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TO MARY NEYLAN: On troughs; on believing as an intellectual assent and as a psychological state; the despair of overcoming chronic temptations; and on how God likes to be asked. Lewis discloses that, at the direction of Father Adams, he has shortened an ever-lengthening list of people for whom he was praying.
20 January 1942
Sorry you’re in a trough. I’m just emerging (at least I hope I am) from a long one myself. As for the difficulty of believing it is a trough, one wants to be careful about the word ‘believing’. We too often mean by it ‘having confidence or assurance as a psychological state’—as we have about the existence of furniture. But that comes and goes and by no means always accompanies intellectual assent, e.g. in learning to swim you believe, and even know intellectually that water will support you long before you feel any real confidence in the fact. I suppose the perfection of faith would make this confidence invariably proportionate to the assent.
In the meantime, as one has learnt to swim only by acting on the assent in the teeth of all instinctive conviction, so we shall proceed to faith only by acting as if we had it. Adapting a passage in the Imitation one can say ‘What would I do now if I had a full assurance that there was only a temporary trough’, and having got the answer, go and do it. I a man, therefore lazy: you a woman, therefore probably a fidget. So it may be good advice to you (though it would be bad to me) not even to try to do in the trough all you can do on the peak.
I have recently been advised by Fr. Adams to abbreviate a prayer for other people which was becoming so long (as my circle widens) as to be irksome. I have done so, but kept the longer one on two days a week. Result, that having ceased to be the rule and become a kind of extra, it ceases to be irksome and is often a delight. There is danger in making Christianity too much into a ‘Law’. Let yourself off something. Relax.
I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience et cetera doesn’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of His presence.
The question about Sarah is why she wants not to have to ask the good one to make her good. Would it be right (I know so little about children) to point out to her that He likes being asked: and that if she could be good on her own, taking no notice of Him, that itself wouldn’t be good. But ten to one the 2 sticks were primarily a game . . .
• From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis
• Compiled in Yours, Jack