Praying is something I almost never do. In fact I often feel embarrassed and even importuned when I’m in a synagogue or a church and made to witness the praying of others. The kneeling and rocking and head covering and book-kissing and various myriad prostrations seem to me to have little humility in them and yet possess all the cosy exclusiveness of enjoying the membership of a club. That, of course, is the classic outsider position. But there you have it, it’s what I feel.

I’m telling you this because I’ve lately been digging around the subject of prayer and praying, coming to it, as I do with so much in this reading group, in a roundabout way, so as to bypass my prejudices, but also, if my researches turn up anything interesting, to challenge them.

And that is how I stumbled across a couple of interesting essays, one seemingly a riposte to the other, even though it was written more than 50 years after the fact. The riposte comes from C S Lewis in a short piece entitled The Efficacy of Prayer. It runs to just three pages, but in it Lewis says pretty much all he has to say on the subject.

If you are familiar with C S Lewis’ writings you will think that the efficacy of prayer is an odd subject for him to address. Surely, you say, he would have had a more sophisticated take on the subject, or at least, a more spiritual one.  And he did. But he is being too clever by half here, because he is inviting you to think about prayer in terms of cause and effect, in terms of petitioning God and getting (or not getting) what you ask for.

This is tricky territory, as Lewis well knew. For if you are deeply invested in the thing you pray for and that thing happens (a friend recovers from desperate illness, rain arrives just as drought threatens catastrophe) you can never be sure that it would not have happened anyway. Even, or especially, if the thing that happens is indisputably ‘miraculous’ – that is to say, not just against the odds, but contrary to reason and everything we know about the way things behave in the world – you still cannot attribute it to the efficacy of prayer.

Any causal link between praying and having your prayer answered can never be established, says Lewis, because the efficacy of prayer lies outside the realm of measurable certainty.  Lewis was taking aim here at Francis Galton, the scientific polymath and pioneer of statistical methodologies such as standard deviation and crowd sourcing, who, in a short paper written in 1872, had recommended a statistical inquiry into the ‘efficacy’ of prayer that Lewis found patently ridiculous. Galton called for a team of people to pray fervently for the sick in Hospital A and not at all for the sick in Hospital B, before totting up the figures to see whether A had more cures and fewer fatalities than B.

Galton had also compared the longevity of British Royals (whose long lives are prayed for by the masses every Sunday) with the longevity of lawyers, clergy, gentry, artists, and army officers and found no significant variation – a finding that he (Galton) used to score a point against religion, but that Lewis dismisses in one clean swipe by quoting the king in Hamlet: “Words without thought never go to heaven.’

Subjecting the efficacy of prayer to scientific scrutiny was a nonsense so far as Lewis was concerned. He had much more time for Pascal, who mused philosophically that ‘God instituted prayer in order to lend his creatures the dignity of causality.’ At first blush this seems like a neat argument – a respectable, head held up high way out of an unhappy conundrum. Yet Lewis is happy enough to run with it in ways that lose me entirely: whenever we act at all, he says, God lends us that dignity. (So does that mean all our understanding of free will is merely an illusion, a mask of borrowed dignity? And if that is the case, does it not follow that it would be impossible to choose to act morally? … Personally I like my Deity to be far less meddlesome in human affairs.)

Besides, I don’t see how this dignity argument differs in substance from the face-saving one that Believers ventured in the early nineteenth century to account for the puzzling reality of fossils; namely, that God planted fossils in ancient rocks to give the earth the illusion of incredible age. The problem with such arguments is that they presuppose a tricksy God – one who would hoodwink us rather than have us come to terms with our essential fallibility.

So what then is the use of prayer? If you take the Lord’s Prayer as a kind of template for what a prayer ought to be, you’ll see it asks for three kinds of things. First, the straightforward petition: ‘Give us our daily bread.’ Second, the more noble ask: ‘forgive us our trespass.’ Finally, the third ask is for deliverance or salvation. It doesn’t contain an intercessionary clause, which rather undercuts the ‘and save the starving children in Africa’ line that I was made to add to my list of requests as a child. But that’s by the by. Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer is meant to model some kind of progression, so that petition becomes a sort of gateway into salvation? Or perhaps the intended meaning is that all these things are blessings: sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance?

Lewis does eventually get to this question of what prayer is for. And what he says I like. He says that the petitionary part of prayer is the least part of it;

 ‘confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of god its bread and wine. In it God shows himself to us.’


Prayer, in other words, is about forging some kind of personal connection with something other. It does not require answers, even if it is compelled to ask questions – and make petitionary demands (give us our daily bread!) And it shines the searchlight inwards, so that we can see our flaws, or at least see how little our concerns are when measured up against something bigger (the creation, the universe, the vast void, if you don’t believe in God).

I didn’t take the Lewis or the Galton into my reading group. Both papers seemed too dry in the end. But I did take in a short poem by Mary Oliver, which seemed to say in a handful of well-chosen words, what C S Lewis was trying to get at in reverse gear, by arguing backwards from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Here it is (and may the Gods of copyright have mercy on me if I have trespassed against them)

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.