One commentator noted that the loss of faith in Franz Kafka was “a burden he could only live with by transforming it into art” (Hans Eichner, Four German Writers). Thus in his novel, “The Castle,” he writes about a message being sent, “but it will never reach us; in the novel, the castle is there, but it is not there for us… If we consider the castle to be the symbolic home of God, then Kafka’s depiction is shocking: when you try to phone a castle official you are likely to get a wrong number,” and the employees of the castle have to cope with dendritic pathways of red tape.
It is a hopeless depiction of prayer: it is prayer as torture; prayer as learned helplessness; prayer as existential senselessness.
Meanwhile across the ocean, Mark Twain was writing “Letters from the Earth” – a book that could not be published in the States during his life time (first printing, 1962, over 50 years after his death) due to the inflammatory tone it takes to faith. In his chapter, Letters to the Earth, he imagines “the recording Angel form the Department of Petitions” writing to some hapless supplicant. We see each of the petitions and how the Angel answers or refuses the request:
“Prayer for weather mercifully tempered to the needs of the poor and the naked. Denied.”
The explanation for denying the prayer goes like this:
This was a “prayer-meeting prayer” and it conflicts with “a Secret Supplication of the Heart… By rigid rule of this office, certain sorts of Public Prayers are forbidden to take precedence of Secret Supplications of the Heart.”
Kafka and Twain were contemporaries who never communicated with each other, but who, nevertheless, seemed to share the same cynicism about prayer. This cynicism comes from how they conceived God to be: a rigid rule-maker, delighting in red tape and graceless answers – if answers are given at all, and if so, by some third-party toady.
Before C.S. Lewis came to faith, he wrote about the frustration of prayer in a comment he made in a letter to his brother Warren. He noted that he was becoming frustrated with sending letters to his brother who seemed to be a moving target since Warren was constantly transferred with the military. More often than not, Lewis’ letters were returned to him as they were not able to find Warren where expected. C.S. Lewis would describe this as “a process too like prayer.”
“The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong… what was the use of going on despatching fervent messages – if they all came back…” (July 1, 1921, from Oxford, “Letters.”).
So let’s consider our experience of prayer; who can deny Kafka’s ringing the wrong number, or Twain’s cynical refusals, or Lewis’ returned letters. All of them, Atheists of the highest order, cannot conceive of prayer in any other way but as the idiocy of fools speaking to a heartless God who is no god at all.
Thus, when C.S. Lewis comes to faith in Christ, he describes this as being “Surprised by Joy,” and is opened to a new native language of prayer as communication with the Living God. James M. Houston, founder of the C.S. Lewis Institute, knew C.S. Lewis when they both taught at Oxford, and wrote this excerpt in The Prayer life of C.S. Lewis:
“Early he had seen that to supplicate for others to be changed by prayer, implied the pray-er was also willing to see changes in his life as he prayed for others. But petition and supplication are also part of a greater, more mysterious reality of divine soliloquy, since God intends to be not merely “all” as pantheism declares, but “all in all.” If the Holy Spirit is the one who prompts us and gives us the gift of prayer itself, are we not in our supplications and petitions actually entering into divine soliloquy, to celebrate the sovereign good that God has intended for all his creatures? So Lewis quotes a poem he found in an old notebook, author unknown, to illustrate this.”
Thus, let us take Lewis’ appropriation of a poem by an unknown author, and pray it in the mystery of being no dreamer, by Thy dream:
They tell me, Lord, that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since but one voice is heard, it’s all a dream, One talker aping two.
Sometimes it is, yet not as they Conceive it. Rather, I Seek in myself the things I hoped to say But lo!, my springs are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake The thoughts I never knew.
And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talkers, thou art One forever, and I No dreamer, but thy dream.
– from Crux Vol. XXIV, No. 1 (March 1988):2-10