected by our circumstances, they often need the aid of words to facilitate concentration and communication when we pray. As Lewis depicts the situation, words help our thoughts to run in canals instead of getting spread all out into shallow puddles and thus fail to be effective.
The upshot of this is to recognize that there will be times when we are carried along by the Spirit in prayer and words are not needed; he knows what we are thinking. But our normal practice is to work on our words to be sure they are serving our thoughts well. Since we all need help in that area, the use of the prayers of other people – “ready-made” prayers, as Lewis calls them – can be of much use.
Of course, the best source is the book of Psalms. The more familiar we are with that book, the more likely the words of our prayers will be what they should be. My two cents.