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The Screwtape Letters

a commentary by Richard S. Sandor, M.D.

By way of introduction, I think the reader should know that I have been asked to write this brief piece on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters on the basis of a rather odd qualification: I’ve memorized it. It isn’t that I go around memorizing things all the time (except as it was necessary in medical training). I memorized the Letters because I found I couldn’t really ponder what Lewis was saying without being able to hold a whole letter, or at least a big chunk of one, in my mind all at once. It’s that sort of book. You are utterly dazzled by the intelligence of it, and yet after reading it, you can only remember a snippet or two.

Perhaps it will be useful to explain how this memorizing project got started. Like many people, I had been familiar with Lewis’s Narnia series—I was introduced to it when my wife, who had been enchanted by The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a child, read it, in turn, to our children. Later, I came across and became equally enchanted with Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy (why has no one made Out of the Silent Planet and the others into a film?). Of The Screwtape Letters, and, for that matter, the rest of Lewis’s more overtly Christian writings, I knew nothing.

Then a friend, with whom I had collaborated on a translation, showed me a copy of the audio recording by John Cleese. I borrowed it (permanently, as it turned out) and began listening. And listening. And listening. Each time I heard things I hadn’t heard the time before. Then, after having gone through them perhaps 50 times, I began, without really intending to, trying to quote some of the more pithy, stand-alone, passages to friends—and failing miserably. So, what alternative was there but to commit them to memory? In time, it became a spectacularly productive way to use time otherwise wasted during the daily commute (for example, listening to the “news”). Not only did it enable me to grapple with Lewis’s thought, it strengthened my mind generally, and even made me a better driver—imagine looking forward to a traffic jam in order to finish another page!

For those who don’t know the book, the setup is this: Screwtape himself is a senior devil in the “lowerarchy of Our Father Below.” The letters are directed to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter on Earth, working on one of us— whom they call a “patient.” The letters themselves follow Wormwood’s efforts to tempt the patient, who has (to Screwtape’s “grave displeasure”) by the second letter, become a Christian. The goal of damnation is to “secure his soul forever” — to turn him against God (to Screwtape, “the Enemy” and “our Oppressor”) so that on entering Eternity, the man will become “a brimfull living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please.” It turns out that to the devils, we humans are “primarily food.”

I would not, “Hell forbid,” give away the ending of the book, but it will do no harm to say that along the way, the course of temptations recommended by Screwtape follows the three great sources of corruption we humans fall prey to—the World, the Flesh, and finally, the Spirit itself. Cowardice, vanity, lust, ambition, gluttony, spiritual pride—they’re all here, and all in the context of one human being’s search for knowledge of God’s will in the midst of the horror of World War II.

An apparently profoundly impressed reader once intimated that the Letters must represent “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” I imagine Lewis laughing heartily when he responded to this suggestion as follows: “. . . there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’—I need no other’s—showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.’ ”

The great lesson Lewis is trying to smuggle into our minds (camouflaged in humor to get around all the defenses erected by Screwtape and his cohorts) is the essential Christian doctrine—what he called elsewhere “mere” Christianity. Chiefly, it is that God is very much alive, that He loves us in ways we do not understand, and that He wants us to act from our own wills in accordance with His. As always, His Abysmal Sublimity, Undersecretary Screwtape, says it horribly:

We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table and the more their wills are interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.

And again, in a later letter:

. . . our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of man is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons.

I see I’ve begun making use of more extensive quotes than a commentary calls for. I hope I may be forgiven. It seems entirely likely to me that as the years pass and the need for a clear voice, plainly speaking great truths becomes more and more important, the significance of Lewis’s thought will become much more widely known and appreciated. A video, a feature film (Shadowlands), and a PBS special (The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud) already exist. All have their points, but none substitutes for one’s own efforts to take on the difficult job of seeing Screwtape at work in oneself and trying not to let him have his way.

A final personal note. I found out only after his death that my wife’s father, The Right Reverend J. Brooke Mosley, had been a great admirer of C. S. Lewis, and that he had owned a nearly first edition copy of the Screwtape Letters. A few years ago, his widow, Betty, gave it to me and, thus came the great delight of reading on the dust jacket this brief comment by Dr. George A. Buttrick of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, “I have been carrying the book with me; and, like a pest, reading it to anyone who will listen.”

Me too. It’s that sort of book.

copyright ©2005 Richard S. Sandor

The Screwtape Letters

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