Soft Soap and Wishful Thinking

By Austin Jacobs

I rarely remember long quotations in their entirety. When I was in grade school, I memorized dozens of Bible verses, mostly so that I could earn points for my Junior Bible Quiz team. As questionable as my motives may have been at times, I still reap the benefits of having committed these verses to memory years ago.

On the whole, however, I’m a shadow of my elementary-school self. As it stands, I’ve fallen out of practice; my memorization muscles have atrophied.

I also grew up in a tradition in which memorized prayers were foreign, the two notable exceptions being Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer.

Even though I’m not in the habit of memorizing long passages of texts (it’s so easy to just Google it, after all), I can still pick up on the cadence of a phrase here and there. Every once in a while, a bit of a song or poem will pop into my head, usually either because I’ve heard it repeated over and over so that it etches itself into my brain (“earworm” is particularly fitting picture-word here), or because it’s too beautiful and vivid to forget, like the first two lines of Osip Mandelstam’s poem “And I Was Alive”:

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.

In our current series on prayer and in our midweek prayer service, a snippet of a quote—the earworm variety—kept wriggling around in my inner ear. This time, it was C.S. Lewis:

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

Lewis seemed to be particularly fond of this construction, which is perhaps why this statement, or at least the skeleton of its syntax, stuck with me. Here’s Lewis again:

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

These skeletons have rattled around somewhere in the background of my mind as I’ve approached prayer, both individually and corporately, in recent weeks. I have remembered them not because of their content, but because of the way they shape the thought. In other words, it’s not so much what Lewis says in the above quotes that made me remember them, but rather how he says it. I recalled the bare bones of these quotes because they helped me to express a thing I’m learning about prayer:

If I start praying a liturgical, structured prayer, I end up meeting with God regardless of my ability or inability to be eloquent or articulate on a given day; if I start praying my own thoughts, however, I won’t end up communicating anything other than the conversation that is already going on in my head. 

Incidentally, my internal conversation might also be described as “soft soap and wishful thinking in the beginning, and in the end, despair.”

A helpful question for me to ask with regard to prayer, and a question to which prayer at least partially provides the answer, is this: 

Whose cadence am I internalizing? 

Does my own mental back-and-forth shout the loudest and therefore have the final say? Keeping silence for a few minutes in the middle of a busy workweek has a way of mercilessly exposing which thoughts I'm allowing to hum along unnoticed, dictating my attitude and actions. As Lewis puts it, albeit in a much different context,

“If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding.”

A theme we’ve returned to frequently in recent weeks is that prayer has formative power. Praying through liturgy has been an effective way for me to light my cellar, filled as it so often is with the wrong skeletons, earworms, and rats. 

As we learn the contours of prayer, may Christ take shape in us, displacing the darkness.

Christ of sorrow
multiplied by all the hands of country woodcutters
rising always new from their humbleness like dust
growing from their faith like spruces
I pray to you with shriveled fingers
with sawdust shavings
the wise resistance of the wood

(Anna Kamienska, from “Industrious Amazement: A Notebook”)