The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters
By C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, in what is now Northern Ireland and died on November 22, 2963, in Oxfordshire, England.  He was a ‘a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University’ [1]  He wrote more than thirty books including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.

The Screwtape Letters was originally published serially in a British religious newspaper, The Guardian, in 1941 [2]. It was then published as a novel the following year.  Another version, expanded to include the essay ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’, was published in 1962.  The work is dedicated to Lewis’ friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other works.

The Screwtape Letters is a classic in Christian literature. It is written as a series of instructional letters by an experienced demon, Screwtape, to his neophyte protégé and  nephew, Wormwood, who is tasked with securing the soul of his ‘patient’, a man who has recently converted to Christianity.

The novel is ironic, often funny, sometimes difficult, and always insightful.  Insightful in its examination of  human behavior,  in its observation of the  myriad ways in which human beings are constantly buffeted by gusts of good and evil, in the ways in which we succumb to temptations  and are victorious  when deciding on the good. In the 209 pages of The Screwtape Letters and the addendum, ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’, it is safe to say that there is not a phrase, not a word that is wasted or superfluous.  Like another masterpiece, Mere Christianity, this novel is densely packed with penetrating intuition and practical suggestions for fighting the daily battles faced by everyone who has made a decision to live a Christian life—as well as those who haven’t.

Each chapter is an epistle from Screwtape to Wormwood, often in response to an earlier report by the protégé on the work on his patient.  The chapters are for the most part self-contained, addressing some aspect of human thought, behavior and relationships—aspects of humanity that are presented as a spiritual battleground for the demons on one hand, and the’ Enemy’ on the other.

To clarify the terminology used in the novel: ‘The Enemy’ is in reality God. The Devil is referred to as ‘Our Father’, Hell is ‘Our Father’s house’, and the ‘patient’ is the person whose soul Wormwood is attempting to secure.

There are several overarching themes Screwtape reiterates to Wormwood throughout the work, including:

  • Keeping the patient focused on himself, not on the Enemy
  • Keeping yourself hidden, and not let him be aware of your influence on him.

The headings that are used in this article are unique to individual chapters, but they are not chapter titles; they are given only to summarize my impressions and take-aways from the chapters.

The Universal vs. the Ordinary

Wormwood is instructed to keep the patient’s mind from universal issues and focused instead on more immediate ones, more ‘real world’ issues. Universal issues bring with them the danger of reason, which Screwtape seems to be arguing, is more favorable to the Enemy than it is to the devil.  ‘Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago’ he writes, ‘they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes, p2.

Becoming a Christian

After becoming a Christian one can become smug, even arrogant at his new found position. This is probably not unusual.  One may go to church and silently compare himself to those in church he has heretofore avoided, or whom he has had a low opinion.   The euphoria of becoming a Christian collides violently with the reality of his physical surroundings at his church. As a result his church experience can be anti-climactic, leading to a sense of disappointment.   To turn the patient away from the Enemy and towards the Father Wormwood is instructed to work hard on that sense of disappointment or anticlimax, p7

My take-away: this is the demon’s opening, when the novelty of the new lifestyle wears off, and the hard work of being a Christian begins.

Relationship with Family

A recurring theme of the novel is how the ‘ordinariness’ of life works to impede our spiritual growth, without us even knowing it.  The patient is encouraged to concentrate on large ‘spiritual’ things, encouraged to believe that these are the ‘important’ things. However it is the small annoyances that will stunt his spiritual growth.

Now that he is a Christian the patient is more susceptible to minor annoyances of his mother, of those in his household. ‘Keep in that house a good settled habit of mutual annoyance, daily pinpricks’, Screwtape advises, p11

Methods for doing this:

  • Keep his mind on his inner life – keep his mind on a spiritual (i.e. important) life and neglect the basics
  • Ensure his prayers are ‘’spiritual’, not necessarily practical. This produces two results: First, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, which may be any of her actions. Second, he will in fact be praying for an imaginary person, which in time will represent less and less the real one. His prayers, then, will not flow over into his treatment of her.
  • Work on facial expressions and tones of voice that are irritating to the other
  • Have the patient expect that his words should be accepted at face value, whereas he refuses to do the same for the mother. The mother should be encouraged to do the same by her ‘handler’, pp11-14.

Prayer

It is best for the devil that the patient does not pray at all. But if this is not practical prayer can be manipulated by having the patient turn his gaze away from the Enemy and to themselves.

  • Have them struggle to manufacture their own feelings, rather than rely on the Enemy. For example when they are praying for courage ‘let them really be trying to feel brave. When they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven’, p 17.
  • Encourage prayer to a ‘composite object’, something distinct from the real God, then the demon’s task is a lot easier. If the patient is able to make the distinction between the composite objects, the manufactured representations of God, then he will have displayed a true search for God, as opposed to resting on his own strength, his own manufactured image of God, p 18

War

The novel was written during the Second World War. The experience of war can actually be beneficial to the Christian (and a disadvantage for the demons) in that one’s attention can be diverted from themselves and towards causes that are higher than themselves, p 23.

For the demons war can have the following undesirable effects:

  • The tribulation of war may cause men and women to turn towards the Enemy or at the very least have their attention turned from themselves and to the Enemy, p23
  • War takes away one of the demon’s ‘best weapons’: contented worldliness, for in wartime, ‘not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever’, p 24

My take-away: This illustrates another recurring theme in the book: that focusing inwards, constantly focusing inwards, can actually divert your attention from God and stunt one’s Christian growth.

 ‘Undulation’: Peaks and Troughs

Humans are half spirit and half animal. This creates an inherent conflict. Their spirits can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy is ‘undulation’—they repeatedly return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.

As long as [the patient] lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. This is not a result of spiritual impact from the devil but a natural aspect of being a human being.

The Screwtape Letters argues, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the periods during which there is greatest opportunity for spiritual growth {towards the Enemy} is in fact those times of spiritual dryness—especially when, during this time, the individual still seeks to do the will of God. Screwtape writes: ‘Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have  vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys,
pp 37-40

Spiritual Dryness – How to Exploit the Dryness

Even though the periods of spiritual dryness provides a great opportunity for spiritual growth, it can also provide a good opportunity for the devil himself. The troughs provide an excellent opportunity for sensual temptations, particularly sex. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty.  Times like these are good for fostering other desires of the flesh, like drunkenness, pp 43-44

The troughs can be exploited through the patient’s own thoughts. Exploiting the dryness through thought depends on the type of patient, namely if he is a despondent type, or hopeful one. If he is tempted to despair the demon’s task is easy: keep him out of the way of experienced Christians. If he’s hopeful, then make him acquiesce to the low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all.  Try to make him a ‘moderate’ Christian, for a moderated religion is as good as no religion at all, pp 44-46.

Another way to exploit the dryness is to attack his faith. Get him to believe that the dry phase will be permanent, and persuade him that his religious phase is just going to die away like all his previous phases, p 46

Acquaintances

The best acquaintances, from the devil’s point of view, are: rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world, p 49

So the advice to Wormwood is to delay as long as possible the realization that his faith is in direct opposition to the new acquaintances, p 50.

My take-away: this argument is simply ‘go along to get along’.  We are all encouraged to perhaps tamp down on our beliefs when in the company of contemporaries who may not share the faith. This is probably much more apropos in what some may call the  ‘politically correct’ era of 2015 than it was seventy years earlier when Lewis first put these thoughts on paper.

So how is the patient supposed to function in a society, among friends and acquaintances, who are at odds with his new found faith?  First, persuade him to live two different lives:  one, a true life of spirituality, the other, the life that is acceptable to his friends. Second, he can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that while the two sides of his life are inconsistent, they are in fact necessary. For instance he can kneel ‘beside the grocer in church’, knowing that the grocer would not understand the work of the ‘urbane and mocking world he inhabited on Sunday evening’. Or just as effectively, he can sit with the bawdy and mocking world of his other friends, secure in the knowledge that only he in that group is aware of a deeper ‘spiritual’ world which they would not understand.  Finally, if all else fails, the patient can be convinced that quitting the new circle of friends would be ‘priggish’, ‘intolerant’ and ‘puritanical’, pp 51-52.

Separation from the Enemy

The slow and subtle separation from the Enemy is another tool in the devil’s arsenal.  Screwtape and Wormwood have introduced to the patient a subtle course away from the Enemy. The trick is to have the patient not realize what has happened.

Screwtape states the ploy in this way:

We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space, p 57.

As long as he’s maintaining his external habits he can be made to feel that he is still at the same joyous Christian state that he was at when he was converted.  As a result going to church and being a ‘communicant’ is actually a benefit to the demons.

The flowering of this complacency– this slow drift away from the Enemy– is an increase in the patient’s reluctance to think of the Enemy. In this state he will not only neglect but actually ‘dislike’ his religious duties, and ultimately dread effective contact with Him, p58

This state of mind will eventually lead to unhappiness and his attention will naturally wander. He will waste his time and engage in conversation, not only with those he likes, but with people he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. As this condition becomes more commonplace, Wormwood’s tasks of temptation will not be needed as much, p 59.

My take-away: at this point the patient’s Christian growth will not only be stunted but may very well be on the path to shriveling up and dying.

 ‘God Given’ Pleasures

This chapter discusses the ‘real pleasures’ of life, which is obtained by getting in touch with your ‘real self’.  In this example, the patient accomplishes this by reading a good book and undertaking the simple task of going for a walk through countryside that he enjoyed.

Screwtape relates to Wormwood:

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; even in things indifferent it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human’s own likings and dislikings, pp 65-66

The patient renewing his discovery of his ‘real self’ is an utter disaster for Screwtape and Wormwood. How to recover from the calamity?   Prevent him from turning this ‘pleasure’ into ‘action’, p66. The best thing is for him to simply ‘feel’ and not act. Inactivity is the best antidote to the ‘real’ pleasures he has experienced by ‘coming home’. ‘The more often he ‘feels’ without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel, p67

My take-away: To truly enjoy ‘God’s pleasures, you require a fundamental understanding of yourself. What provides ‘real’ fundamental pleasure? Is it going for a quiet walk and experiencing nature, seeing a good movie,  enjoying the company of  those you love and  those who love you—or is it ‘enjoying’  what  our society tells us we should enjoy: expensive clothes, fast cars or  big houses?  Is it something that provides a sense of inner peace and wellness, or is it something to satisfy our perception of what pleasure is supposed to do for us?

Humility

The patient displays symptoms of ‘humility’.  A simple and genuine humility is pleasing to the Enemy and alarming for the demons.  The way in which Wormwood should reverse this development describes the trap in which many of us fall, without even knowing it: developing a sense of pride in our humility.  In 2015 this is something we hear almost daily:  a man or a woman bravely foils a violent crime, or maybe an act of terrorism, and he or she is automatically (and rightly) lauded for his or her humility. An athlete is called out as a hero for scoring the winning goal in football/ soccer game, and he or she is expected to eschew the praise and draw attention to his or her team-mates. How much of this is genuine and how much is displayed simply because it is expected?

Screwtape seizes on the tendency for humans to luxuriate in the added adulation of not only the original accomplishment but the added admiration the display of humility creates.

According to Screwtape, the antidote to the patient’s sense of genuine humility is to draw his attention to it, to become proud of it. He then explains that the genuine nature of humility is a sense of self-forgetfulness. The ‘Enemy wants to turn the man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbors. The Enemy’s intention is to ‘kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His (the Enemy’s) long-term policy…to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors’, pp 70-71

My impression of this subject is probably best described as ‘ironic’. Humility does not mean having, or even expressing, a downgraded opinion of yourself or your actions.  According to Screwtape, the Enemy does not want that.  Instead He wants the patient to be the absolute best in the world at what he does, and at the same time seek zero personal acclaim for the work. He writes: ‘The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another, p71

Again we see the recurring theme of keeping your gaze off yourself and towards the Enemy as means for developing a stronger, closer relationship with God.

Time

Screwtape argues that man is most susceptible to falling away from the Enemy when his mind is fixed on the future—not the present, not eternity, not even the past.

Man is closest to God when his mind is focused on eternity on the present.   The benefits of concentrating on eternity are fairly self-evident, it means fixing your thoughts and actions on Him, which is detrimental to the demons’ purposes.  The present, Screwtape argues, is the point at which ‘time touches eternity’. It is the time when one can meditate on an eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or [obey] the present voice of conscience, [bear] the present cross, [receive] the present grace, [give] thanks for the present pleasures, pp 75-76

The Future is the point in time that is least like eternity. ‘Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction…so that thought about the Future inflames both hope and fear.  ‘[N]early all vices are rooted in the Future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead, p76

There is an important caveat to this argument however.  The Future is important for the Enemy as well insofar as it necessitates the planning of future positive actions—like justice and charity. However the duty of planning is actually today’s actions, p77

My take-away:  The argument against living in the future is a strong an argument as ever against procrastination. This ties in neatly with a theme discussed in the previous chapter on humility, namely: inactivity.   I think this implies that one of the most significant markers of an ineffective Christian walk is procrastination, either living in the future, or planning for the future—plans which never see the light of day.

Next month we’ll finish up with Screwtape’s take on such issues as ‘being in love’, sexual temptation, chastity, spiritual pride and ‘mere Christianity’.

The Screwtape Letters
By C.S. Lewis
Harper San Francisco, Zondervan Publishing House
2001

References

[1] https://www.cslewis.com/us/about-cs-lewis
[2] http://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Screwtape-Letters

© Weldon Turner, 2015 All Rights Reserved

One thought on “The Screwtape Letters”

  1. I think we get get caught up in the daily irritations of life so it’s difficult to remember that our time on earth is temporary and we need to remember what is really important

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