Today I loaned a copy of "Screwtape" to a young woman - the receptionist where I work -- who just celebrated her 21st birthday. I HOPE she enjoys it, even as I wonder if a fifty year old book could strike a chord with her -- the way it did with me, when I was her age. She seemed eager enough to borrow a copy (I have two) just as soon as I described the book's delightful premise:
"Screwtape" I told her, "is letters from a senior devil to a junior devil - and it's the funniest thing C.S. Lewis ever wrote - Have you heard of C.S. Lewis?" I asked. "No? Well he authored `Narnia.' (Neither of us has seen the movie yet.)
I told her 'Screwtape' is funny because (like all good humor) it seems so TRUE. Or at least you want to BELIEVE it's real, as `Screwtape' the experienced devil coaches his nephew `Wormwood' in his first assigned task: to "secure the damnation" of his 'patient' -- a young man who has just become a Christian.
As with "Narnia," the story unfolds in wartime (WWII) England. That's a long time ago for someone 21 years old and "I'm really interested" I said "to find out if the 'dialogue' of this book still speaks to someone your age."
"Personally, I think it would make good movie" I said. "It has been made into a talking book - read, I think, by John Cleese - the funny guy who starred in the movie `A Fish Called Wanda" - I read somewhere he's recorded a version of `Screwtape.' "
So . . after loaning that copy of "Screwtape" today, I opened, at random, my OTHER copy -- it fell open to page 24 -- and I re-discovered why I've loved this book so much for so many years.
It's the sort of book you can open almost anywhere - years after you first read it -- and find yourself laughing out loud - and falling in love once again, with the written magic of C.S. Lewis at his 'finest hour.' Well here, if you can spare two minutes -- get comfortable and see if this random sampling, from page 24, "Chapter IV" -- 'speaks' to YOU:
"My dear Wormwood, The amateurish suggestions in your latest letter warn me that it is high time for me to write to you fully on the painful subject of prayer . . .
"The best thing, where possible, is to keep the `patient' (the young man who is spiritually up for grabs) from the serious intention of praying. When (someone like him) is an adult, recently re-converted to the Enemy' (Screwtape's term for Christianity's founder) - such as your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember - or to THINK he remembers - the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.
"In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and `un-regularized' And what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional MOOD . . . in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.
"One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray `with moving lips and bended knees' but merely `composed his spirit to love' and indulged a `sense of supplication.' That is EXACTLY the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence, as practiced by those who are far advanced in the Enemy's service, clever and lazy `patients' can be taken in by it for quite a long time.
"At the very LEAST, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.
"It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things OUT.
"If this fails, you MUST fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves.
"Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce FEELINGS there, by the action of their own wills. (So that) when they meant to ask Him for Charity, let them instead start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves - and not notice that this is what they are doing.
"When they are meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to FEEL brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to FEEL forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feelings, and NEVER let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
"But of course, the Enemy will not meantime be idle. Whenever there is prayer there is danger of HIS own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of HIS position (and to OURS as pure spirits!) and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in quite shameless fashion.
"But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon . . ."
After describing that more subtle `weapon' in detail, -- and it concerns the true nature of God as opposed to the `composite images' that can be "derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during (His) Incarnation" (20 centuries earlier) Screwtape advises his green nephew:
"Whatever the nature of his composite (picture of the `Enemy') you must keep your `patient' praying to IT - to the thing that he has made - be it something in his own head or a crucifix on the wall - and NOT to the Person who has made him.
"You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keep it steadily in his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers `Not to what I think thou art, but to what thou knowest thyself to be,' our situation is, for the moment, desperate."
The good news, says the `senior devil,' is that, "in avoiding this situation - the real nakedness of the human soul in prayer - you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!"
That "more than they bargained for," Screwtape explains (earlier in this same chapter) is that humans (at least the majority, who are far from saints) - "have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare (of true self-knowledge) which makes the background of permanent pain in our own lives (as devils).
Your affectionate uncle,
Late in life C.S. Lewis was asked WHY he never wrote a sequel (apart from a few pages entitled, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast"). The greatest of Christian `apologists' replied in effect, that it "hurt" him too much -- to maintain within himself the necessary state-of-mind where he was thinking purely as a devil -- in order that Screwtape's words could pour from his pen onto paper.
Living 'inside' "Screwtape" Lewis experienced an exhausting -- even terrifying -- spiritual/psychological torment that he was NEVER prepared to re-visit. Despite the fact this little book was, until "Narnia," his most enduring source of fame - so much so, it got C.S. Lewis onto the cover of TIME magazine -- fifty years ago -- a red cartoon devil on his shoulder, poised -- it seemed -- to whisper sweet words of prideful praise into Lewis' deaf ear.