Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway finds grace, if not words, in the poem “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” by C.S. Lewis. Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com/ or on twitter @HollyOrdway
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Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

by Dr. Holly Ordway

I struggled to find a poem to write about for this piece; having chosen one, I found I had nothing good to say, so I tried again, and then again, and ended up with yet more deleted drafts for my pains. Eventually, I found myself circling back to a poem I had considered, and then set aside: C.S. Lewis’ “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 the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
It’s an odd choice, in a way, because it’s not one of the poems of Lewis’ that I particularly like as a poem. There are others that I enjoy or find compelling and beautiful as poems, like “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” “Five Sonnets,” “The Dragon Speaks,” “Reason,” “Re-adjustment,” or “Pilgrim’s Problem” to name a few. In contrast, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” feels flat.
But in its very flatness it speaks to that feeling I get at the end of a long day of talking, teaching, writing: as if my words fall lifeless. It’s a poem of poverty of language, in a way… of being unable to say what I want to say (or even to think it).
As a teacher, a writer, an apologist, I find that it is too easy to think that words and more words, arguments and more arguments, ideas explained and defended, are all that matters. “All my lame defeats” loom large, and at the end of that long day, or week, of defending the faith, of teaching and talking and writing, even “all the victories that I seemed to score”can feel hollow. I enjoy writing and know that I am good at it, yet when I tried to write this piece, the words that came on the first, second, third attempts were facile, shallow, and pathetic. I read them and was depressed in spirit.
But wait – am I even seeing the problem correctly? Lewis’ phrase got under my skin: “From all the victories that I seemed to score” — what I think of as victories and defeats may be something else entirely. Certainly, Lewis says, what may pass as victory could be its opposite: “From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf / At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh; / … deliver me.” But if the world’s idea of victory is unreliable, so too is the world’s (and my) idea of failure.
“Thoughts are but coins” — and words, too — “Let me not trust, instead / Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.” I must remember to look to the Source of the image, not to the image… but I am reminded by Lewis, here, that even while I remember that the coin is not the original, and has no value of its own, yet it still has value in its use. And when my own words feel like a debased currency, I am reminded to take refuge in the liturgy that has rung true over centuries, in words of prayer that the saints have spoken before me and will speak after me.
“From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.”Fair Silence is a gift indeed: the hushing of the over-busy mind, not to say ‘no’ to my work of words and arguments and ideas, but to say ‘peace; rest.’
“Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye, / Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.” The OED defines “trumpery” as “worthless stuff, rubbish, nonsense” with an additional meaning of “showy clothing; worthless finery.” Words and arguments and ideas can become ‘trumpery’ if we mistake the words themselves for the Truth they point toward. Yet I find it significant that Lewis nonetheless describes God in Scriptural phrases that are themselves metaphors: the “narrow gate” and the “needle’s eye.” As human beings, word-bearers, we cannot express ourselves other than in words, we cannot think without images, even while we know that all our images and words are “trumpery” if we think they are true in and of themselves.
It’s a narrow path, a delicate balance. No wonder Lewis ends in a plea. And that honesty, that empty-handed, exhausted prayer for grace, is what in the end makes this poem ring true for me. It is possible to over-think everything, and that includes reflecting on one’s own inadequacy. Lewis reminds me, here, of the depth of God’s grace, always renewed; by that grace, I can rest in being present in the moment as it truly is.

C.S. Lewis, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” in Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964).

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One thought on “Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

  1. Heather M says:

    Thanks for interpreting – else easy to overlook this seemingly drab little poem. But your post made me slow down and notice – I’m especially encouraged that even Lewis grew weary of the the mental and spiritual engagement of apologetics. If all fields have their peculiar dangers, apologetics’ is likely that it lends itself to striving instead of resting. Something Greg Koukl wrote stuck with me: “Take breaks from the battle.” Something that likely requires intention, even scheduling – as in an Evening Prayer. Maybe some apologist-poets will craft some new ones? 🙂

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