Archives For Christian Life

Prayers, Barbers & Saints

January 27, 2021 — 14 Comments

Barbers, and hairdressers, play a unique role in society. Let’s consider now two barbers whose interactions with great Christians contributed to our understanding of prayer.

Before we do, however, I wish to share another aspect of C.S. Lewis’ life which parallels many of our own. The great professor and author was exceptional for his knowledge, but in most other ways was just like us.

One example of Lewis’ normalness, is seen in his interactions with barbers. Due to the survival of much of his correspondence, we can witness a perennial tension—the desire of fathers that their sons cut their hair.

As a veteran whose adult son had a ponytail for several years, I understand the frustration of Lewis’ father, the Irish solicitor, when his son Jack lacked diligence in maintaining a neat appearance. In my own case, the die had been cast from my youth. Growing up in the late sixties, I did manage to sport a thick contemporary mane which chafed my own father, but too much of my youth was spent with a crewcut, the haircut-of-choice for my dad, the Marine Corps sergeant.

Presumably, while young Jack was still at home, his parents saw to it his hair was attended to. After his mother Florence’s death, and his move to boarding school, haircuts were a curious recurring theme in Lewis’ correspondence with his “Papy.” Below are a few of young Jack’s passing remarks on the subject.

Today I did a thing that would have gladdened your heart: walked to Leatherhead (for Bookham does not boast a barber) to get my hair cut. And am now looking like a convict (1914).

My dear Papy, Thanks very much for the photographs, which I have duly received and studied. They are artistically got up and touched in: in fact everything that could be desired–only, do I really tie my tie like that? Do I really brush my hair like that? Am I really as fat as that? Do I really look so sleepy? However, I suppose that thing in the photo is the one thing I am saddled with for ever and ever, so I had better learn to like it. Isn’t it curious that we know any one else better than we do ourselves? Possibly a merciful delusion (1914).

I am very sorry to hear that you were laid up so long, and hope that you now have quite shaken it off. I have had a bit of a cold, but it is now gone, and beyond the perennial need of having my hair cut, I think you would pass me as ‘all present and correct’ (1921).

I am afraid this has been an egotistical letter. But it is dull work asking questions which you can’t (at any rate for the moment) give a reply to. You do not need to be told that I hope you are keeping fairly well and that I shall be glad to hear if this is the case. For myself—if you came into the room now you would certainly say that I had a cold and that my hair needed cutting: what is more remarkable: you would (this time) be right in both judgements. Your loving son, Jack (1928)

Lewis’ High Street Barber

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis developed a meaningful relationship with his barber, based on their shared faith. Before we consider an essay inspired, in part, by this friendship, this 1951 letter reveals the affection Lewis held for the man.

My brother joins me in great thanks for all your kindnesses, and especially on behalf of dear little comical Victor Drewe—our barber, as you know.

When he cut my hair last week he spoke in the most charming way of his wife who has just been ill and (he said) ‘She looks so pretty, Sir, so pretty, but terribly frail.’ It made one want to laugh & cry at the same time—the lover’s speech, and the queer little pot-bellied, grey-headed, unfathomably respectable figure.

You don’t misunderstand my wanting to laugh, do you? We shall, I hope, all enjoy one another’s funniness openly in a better world.

Years later, C.S. Lewis would write a profound essay on “The Efficacy of Prayer.”

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too.

But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went.

Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident. . . .

Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come [through a relationship which knows the promiser’s trustworthiness].

There can be no question of tabulating successes and failures and trying to decide whether the successes are too numerous to be accounted for by chance. Those who best know a man best know whether, when he did what they asked, he did it because they asked.

I think those who best know God will best know whether He sent me to the barber’s shop because the barber prayed.

You can read “The Efficacy of Prayer” in its entirety here. Or, should you prefer, you can hear it expertly read here.

The Story of Another Godly Barber

Four centuries before C.S. Lewis honored his barber by forever associating his name with the subject of prayer, the church reformer Martin Luther did the same. Luther’s friend was named Peter, and he lived during an age when skilled barbers also served as surgeons. According to the Barber Surgeons Guild,

The early versions of the Hippocratic Oath cautioned physicians from practicing surgery due to their limited knowledge on its invasive nature.  During the Renaissance, Universities did not provide education on surgery, which was deemed as a low trade of manual nature.

Barber surgeons who were expertly trained in handling sharp instruments for invasive procedures quickly filled this role in society. Barber surgeons were soon welcomed by the nobility and given residence in the castles of Europe where they continued their practice for the wealthy. These noble tradesmen, armed with the sharpest of blades, performed haircuts, surgeries and even amputations.

One church historian describes the Reformation context in an article entitled “Praying with Peter the Barber.”

Early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf became the most famous hairdresser of the reformation. He was Martin Luther’s barber and wrote to the great reformer asking for advice on how to pray.

Peter not only had a reputation as the master barber of Wittenberg, but he had a reputation for godliness and sincerity in his love for the Word of God. He was one of Luther’s oldest and best friends, so his request is not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, is that Luther took the time out of his immensely busy reformation schedule to write him a thirty-four-page reply with theological reflections and practical suggestions about how he ought to approach prayer to the Almighty God.

In “Cutting Hair and Saying Prayers,” a lay theologian describes the focus of Martin Luther’s counsel.

When Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked him how to pray, Luther wrote him an open letter that has become a classic expression of the “when, how, and what” of prayer. It is as instructive today as when it was first penned in 1535. . . .

Luther spends the bulk of his letter discussing what to pray. Implicitly in his letter, Luther teaches that God’s word is the content of our prayers.

Luther graces the beginning of the book with a sincere prayer of blessing. “Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”

In a very interesting essay entitled “Warrior Saints,” a Marquette professor commends the “sweet and practical booklet,” writing that “today this work is justly celebrated as a minor classic that both epitomizes Luther’s spirituality and powerfully suggests what a deep and lasting impact he would make on the lives of his many followers.”

Volume 43 of Luther’s Works includes the treatise. In the collection’s introduction to the document, it includes a heartbreaking event that followed its publication.

Luther wrote the book early in 1535 and it was so popular that four editions were printed that year.

At Easter a tragedy befell Peter. He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a convivial meal the Saturday before Easter, March 27, 1535. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted that he had survived battle because he possessed the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound. Thereupon the old barber, doubtlessly intoxicated, plunged a knife into the soldier’s body to test his boast. The stab was fatal.

Master Peter’s friends, including Luther, intervened for him, and the court finally sent him into exile. . . . He lost all his property and, ruined and impoverished, spent the rest of his life in Dessau.

Such was the sad course of Beskendorf’s life. One can only hope that, as his life itself had been spared, Peter experienced some sort of healing and peace. Such blessings, after all, are often the fruit of prayer.

Luther’s humble essay on prayer remains in print today. If you would like to read or own it for free, I have found a London edition entitled The Way to Prayer.

One caveat, which might trouble some readers: since the translation was published in 1846, it employs the “medial S,” the one that looks more like a lower case “F.”* Whichever edition you choose to read, you will not be disappointed.


* The medial S is sometime referred to as the long S. You can read about its history in this interesting article.

The history of S is a twisting, turning path. Until around the 1100s or so, the medial S was the lowercase form of the letter, while the curvy line we use today was the uppercase form. But over time, the regular S, technically known as the “round S” or “short S,” started being used as a lowercase letter, too.

By the 1400s, a new set of S usage rules was established: The medial S would be used at the beginning of a lowercase word or in the middle of a word, while the round S would appear either at the end of a word or after a medial S within a word, as in “Congreſs” (which appears in the first line of Article I of the Constitution).

Books C.S. Lewis Loved

April 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

csl booksThose of us who admire C.S. Lewis respect his words on many subjects, not least of which would include literary matters. He was, after all, both a gifted writer and a professor teaching related subjects at two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

In 1962 The Christian Century asked him to list the ten titles most influential in his professional and philosophical life. (Most of these are available as free downloads on the internet.)

1. Phantastes by George MacDonald

2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

3. The Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Temple by George Herbert

5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour

The following year Lewis was interviewed by Sherwood Wirt, longtime editor of Decision magazine. (Decision is published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and you can learn more about the publication here.)

During his interview, Wirt focused on spiritual rather than professional benefits from books Lewis had found beneficial.

Sherwood Wirt: What Christian writers have helped you?

C.S. Lewis: The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Others are Edwyn Bevan’s book, Symbolism and Belief, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and the plays of Dorothy Sayers.

Fortunately all of these titles are readily available for those who would like to explore works that influenced Lewis’ conversion and Christian growth. Let’s briefly consider them in the order Lewis cited them.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer. Just how prolific, one might ask. Well, he wrote approximately eighty books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of short stories and about 4,000 essays. His works continue to inspire many today, and merit contemporary reading.

Chesterton shared many of the same values as Lewis, and preferred calling himself an “orthodox” Christian rather than adhering to denominational labels. (In this he foreshadows Lewis’ invaluable emphasis on “mere” Christianity.)

The Everlasting Man was published in 1925 and ponders the universal significance of Jesus Christ. It was composed in reaction to The Outline of History, in which H.G. Wells paints Jesus as just one more political agitator in a political backwater of the Roman empire. Honestly, he does describe him as being remarkable, but mostly in terms of having a charismatic persona.

Lewis said that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “baptised” his intellect, which is no small expression of praise.

You can purchase The Everlasting Man through normal channels or download a free text format version at this site. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, you can obtain a free audio copy of the volume here.

Edwyn Robert Bevan (1870-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who specialized in the Hellenistic world.

In Symbolism and Belief, based on a series of lectures presented in 1933-34, Bevan discusses major religious symbols and metaphors. He illustrates how figurative language is best capable of describing spiritual truth. He argues that the greater precision offered by philosophical terminology is actually counterproductive in this quest.

The volume offers insight into the rationality of religious faith, although it concludes with his conviction that it ultimately boils down to a genuine encounter with God—“what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of the Divine.”

Symbolism and Belief is available for free download in a variety of formats at this site.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian. He spent most of his ministry teaching at one of the most prominent seminaries in the world, the University of Marburg Divinity School.

In The Idea of the Holy Otto espoused the concept that the things of God were “numinous.” He defined this as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” The word itself was derived from the Latin numen which refers to divine power.

Otto explains how the numinous is a mystery (mysterium) that is simultaneously terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). C.S. Lewis found the notion of the numinous particularly useful in his book, The Problem of Pain.

The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational is available in multiple formats here.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was a personal friend of C.S. Lewis. In a 1963 letter he wrote: “She was the first person of importance whoever wrote me a fan letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally.”

Sayers was an extremely successful English writer. Her versatility allowed her renown to grow as a poet, playwright, essayist and as a writer of popular detective mysteries. She was also a classicist, and regarded her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her finest work.

Fortunately, four of her plays are available in a collection available here. They include “The Zeal of Thy House,” “The Devil to Pay,” “He That Should Come,” and “The Just Vengeance.” And, although you can’t download the file, if you would like to stream the recording, an audio version of her famous “The Man Born to be King” is available here.

In our last conversation, we considered the importance of friendship. It is truly a precious treasure. And it soothes the loneliness that scars our souls as a result of humanity’s fall.

Choosing to live our own lives, apart from our heavenly Father, has damaged every other relationship we experience. Our bonds with other human beings, even our own families, are twisted and stretched . . . sometimes beyond the breaking point. Even our relationship with nature has suffered, but that’s a subject for consideration some other day.

One of the temptations that arises from our desire for companionship, is that we settle for having it on the wrong terms, with the wrong people. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people.”

In such circumstances, it seems to me you experience the trappings of “friendship,” without touching its essence. It’s hollow. For the moment, it may appear and sound similar to the real thing, but when the alcohol wears off and the consequences of our poor choices cascade upon us, it becomes evident this version of friendship was merely a façade.

Simply put, we are wise to avoid bad “friendships.”

It dawned on me when I was teaching at the USAF Chaplain School just how much other people influence my behavior. No one who knows me would call me weak or pliable. And anyone attempting to manipulate me would likely fail. (Aside from my grandchildren, of course.)

Yet, when I spend lots of time around people with worldly values and behaviors, it very subtlety influences my own actions. I recognize it most clearly when it comes to language. As a military veteran who used to work in construction, my tongue knows how to utter a worldly phrase or two. Normally, it’s reined in fairly well in that regard, but if I’m immersed for very long in an “earthy” environment, some of those words unconsciously slip back into my own conversation.

I realize that “cussing” or cursing may seem a small sin to some, but let’s consider a more substantial example. When someone is delivered from addiction to drugs—a process that frequently requires lengthy treatment—one of the critical ways to protect them from returning to the slavery of addiction, is by keeping them away from their so-called friends who remain captive to drugs.

If they restore those destructive bonds, they are like apostates, who have known the truth but later denied their Savior. As the Apostle Peter says, “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:21-22, ESV).

When I realized how susceptible I was to the behavior of others, I determined to seek out people who were better than me. Men and women who would bring out the best in me. People, especially, who excelled in virtues and traits in which I was conscious of my own shortcomings.

This is a principle I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Choose as friends those who are noble, virtuous, selfless, loving, and godly. You will never regret it.

Lewis provides for us an insightful description of how our friendships or overall community of relationships influence us. He is discussing here our universal tendency to justify bad behavior because “everyone is doing it.”

We must guard against the feeling that there is “safety in numbers.” It is natural to feel that if all men are as bad as the Christians say, then badness must be very excusable. If all the boys plough [fail] in the examination, surely the papers must have been too hard? And so the masters at that school feel till they learn that there are other schools where ninety per cent of the boys passed on the same papers. Then they begin to suspect that the fault did not lie with the examiners. Again, many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society—some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (“Everyone does it”) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and Quixotic [chivalrous].

But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our “normal” was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our “Quixotic” was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency. What had seemed to us morbid and fantastic scruples so long as we were in the “pocket” now turned out to be the only moments of sanity we there enjoyed. It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).

Here is an interesting and valuable exercise: pause and conduct a mental and spiritual survey of the influences your individual friends exert on you. If you find they help you grow in ways that are positive, you are fortunate. If they influence you in ways that are unhealthy, maybe it’s time for some relationship pruning.

All of this discussion leaves unconsidered the role we play in bringing out the best (or worst) in our friends. Then again, if they truly are our friends, there is nothing else we could ever wish for them than the very, very best.