Lent is upon us, and so I thought it would be a good idea to pick up a book or two dealing more directly with spirituality.  Having had my admiration for C. S. Lewis reignited and deepened by Planet Narnia, I decided to revisit Lewis’s little gem The Screwtape Letters.

I don’t remember when I first read The Screwtape Letters – I think it was toward the end of my time in college, but it may have been shortly thereafter.  At any rate, though I recall enjoying the book, I had forgotten just how insightful it is.  For those who have never read it, the book is presented as one side of a fictional correspondence between an elder demon (the titular “Screwtape”) and a minor demon, his nephew “Wormwood.”  In these letters Screwtape provides Wormwood with diabolical advice on how to ensnare a recently converted Christian under the minor demon’s “care.”  The book offers a humorous but penetrating take on the nature of the spiritual life generally and temptation in particular.

Every time I read Lewis I’m struck by his insight into the human condition, and The Screwtape Letters is no exception.  One of the main premises of the book is that often it is the little sins, the seemingly insignificant ones, that lead one off the right track.  Wormwood, being a young pup (as demon years go), is eager to get his subject to commit heinous crimes, but Screwtape reminds him, “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.”  Like a slow drip of water that wears away at a rock for years, these little sins can do more damage than a deluge that is over in an instant.

Another important theme in the book is how even our virtues can be twisted into vices.  Lewis offers a brilliant discussion of the interaction between humility and pride.  When Wormwood’s subject has become humble, Screwtape advises him to draw the subject’s attention to his humility.  This will naturally instill pride in him, pride at having been humble.  If he realizes this and tries to overcome the pride again, Wormwood is to stir up pride over the attempt.  Thus, he can create a vicious cycle, continuing to trap his subject in pride.  This is not the only way to twist humility, though.  Screwtape also encourages Wormwood to foster a false idea of humility in the subject: let him think humility means downplaying his talents, rather than not thinking about them.  Toward the end of the letter, he summarizes “the Enemy’s” (i.e. God’s) approach to these things: “Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.”  With a delicious line, he highlights the absurdity of pride when you really think about it: “The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings – the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.”  This section struck a chord with me, particularly in light of my newfound habit of blogging.  Though when I first joined the blog I was doing it mostly for myself, ever since one of my posts was freshly pressed, I often find myself checking to see how many people have read my posts, commented on them, “liked” them, etc.  This was a good reminder not to worry about those things.

There is so much more I could go into.  This time through the book I nearly ran out of pencil lead as I read (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I did underline a lot).  Among other things, I was struck by his discussion of human beings as psychosomatic wholes (“they are animals and … whatever their bodies do affects their souls”); by his emphasis on virtue as a habit (“All mortals turn into the thing they are pretending to be.  This is elementary.”); by his insistence on the importance of disposition (“There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper [i.e., one looking for nourishment].”).  And this is just the tip of the iceberg – which is all the more astonishing considering that my version of the book is a scant 134 pages.

If you are looking for an easy-to-read, entertaining, and yet profound book to read during Lent, I highly recommend The Screwtape Letters.  With thirty-one letters in all, reading one a day would pretty much get you through to Easter.

Twenty down, (at least) thirty-two to go.

Ta,
J

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