Prayer, Oswald Chambers, and Victorian Literature

I was recently privileged to spend an afternoon listening to papers and reflections on the life and work of Oswald Chambers, most well known as the writer of My Utmost for His Highest. Something that many of the presenters noted was Chambers’ insistence that “prayer does not equip us for greater works— prayer is the greater work. Yet we think of prayer as some commonsense exercise of our higher powers that simply prepares us for God’s work . . . prayer is the battle, and it makes no difference where you are.”

With this in mind, I came across a delightful op-ed by Rohan Maitzen in the LA Times. Maitzen argues that studying literature offers “the thrill of discovering what words can do, and of thinking hard about what they mean. Literature is not just a means to other ends. Like all art, it deserves attention for its own sake — and also for ours. Literature is the record of the many stories we have told about ourselves and our world, and of the many ways we have found to use language artfully and beautifully, but also cruelly and obtusely. It both reflects us and shapes us. We don’t need any excuses for taking it seriously . . . even if this isn’t a winning strategy, at least we would be advocating for our classes in a principled way, rather than trying to convince people that they should study George Eliot to practice their teamwork.” Read the rest here.

I’m certainly not equating praying with reading literature, although I believe that both are worth doing and can even push us toward the true and beautiful.  Rather, I was struck by how our current cultural ethos attempts to ruthlessly instrumentalize things that are inherently worth doing.

I end my thoughts with a quote from C.S. Lewis in his important, but under-appreciated, book An Experiment in Criticism.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

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