Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Little reunion with Screwtape

Now and then, I 'take a break' from authors with whose work I have been acquainted over many years. I studied C. S. Lewis' at great length some time ago, and such a break is necessary to read them with a fresh perspective. Even the New Testament or Francis of Assisi can become 'stale' when we've read them so often that we feel we know them backwards.

Today was one of my periodic "retreat days," a bonus I give myself when I've been rather tense or preoccupied. I enjoyed looking around at what is left of flowers and autumn foliage, and re-read The Screwtape Letters. This always was my favourite Lewis work, perhaps because it encapsulates such insight and wisdom, and because, for the most part, it lacks the dreary side which Lewis' books often had. (My loving much of them does not mean I cannot see the misery - and Franciscan jesters, with the Mediterranean flair for a laughter which might be seen as close to irreverent in northern Europe, aren't much ones for the dualism that creeps into the father of Narnia and dismal treatises on suffering.)

Most of my readers undoubtedly are familiar with Screwtape, but I'll provide a brief synopsis - which certainly cannot do it justice, but may whet the potential readers' appetite for more. (It's a deliciously witty and insightful volume.) Screwtape is a well seasoned devil, with years of temptation experience, who writes a series of letters to fledgling demon Wormwood. The inexperienced Wormwood has been assigned to divert a young man, who recently embraced Christianity, from his religious convictions and any budding practise of virtue. Screwtape reminds Wormwood of how to confuse and discourage a human - not in such a blatant fashion as to tempt him to rob a bank (why tempt those? they are already in Satan's pocket), but with despair, vanity, a sense of losing faith when the 'honeymoon is over' spiritually, wanting esteem from others, seeing humility as self hatred and the like. Naturally, every Christian has such experiences in different fashions, but I doubt a one of us would not recognise the tactics which Screwtape urges.

There is much of great richness in "The Screwtape Letters," and I'm not about to cite many examples, lest I spoil a first reading for anyone. I would, however, like to explore a reference which is a sample of how the evil ones work (and, unlike C. S. Lewis, who saw fallen angels as responsible for everything from temptation to natural disasters, I believe that many of the 'evil ones' are tendencies within ourselves. [Note: I am not referring here to Screwtape itself, which I see as mainly a commentary on our weaknesses. I need to look up where Lewis referred to fallen angels meaning that literally...] The more devout one is, the more these weaknesses may masquerade as angels of light.) My readers will have noticed by now that two pet peeves of mine are distorted images of humility and detachment - the genuine articles are priceless, but the counterfeit likely to infect the soul. Here is Screwtape on detachment (and remember it's a demon writing - "The Enemy" is God.)

"And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed him to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks to his friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there... In other words, you have allowed him two real, positive Pleasures. Were you not so ignorant as to see the danger of this? ... How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? Didn't you foresee that it would just kill be contrast all the trumpery which you have been so laboriously teaching him to value?... As a preliminary to detaching him from the Enemy, you wanted to detach him from himself... Now, all that is undone.

Of course I know that the Enemy also wants to detach men from themselves, but in a different way. Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When he talks of their losing their selves, he only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, he really gives them back of their personality, and boasts (I am afraid sincerely) that when they are wholly his they will be more themselves than ever....

The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained..."

It occurs to me that, too often in religious training of any kind (books, sermons, whatever), we were taught to fear, rather than value, who we really are. We could even receive the impression that, if Jesus exhorted us to love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves, somehow we'd best not love that self very much.

My prayer, for myself and my readers, today is that we cherish who we are, and that God gives us the grace to be as real as we can be.

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