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.