My Dearest Hemlock: On Prayer

My dearest Hemlock,

Your questions about what to “do with yourself” while the patient is praying shows me where you are—you know less than I thought and have not the instincts I had hoped.

What to do with yourself? What to do with yourself? How is it you allowed the patient to be praying in the first place? Do you imagine prayer time is your quick break in between real activity? Of all the times to know that you’re on duty, the palpable presence of the Enemy during prayer should have alerted you that you were on the battlefield! And you stand in a corner, abashed, utterly overcome, wondering “what to do with yourself!”

You must never let this happen again.

Your girl is a new Christian. You might think the Enemy would put some kind of introductory packet into their hands, or that he might have instituted a standard orientation process, so that every Christian would join His ranks with the same training and the same toolkit.

But apparently, the Enemy has never understood the value of efficiency.

Instead, he brings the vermin into his ranks in a motley assortment of ways, and none of them know the way up, half the time, when they begin. Some of them stumble into His church and hear the Book read and preached, some speak to a friend and are brought by degrees to become interested in the Enemy, some read books, some know the Enemy from childhood. And some, if you can believe it, literally hear a preacher on the street and turn aside to listen—what abominable sheep these creatures are!

So the unfortunate thing about this assortment of Christians is that they make for lots of good and individual stories, which (if the Enemy has his way) they’ll be able to mull over and wonder at for eternity, while sitting around at some eternal wedding feast (or so He pictures it, no doubt).

But the nice thing about this chaotic process of minion-making is that we come upon many in His camp who know absolutely nothing yet.

And our job is to delay knowledge, so far as lies with us.

So it is with prayer. Your girl only just became a Christian; she doesn’t know much about prayer, and the nice thing about this season in the Western church is that no Christian has looked her in the eye and said “You should learn to pray.” Fewer and fewer Christian women feel the liberty to say things like that to each other at all (a gorgeous move on Commander Hoaxrot’s part!).

Until this century, Christians were always assumed to be learning to pray. It was a matter of course that there would be some work in it, that it was done by normal Christians everywhere, and that there would be some repetition in the learning of it. People used to use phrases like “say your prayers,” which to todays’ human ears is dreadfully wooden.

No, today’s Christians are holding out for something better than just saying their prayers. They intend their prayers to be very heartfelt, very well said, and very long. And while they are waiting for such prayers to overtake them, they can often be induced not to pray at all.

And when I say “induced,” don’t imagine that you’re sitting at the girl’s ear, whispering “don’t pray, don’t pray, don’t pray, don’t pray.” What a silly notion! Obviously the best way to keep a woman from praying is not to draw her attention TO prayer, but away from it. You must never let her ask the obvious question of whether she should pray, and if so, when.

It is generalities we thrive on here, Hemlock. We don’t care how often she resolves to “pray more;” we don’t care how many friends she promises, “I’ll pray for you.” Just see that she doesn’t allow structure into her life that will put her through the early years of not yet really liking to pray, and not yet feeling like she’s “good” at it.  In short, just see she doesn’t actually do the praying.

The humans never think of the importance of just showing up and doing a thing—they like to think instead about the methods, the long vision of what it would be like if they were prayer warriors, the image of a truly saintly woman who has prayed fervently all her life to great effect. They want to be “the sort of person” who prays, without ever noticing that in order to be a praying person, she must get up, this morning, and pray in that slot of time that she’s already using to read the Enemy’s Book.

About this Book reading thing—I won’t mention the penalties you already must have experienced when you allowed that pernicious behavior to settle into habit so early. I shouldn’t wish to embarrass you.

But I will tell you, by way of encouragement (and motivation!) that in the world this woman lives in, reading the Enemy’s Book is rather passé. It’s a matter of course. She’s a reader, in a “readerly” sort of community. Most churches you’ll work in will have one of two emphases: either they will emphasize the Book, the reading and understanding and study of it—or they will emphasize the encounters with the Father to be had through the Holy Spirit in the name of the Son. Studious vs. spiritual, you might say.

You may think it matters little which emphasis our girl and her church tends to, because they’re both pernicious and hateful to us. But the fact is, we must understand the direction she leans, because that is how we design our attack modes.

In the case of your girl, she is probably going to get into a long term habit of Bible reading.

But she will be weak in her knowledge of the Holy Spirit. And the effects of this can be greatly mitigated if we can discourage prayer. Prayer is the key to combining the power of a Book well-read with a relationship built; it is the beginning of the end for our work with this girl. Do not let it happen.

The best prayer is no prayer. That is the place to begin; she must not be allowed to notice that many of the women she admires for their gentle spirit, patience, service, and diligence in love—the women bearing pernicious fruit, in other words—are women who pray in their closets. She can’t see them pray in their closets, so only a poll would give her this information.

She has begun attending a prayer meeting at her church—the sort we abhor. You have doubtless experienced the effects—the weakness, the inertia that we experience in these kinds of meetings. Not to mention the smell.

Perhaps this is the reason you had your little misunderstanding about her private prayer time—you thought you could stand against the wall until it was over, because you thought that because she intended one morning to pray while reading her Bible, that she’d actually do it, and actually sustain her attention long enough to complete a thought in her bedroom alone. You thought you were already in the middle of a lost cause.

But as of now, her praying in the group is entirely different than her praying at home. This is how she has already begun to suspect her motives (fine if it further incapacitates her prayer). She is nervous and embarrassed to pray in the group; she knows she’ll sound like someone who doesn’t know how (because she doesn’t). But she does it anyway—she prays. She finishes a sentence; she goes through odious motions of praise and petition, of thanks and perhaps even a bit of confession.

But never fear, dearest! You think this means she might start doing this sort of thing in her bedroom? Not if we can help it. She doesn’t know yet that just the act of whispering her prayers aloud will at least make it clear when she’s stopped praying and started daydreaming. And if you can keep that clarity from reaching her, you’ll have nothing to fear from her little “prayer” times. They will soon cease. She won’t be able to sustain something that has no beginning or end, or clear aim; no one can.

And so her prayer life will subside into the kind we like best (if it MUST happen): prayerful feelings, attempted on the run or in passing, mustered by emotion, need, or guilt and never expected to do much.

Nonspecific requests are the best kind—that way the humans never have to wrestle with why the Enemy said ‘no’, and they’ll always wonder if He’s ever said ‘yes’. They’ll never trust a beam that hasn’t held their weight before, and as long as they never test its weight by standing on it, the beam will forever remain untrustworthy to them.

Prayer is her connection to the Enemy. This is one of the ways the Book comes alive to her, one of the ways the Enemy applies it to her heart and directs her paths. Not to mention the help he gives through the prayer, right in the moment—and we are powerless to intercept! How many wounds have been struck to one of our allies because of the sudden, unexpected movement toward prayer by a vermin who never looked a threat towards us in his life!

That’s the awful thing, the disadvantage we are all under: He’s trying to actually know them and to have them know Him; He makes it so very easy for them! He gave them the words and everything—The Enemy’s Prayer (despicably simple! But it attacks us on every front), all those horrible Psalms, with enough of the human emotional claptrap in it to prove to these animals that the Enemy responds with genuine feeling to theirs!

Our only hope in the face of these threats is to distract. They are rich in the resource of prayer, stupendously rich, but as one of their writers said, our aim is to make them “live poor.”

She must never suspect that prayer is a discipline which will lead to joy. She expects the joy to motivate the beginning of the discipline, but if she thought about it for even a moment she’d see that nothing she ever had to practice was like that. She had to run, before she could enjoy running. She had to sound out words before she could enjoy reading. She had to say nice things to her husband this morning before she suddenly began to feel nice things toward him (this last isn’t precisely the same, but more on this later).

She simply cannot be allowed to plug disciplined prayer into life as a new Christian—it would derail most of your best efforts from here on out. Don’t worry! It’s not as hard as it sounds. Few of her friends pray; they don’t know that they don’t pray, but they don’t. She can be brought to accept this normalcy as a matter of course. “Disciplined prayer is for mature Christians!”—she can be made to believe this with little effort.

If she remains with the enemy for very long, she’s bound to pick up on prayer eventually. You can’t prevent it forever. But delay, delay—delay the inevitable, my dear Hemlock, as long as you can. Most of our best work consists in delaying the inevitable.


Madam Helvetius


P.S. Try to prevent her praying on her knees. Harder to “peter out” the prayer without her knowing.

P.P.S. Take care she never acquires the dreadful habit one of my patients picked up—it spread like a sickness through most of her social circle. We enjoy having the humans promise to pray for each other… as long as they never do it. Your girl will have already learned to say “I’ll pray for you” at the close of a Christiany conversation. As a meaningless but very sincere closer, it almost ensures forgetfulness and later, vague guilt for a broken promise. But the pernicious habit one of my patients took up was of praying with the person right then and there! It was ghastly, and once set into motion, unstoppable. We looked on in consternation as her friends started doing the same.

P.P.S. I can see, reading over this letter, I made a statement that may expose me to unpleasant assumptions on your part. When I said that much of our work is in delay—and that often this is the delay of the inevitable—it may have sounded like I was talking about our Great Cause. But I was most certainly not talking about that; I was talking about the particulars of temptation, not of the Great War! And if you try to report any of this to the Intelligence Below I think you can see you’ll be disappointed; my statements are always vetted for accuracy. (Not that you would!! Lol Xoxoxoxoxoxo)

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