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Screwtape Redux

The Screwtape Letters they appear in memory flagged by the red devil slash on the paperback cover. That diabolical light glimmers in a cavernous basement (temporary lunch room) of a church abutting my Manhattan high school. The book, assigned fifty years ago for summer reading, seemed an extension of the religion classes I had attended and the sermons I had heard preached. As I prepped for the quiz, I asked myself, What sort of test can there be on temptation?.Well, since C. S. Lewiss book reentered my life unexpectedly just this month, that question appears to have relevance. To my surprise, this seventy year old text wormed Screwtapes advice and threats to his nephew into my conscience. What I faced was not a problem in explication, but a worry in application. Despite the donnish manner of the senior demon, and the obstacles presented to contemporary readers by social class and culture of the patients, the old devil worried me into a conscious attempt at discernment of spirits. Surely Lewis, scholar of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that he was, knew the Ignatian rules for dealing with spiritual promptings in desolation and consolation. He speaks of undulations, or swings through troughs and peaks of spiritual states. Screwtapes management of his nephews battle plan of attacks on the young man newly re-converted to Christianity offered for me a fresh look at a paradigmatic psychodrama: two rival armies in combat to win the minds and hearts of human beings. His modern version of the psychomachie raised interesting question about the nature of evil and the prompting of spirits.Screwtapes counsel, his didactic and condescending prescriptions to Wormwood, constitute an analysis of the ways we fail to discern spirits. I found particularly acute his urging that Wormwood offer a temptation to gluttony, not as overeating, but rather as being too particular: refraining to eat, refusal of food, is in the patient a hungry search for the impossibly tasty dish, the half-remembered, half-concocted savoring of the totally satisfying. As always the root of the sin is pride, the following of ones own will over that of God. Again, Screwtape/Lewis points to the conversations of people (family members in particular) that devolve into rancor and peevishness. He deftly unpicks the ways in which one person asserts that her responses are figurative while the other person interprets them as literal. In such coding of messages there are only recriminations and aggressive taunts.Screwtape explains to Wormwood that the core of the human being, at the center of the soul, is the will, surrounded by the intellect and then by the appetites. As with his mentor, John Milton, Lewis puts primacy in the will: to sin is to will what one wants, not what God wants. If the intellect can be engaged in analysis then the patient is less likely to follow false reason or appetite into self-will. Wormwood should lull the patient into complacency, to muffle the promptings of self-conscious reflection and so avoid the chance that he realize (under the promptings of grace) the folly of such choices.Contrary to most modern notions of internal states, the letters assert that that emotion and thought are in part impositions, both angelic and diabolic, from outside the person. The allegorical actors embody states of the soul, ones that demand an alertness on the part of the patient that in itself frames the debate: to be conscious of such workings of temptation (and grace) is to achieve a sort of mastery at least that seems Lewiss satirical intent in his creation of Screwtape and Wormwood. But for me, it is the failure to hear the dialogue, as if performed outside of my own consciousness, that constitutes the real discernment of spirits. How is one to be acutely self-conscious of the tensions of temptation and consolation and move beyond being a witness to the forces in contention? How indeed does one become an actor in a self-directed drama in accord with the will of God?I simply cannot hear the voices or experience the movements of temptation and grace in the allegorical way they are expressed. But the lingering point of contact that I do feel is the dreadful sense of walking a foot step away from eternity, at the edge of an abyss that opens to the realization that thou fool, tonight thy soul is required of thee! Yes, Lewis opened a mental path I had not been down in years: that I as patient was the focus of intense interest in a mortal dual between two adversaries, at fundamental odds as to the desired state of my soul.

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.