(It is the 55th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death today. I will celebrate with turkey, stuffing, pie, and an earnest attempt to recover yet another Lewisian quote from its tangled and tortured digital revision.)
Most Lewis misquotes are multiplicitous, appearing hither and yon throughout the interwebbed cosmos. Some of the internet’s favorite snips of non-Lewisian blather are:
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” (Gah.)
“True humility is not thinking of yourself less; it is thinking less of yourself.” (Ack.)
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” (Meh.)
Anyone who has ever read Lewis seriously will recognize these phrases as thoroughly non-Lewisian. The thought of him speaking or writing any of these vapid platitudes is ludicrous. Lamentable, even.
But I was recently sent a Lewis misquote that I’d not seen before. The subject line of the email read:
Did CS Lewis say “May the real me meet the real you”
The appalling grammar was proof enough of misquotation. (Grammar isn’t a mystery. Break the sentence down to its simplest elements: “May me meet you.” Indeed. Cough.) A quick web search showed the fuller misquote to be as follows: “The prayer that precedes all prayers is may the real me meet the real you.” The appalling punctuation was additional proof of misquotation. (Where does the quote within the quote begin and end?) But it provided enough context for me to consult a real book, written by the real Lewis, that sits upon a real shelf in my real office, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
After a frenzied textual search, I began typing my response, with gusto, while gritting my teeth:
Did CS Lewis say this? Absolutely not. It doesn’t sound even remotely like him. It’s trite syrup that drips of 21st-century populist-speaker-writer-religion centered around supernaturally vulnerable friendships. Ack.
It is similar to something Lewis actually wrote in Letters to Malcolm. The social media misquote makes it sound as though Lewis is concerned with people being completely open and honest with each other – no masks, no false selves, no posturing, no faking, blah blah blah.
But the original quote – the real quote – is concerned with the fact that in prayer, we are trying to place ourselves in the very presence of God, while also existing amongst earthly realities (i.e. four walls of the room in which we sit, our own physical self, our feeble attempts at introspection) that are both “real” but also very far from being ‘rock-bottom realities’. Until we realize and even experience that truth, our prayers are mere chatter that often entirely miss the actual intersection of Creator and created.
The real quote appears in letter XV, which deals with such things as dramatic constructions of realities, questions of ontology, the façade of consciousness, the confrontation of subject and object, and surprising theophany. You can find it in the final paragraph. It reads thus, with the prefacing context:
“The attempt is not to escape from space and time and from my creaturely situation as a subject facing objects. It is more modest: to re-awake the awareness of that situation. If that can be done, there is no need to go anywhere else. This situation itself is, at every moment, a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground; the Bush is burning now.
“Of course this attempt may be attended with almost every degree of success or failure. The prayer preceding all prayers is, ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.'”
– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, 1964), pp. 81-82.
There is nothing here about masks, false identities, curated selves, vulnerable friendships, or other social-psycho-theological deconstructionist babble.
For those who care about such things, I’d suggest reading the whole of letter XV and the entire book in order to understand the full intent and to enjoy the complete discourse.
That’s usually the best way to read a nuanced text and a brainy author. Misquoted snippet phrases overlaid on angsty photos is not.