Screwtape Letters Reflection #1
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These reflections are taken from a recent book study Fr. Rob led on C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.
As I read along with you I’m struck by how much Screwtape wants us to rely more on our feelings rather than our reason. You may have heard me say before that feelings are not smart—they just are. There’s nothing wrong with feeling any emotion. An emotion like anger, for instance, is a barometer. It tells us something is wrong. It’s how we respond to the anger we feel that’s most important. That, of course, is a reasoned thought. Screwtape does not want us to get that far. He wants us to focus on the way our emotions make us feel, to focus on the purely sensory. In the first letter, he counsels Wormwood to fix his “patient’s” attention on “the stream of immediate sense experiences. . . . Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’” (p. 2). In the story that follows he describes using a patient’s hunger to distract him from a train of thought that would lead him toward the “Enemy” (as an aside, have you noticed he always capitalizes the first letter of “Enemy”?).
I find many people critique religion as a purely emotional affair, something beneath what a “reasoned” person would take seriously. This doesn’t seem to be Screwtape’s opinion. He wants Wormwood to stay away from reasoned arguments. He even says to stay away from science! I believe that’s because he knows science leads people to awe and wonder. He’s okay with sciences like sociology and economics, presumably because it keeps people focused exclusively on human behavior and “real life.” Lewis tells us in the preface, though, “There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth” (p. IX).
Does this lifting up of human reason surprise you? There is a concept in the Anglican tradition of something we call the “three-legged stool.” It says that the legs our faith rest upon are scripture, tradition, and reason. Reasoned reflection on the experiences of life—which is both intuitive and rational—is, according to the Book of Common Prayer Catechism, part of what it means to be made in God’s image. Being made in God’s image “means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God” (BCP 845). This, I believe, is why Screwtape fears reason. When we use it we are doing what God created us to do. We are living into our true Image. Reasoned responses to life, rather than emotional reactivity, keep us on the path to Screwtape’s “Enemy.”
I’ll leave you with a thought from that wise sage of the ages, Yoda. In Revenge of the Sith Yoda tells Anakin Skywalker, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That is precisely the path that leads Anakin down the path to the dark side of the Force. In my own life I find that reacting to things in anger never leads me down a good path. In my better moments when I feel angry about something I am able to stop and ask myself, “What are you afraid of?” Typically when I’m angry there’s fear lurking in the background. Once I identify what I’m afraid of the anger has done its job—it’s been a barometer to tell me something is wrong. Then, rather than reacting, I can respond. This whole process involves reason. Screwtape doesn’t like it. Not one bit.
How are you feeling today? Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? Remember to HALT before you react from such places. In those moments Screwtape and Wormwood are close at hand.