C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Physical Body in Prayer
Pray into His Presence
If the living God is here and now, confronting us with his presence, then prayer is precisely the point where we acknowledge that presence. Prayer, whether it is confession, supplication, thanksgiving, or adoration, always involves a surrender, an embracing of God’s ever-present presence. This is why in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood to “keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether.”1 When we pray, there is always the possibility that God will act directly to draw us closer to himself.
The Physical Body
Human beings are hybrids, what Screwtape calls “amphibians—half spirit and half animal.”2 In other words, we are composite beings, consisting of bodies (like the beasts) and souls or spirits (like angels). It is easy for Christians to forget this. We sometimes adopt either of two attitudes we find among the pagans—body-hating asceticism or body-worshiping indulgence. Christianity rejects both of these. In contrast to the ascetics, Christianity insists that “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it.”3 In fact, Lewis expresses the amazing dignity of the body when he writes:
But for our body one whole realm of God’s glory—all that we receive through the senses—would go upraised. For the beasts can’t appreciate it and the angels are, I suppose, pure intelligences. They understand colors and tastes better than our greatest scientists; but have they retinas or palates? I fancy the “beauties of nature” are a secret God has shared with us alone. That may be one of the reasons why we were made—and why the resurrection of the body is an important doctrine.4
Lewis here suggests that human beings know something about God that angels do not.
There are particular aspects of His love and joy which can be communicated to a created being only by sensuous experience. Something of God which the Seraphim can never quite understand flows into us from the blue of the sky, the taste of honey, the delicious embrace of water whether cold or hot, and even from sleep itself.5
We must accept and embrace the body, in all its glory and buffoonery, remembering that whatever our bodies do affects our souls.
The Glory of God Revealed in Us
Thus, Christians cannot reject or dismiss the body without rejecting and dismissing the glory of God.
And yet Christians do not revere or worship the body. They resist the lure of the dark gods that treat the bodily appetites as commands to be obeyed. Instead, Christians ought to regard the body as Lewis, following Saint Francis, did—by calling it “Brother Ass.” No one ever worshiped a donkey. Nor did anyone ever completely hate it. An ass “is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful.” One of the primary functions of the body in our lives is “to play the part of the buffoon,”6 to keep our grandiose visions of ourselves in check. The clumsiness and stubbornness of our bodies is profoundly humbling.
Lewis on the Christian Life
Joe Rigney explores particular themes that run throughout C. S. Lewis's popular and lesser-known writings, illuminating how they help readers develop a deeper awareness of God's presence and work in their lives.
Our Sinful Selves
At the same time, we must not blame our bodies for the scrapes and troubles we find ourselves in. The notion that our bodies are the root of our sinfulness is pagan in origin, even if it has found Christian sanction because of a misunderstanding of the Pauline use of the term flesh. But, Lewis reminds us, the body is not the primary source of temptation. “If the imagination were obedient, the appetites would give us very little trouble.”7 Lewis humorously expands on the soul’s tendency to blame the body for its ills:
“You are always dragging me down,” said I to my Body. “Dragging you down!” replied my Body. “Well I like that! Who taught me to like tobacco and alcohol? You, of course, with your idiotic adolescent idea of being ‘grown-up.’ My palate loathed both at first: but you would have your way. Who put an end to all those angry and revengeful thoughts last night? Me, of course, by insisting on going to sleep. Who does his best to keep you from talking too much and eating too much by giving you dry throats and headaches and indigestion? Eh?” “And what about sex?” said I. “Yes, what about it?” retorted the Body. “If you and your wretched imagination would leave me alone I’d give you no trouble. That’s Soul all over; you give me orders and then blame me for carrying them out.”8
The Posture of Prayer
Christians must not reject the body, worship the body, or blame the body. Instead, we must accept and embrace the body, in all its glory and buffoonery, remembering that whatever our bodies do affects our souls. And therefore, as Lewis says, “the body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it.”9
Practically speaking, this means that we ought to sometimes kneel to pray, stand to pray, bow our heads to pray, raise our hands or hold hands to pray, or take some other appropriate physical posture. Likewise, keeping our eyes focused on a particular object can promote attentiveness in prayer; visual concentration helps spiritual concentration.10
It also means that we try to avoid praying when we are extremely sleepy. Lewis says that his own practice is to “seize any time, and place, however unsuitable, in preference to the last waking moment.” At the same time, he recognizes that bodily posture is less important than sincere devotion. “Kneeling does matter, but other things matter even more. A concentrated mind and a sitting body make for better prayer than a kneeling body and a mind half asleep.”11
This article is adapted from Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God by Joe Rigney.
- C. S. Lewis, 2013. The Screwtape Letters, Annotated ed. San Francisco: HarperOne, (2013) 21.
- Ibid., 45.
- C. S. Lewis, 2001. Mere Christianity, San Francisco: HarperOne (2001), 64.
- C. S.Lewis,1992. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace (1992), 17.
- C. S. Lewis, 1970. “Scraps,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics Edited by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 216.
- C. S. Lewis, 1971. The Four Loves, New York: Mariner, 101.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 17.
- C. S. Lewis, “Scraps,” in God in the Dock, 216–17.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 17.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 17
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