Thursday, September 8, 2011

Screwtape Letters, Ch. 3 and 4

This morning I read chapters 3 and 4 at my favorite breakfast place in downtown Madison-- Marigold. The content in chapter three didn't jump out at me as much as chapters one and two. It's all about the patient's relationship with his mother and the things that can go wrong in interpersonal relationships when people live together-- focusing on quirks, believing that the person is trying to irritate you on purpose when they're not even aware that a particular action annoys you, attacking the person and then getting upset when they express that they feel attacked.

The best part was pp. 11-12 when Screwtape talked about getting the patient to think, pray, and be concerned only about his "inner life" and his mother's soul vs. her actual needs or his behavior towards her. Then he talked about separating the actual person being prayed for from the prayers on their behalf. There's this great and tragic line, "I have had patients so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment's notice from impassioned prayer for a wife's or son's 'soul' to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm" (p.13). In his kind of prayer, the pray-er's vision of the person they are praying for becomes distorted, and the compassion that would ordinarily spring up for that person in prayer doesn't spill over when you encounter the real person.

Chapter four was all about prayer. Some of the insights from this chapter have stuck with me since I first read the book in high school. Sadly, I do not practice them as often as I should.

First, Screwtape explains that re-converts can be persuaded not to have regularity in their prayers if they remember how rigid their childhood prayers were. He says:

 In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean in 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, had 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'. This is exactly the sort of prayer we want...

He then mentions the actual physical posture used during prayer, "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" (p.16). I am not in the habit of kneeling when I pray, but I wonder if he has a point here, somewhat relating back to what he said in earlier chapters about getting distracted by "real life." If I wanted to get more out of "real life," would I get on my knees more to try to create a definite break with the "normal"?

Another way to prevent good prayer is to "turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves" (p.16). Screwtape talks about the pray-er looking inwards too much and trying to create different moods in himself. "When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and never notice that this is what they are doing (pp. 16-17)." He goes on to say, "Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; 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."

Here's the emotion piece again. Both in the first example with trying to create a feeling or 'composing the spirit to love' and in the second with measuring success by feelings, he's right, it's pretty vague. It's about how we feel vs. who God is. This is why we have to look at him and not at ourselves. True worship has the quality that we see God, and, seeing him, everything else mysteriously fades into the background. It returns to where it has belonged for the whole time, but we haven't been able to keep it in perspective and God in his rightful place in our hearts.

In the next section, Screwtape actually talks about how humans see God, or don't see him. He talks about composite images and pieces stuck together and urges his nephew to keep his charges praying to "it," the made up image, rather than God himself. He says:

For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers 'Not to what I think thou art but what thou knowest thyself to be', our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their mere subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it-- why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation-- the real nakedness of the 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!

I realize I'm quoting huge sections of the book, but that's because it's so good. How can you add to it?

From what he said in the first chapters and what he's saying now, it seems that there is a new area that we need to find in terms of real life, real needs, and spiritual needs. In the earlier chapters, Screwtape distracts a man from thinking about matters of eternal consequence by getting him to think about his lunch instead, but in this chapter, he wants the man to think/pray about his mother's soul instead of remembering her actual felt needs and sufferings. The first man escaped his eternal thoughts by "a good dose of real life." He saw newspapers and buses and the world outside. He was distracted by the present moment. But perhaps the difference is that "the world outside" didn't have a claim on him in the same way that a person's mother has. The first man needed to attend to his own questions and the second man needed to care about his mother's rheumatism more than her soul, or let caring for her physical needs be a means of caring for her soul? In the section with the mother, Screwtape says, "his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous." This is where the chasm gets created and the person in prayer and in real life are completely different. Is he saying that when it comes to another person, it's better not to make assumptions about their soul but to go on what we know and pray for that?

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