Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Screwtape Insights

Dear Parish Faithful,

On Sunday, August 22, our Church School-oriented Summer Reading Club met for group discussions of the various age-appropriate books that were chosen and assigned. Participation was somewhat down from previous years but, as always, it proved to be a very enjoyable afternoon session. We would like to thank the Zidarescus for hosting this event. I am certain that our Church School students are avid and capable readers, but this ongoing Summer Reading Club does have them commit to a particular book chosen for its moral and ethical insights into life. I have consistently remained the group leader for the high school students. In recent years, we have read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy (we thought that Tolstoy's War and Peace would be pushing it for a summer book). This past summer, we turned to C. S. Lewis and his well-known book The Screwtape Letters. Classified as a work of "Literature/Religion," this work of Lewis' continues to fascinate readers since its appearance in 1942. To make things simple, here is a synopsis of the book taken from the blurb found on the back cover:

This classic has entertained and enlightened readers the world over with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life and foibles from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to "Our Father Below." At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis gives us the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man. The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging account of temptation - and triumph over it - ever written.

The balance between the "wildly comic" and the "deadly serious" is a good part of the reason why The Screwtape Letters remains so effective to this day. On one hand, life is a "human comedy" precisely because of our very human flaws and weaknesses, through which we make ourselves look foolish and reduce some of our actions to a level deserving of laughter. When a good comedian - those, in my opinion, that shade toward social satire - digs below the surface and brings these foibles to life in an exaggerated manner, we laugh the laughter of recognition. It is much less crude to laugh at our own expense than to laugh at the expense of our "neighbor." In fact, when we can on occasion laugh at ourselves, we can then recognize our own foolishness and flaws, with the opportunity of overcoming these traits based on self-knowledge. Many such passages in The Screwtape Letters provoke the laughter of recognition. As the reader, you will find yourself saying: I react in just that petty and foolish of a manner when facing what amounts to be petty temptations. How ridiculous!

Yet, on the other hand, life is a "deadly serious" drama of sin and redemption; of the struggle between good and evil; of choosing God ... or nothing. Cliche or not, our eternal destiny is being worked out on a daily basis. For the Christian, that is a deadly serious matter. We are engaged in a battle to maintain the integrity of our humanity so as to avoid the dehumanization that eventually pervades a mind and/or society that believes in nothing in particular, let alone the reality of God. This is the basis of tragedy; when a work of literature or philosophy will trace the tragic course of a life overwhelmed by circumstances, poor moral/ethical choices, "inner demons," etc. It is nothing short of tragic when a life that has great potential - every human life created "in the image and likeness of God?" - is squandered by the above factors. For the Christian, that usually means being overcome by temptation and "losing one's soul" in the process. To begin life in an ascending arc toward becoming more fully human (by drawing increasingly closer to God), but ending life in a descent that makes one less than human because of sin and temptation (that moves us further away from God), can only have consequences that are "deadly serious." The Screwtape Letters will force you to think of your own salvation in the face of temptation and some passages can be downright uncomfortable.

To return to the book, I would like to periodically share some of the passages that I found most effective in bringing out that intriguing combination of the "wildly comic" and the "deadly serious." The book is cast as a series of letters from Screwtape, servant of "Our Father Below," to his nephew, Wormwood, on assignment to drag a particular young man's soul down to Hell. For Screwtape, the "Enemy" is Christ! So Screwtape must teach Wormwood to keep his assigned human as far away from Christ in thought and deed as possible. In the process, there are many passages that reveal the "worldview" of the Devil and the "insights" that he has gained into human nature and behavior through tempting human beings from time immemorial. The following passage, I believe, speaks of our own temptation today for reasons I believe you will agree with:

The Enemy has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather.You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is 'finding his place in it," while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him an sense of being really at home in earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.

Some challenging insights from our "Enemy!" There are some concluding thoughts in this particular "letter" that further challenge some of our own ways of looking at "long life" that I will share tomorrow.

Fr. Steven

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