Screwtape Letters Reflection #3
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These reflections were part of a book study Fr. Rob led on C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.
Most people don’t think of it this way, but Halloween is a feast of the Church. The word “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” aka the evening before All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ is a day to celebrate the heroes of the faith, both known to us and unknown. The day following (Nov. 2) is called “All Souls’ Day,” and celebrates the souls of all the departed.
Like most major Christian holidays such as Christmas or Easter, Halloween has, over time, taken on a life of its own in the wider culture. Because it also has some roots in pagan (meaning, more or less, “country”) Celtic festivals and practices, it’s also taken on themes of a sort of “thin” time when the boundary between the living and the dead becomes porous, allowing spirits both good and bad to cross over. Hence, we see a mixture of costumes in modern celebrations—some are heroes, and others are devils.
When I thought of doing a study of The Screwtape Letters I knew our reading would take us through Halloween. Seeing all the scary decorations and costumes that make up most of the holiday observance makes me wonder what I think about the idea of demons and “satan.” In the preface, Lewis says that “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (p. IX). As with all opposites there is probably a middle ground. I thought for today’s reflection I’d say a little about my own thoughts on the subject.
First, I notice that there is nothing in the Creeds that says a thing about the devil or satan. It’s not a required belief of the faith. That being said, I do know this: evil is real. Temptation is real. That’s not hard for me to believe because it’s merely an evident part of life. I do not, however, believe that there is some figure who is an equal and opposite antithesis to God. That, in fact, is a heresy called Manichaeism. For instance, when you hear some Christians make outlandish statements like, “The dinosaur bones were put there by the devil to trick us,” that’s Manichaeism. It’s heretical because it’s a dualistic theology subscribing some sort of equal creative power to the devil. All evil can ever do is twist creativity and the good to distorted ends. All sin is the twisting of something good.
When it comes to “satan,” that word does not denote a specific character; rather it is a word that means “adversary” or “accuser.” There are many adversaries in life that try to keep us down or distract us from the good; accusers that make us feel shame about ourselves. That, in fact, is exactly how we see Screwtape and Wormwood present themselves: as adversaries of their “Enemy.” They constantly try to create adversarial feelings in their patients. Adversarial feelings toward other people in the church (see letter 2), their family members (see letter 3), etc. Screwtape is an adversary even to Wormwood whom he criticizes regularly.
Are there devils then? We all, as they say, “have our demons.” They need not be little characters in red tights with pitchforks. In fact they’re much more insidious than that, as I’m sure you know from experience, and from recognizing demons present in your own life through the descriptions in these letters. The more important thing to believe in is that there is something more powerful at work in our lives. That is the power of the Spirit, which Jesus calls “the Advocate” or comforter or helper. There are many adversaries in our lives, but the one Advocate is stronger than them all. It is the voice that’s right at the patient’s elbow that Screwtape and his other adversarial partners cannot quite overhear. It’s the voice that encourages us, strengthens us, and reminds us that we are loved, valued, and forgiven. “The Advocate,” Jesus tells us, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, NRSV). The Advocate is the voice that reminds us, even on Halloween, that we have nothing to fear. That is why the angels and Jesus himself so often say in scripture, "Do not be afraid."
Screwtape Letters Reflection #2
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These reflections come from a recent book study led by Fr. Rob of C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters
It’s really easy to get excited about something that is new. Whether it’s new love, or a new workout or diet routine that seems to work for us, or even something as trivial as a new phone. I get excited over new music artists I discover, new books I encounter. No matter what it is, though, there comes a point where the newness wears off. My feelings that waxed about that thing eventually wane and become dry.
I’m reminded of a man I ministered to once. He would regularly lament to me about missing the emotional, spiritual highs he experienced as a child, or the feelings he had as a newly reconverted adult when he entered recovery from alcoholism. He thought that somehow he was deficient in his faith because he couldn’t produce those feelings again. Screwtape says of that kind of thinking, “Set [the patient] to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will-power, and the game is ours” (p. 45).
Screwtape calls this the “law of undulation”—“the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully,” he tells Wormwood, “you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down” (pp. 37-38). He later tells Wormwood, “Do not let [the patient] suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition” (p. 45). This is something that newly married couples, for example, are not always expecting. I tell them love is like striking a match—it flares hot at the beginning, but settles to a steady burn. That burn can feel like dryness sometimes, and that’s normal. Marriages—all relationships, really—require intentionality to sustain them. Too many married couples assume when they encounter dryness that this means they’re “no longer in love.” As wonderful as that feeling that we call “love” is, in the long run it’s actually less of a feeling and more of a choice.
I don’t mean any of this (nor does Lewis, I suspect) to suggest feelings can’t ever be good. They certainly can be. As I mentioned in my last reflection, they are barometers that tell us something about the weather of our lives. Pleasurable feelings, whether emotional or physical, are, as Wormwood rightly notes, “[God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden” (p. 44). That’s all sin is, really. It’s the turning inward of the good things God has created, the twisting and misusing of what is, inherently, good. There are no “bad” pleasures. Just misdirected, misguided ones.
Where are you experiencing the law of undulation in your life right now? Are you at a peak with some things? A trough with others? Screwape says, “Now it may surprise you to learn that in [God’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else” (p. 38). The dry moments are when God most wants us to rely on our faith, and by faith I mean trust. God wants us to trust, but will not force us. God “cannot ravish,” Screwtape says. God “can only woo” (p. 39). Screwtape and his colleauges, however, want only to take our freedom of choice, to make us slaves to our passing emotions, and hence their food.