The Screwtape Letters is a book authored by C.S. Lewis. Released in 1942, Lewis incorporates his spiritual and theological insights into a correspondence between the Devil, who goes by the name of Screwtape, and his demon nephew named Wormwood. The “Enemy” Screwtape refers to time and time again is, of course, God. Although the book is technically fiction, it is, nevertheless, non-fiction in that it illustrates real spiritual principles based on a solid understanding of human nature and the spiritual world. In fact, although C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, he drew inspiration from many Catholic sources. This is demonstrated by the uncanny tactics Screwtape advises Wormwood on.
As for these tactics by the Devil, The Screwtape Letters does a commendable job in adapting them to many ironies of the spiritual life. And to be sure, many principles of the supernatural order, much like the natural order, defy conventional wisdom. One such principle is that the road to hell is paved by sins that are subtle and socially acceptable. In tempting humans, the Devil reminds his nephew of the following truth: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,...Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”
The road to hell is not paved primarily with drama such as crimes, genocide and earth-shattering events. It does include that, of course. But it is more often the case that the spiral downwards begins with an uncontested thought or a desire that is seemingly harmless; but then ends up carrying us in a direction that is contrary to God’s will or what is morally wrong. As St. James wrote in his letter, “Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”
To drive this point home, St. John the Apostle reminds us that there is such a thing as deadly sin; deadly because sin ruptures our relationship with Christ and hence kills the life of grace in the soul. Such a phenomenon is every bit as real as physical illness and death; but unlike physical illness and death, spiritual and moral decline is ever so subtle. The reason for this is due to the fact that the effects of grace can outlast the life of grace from within. But before you know it, life is not quite the same after a series of sinful choices has been committed. Although we are not quite conscious of it, the bad choices we make – the sins we commit – has changed us. Soon enough, we think differently, speak differently and act differently. In fact, there is a spiritual law that says that the more you sin, the less you know you are sinner.
In the book, The Screwtape Letters, the Devil, known as Screwtape, is mindful of yet another spiritual principle. Unlike the first, this one glorifies God and is therefore a threat to the demons in hell. Yet, like the first, it defies conventional wisdom. He advises his nephew, Wormwood, that when a believer feels abandoned by God, this is by no means a victory for hell. It could be that the Lord has withdrawn all interior spiritual consolation and exterior supports in order to test that believer and hence make him greater than he once was. 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 from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Indeed, when it is stripped down to its very essence, we find that the love of God is an act of the will. If everyone is running headlong towards the abyss, it will take an act of the will – motivated by love of God – to go in the opposite direction. In fact, running against the strong current, where friends, family members and society are carried away from the Gospel, is a lonely business. This holy non-conformity can involve the loss of friendships and strained relationships. And in so doing, one can feel even abandoned by God Himself. But when one rises above this by doing the right thing and remaining loyal to the Lord – even in his confusion and sense of abandonment – the believer demonstrates his credibility of godly devotion, not only to people, but to the spiritual world as well. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike.” (I Corinthians 4:9)
Such a believer that has been tested, as gold is by fire, can accept all things from God. In the spiritual classic, The Dialogue, God the Father informs St. Catherine of Sienna that the faithful disciple of His Son "holds all thing in reverence, the left hand as well as the right, trouble as well as consolation, hunger and thirst as well as eating and drinking, cold and heat and nakedness as well as clothing, life as well as death, honor as well as disgrace, distress as well as comfort. In all things he remains solid, firm and stable, because his foundation is the living Rock." To be sure, such a disciple becomes quite useful to the Lord because his fidelity is not dependent on agreeable circumstances.
What we learn from The Screwtape Letters, therefore, is that the strong currents that lead to hell are quite subtle. And those who carried by it are not, at least initially, alarmed by it. Like those passengers on the Titanic who were unphased when the ship hit the iceberg, fatal blows to the life of grace can feel like a little jolt to those who are not paying attention. Yet, their ship is in danger of sinking, nevertheless.
On the other hand, the road to heaven is paved by “unseen” heroic actions of fidelity just when all seems lost to the devout Christian. Indeed, the Saints tell us that we can make the most spiritual progress just when all seems lost. And when we feel abandoned by God and yet love Him anyways – and although we may feel lost and even backsliding – this is a sign that our feet is firmly planted on the road to heaven.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.