C. S. Lewis was a great burster of pride’s balloons. His Screwtape Letters are a masterful model in how to do that. But he was only able to take aim with such accuracy that because he had come face to face with his own pride. And these two poems illustrate that perfectly. They take seriously the distorting effects of our own self-centredness, which warp our perception of reality and God, even when we pray.
I’d never come across them before, weirdly (the first is thankfully quoted by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in her lovely book Caring For Words). But they deserve wide dispersal.
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
The Apologist’s Evening Prayer
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.