Screwtape and the Spiritual Life

I’ve been on a C. S. Lewis kick these last couple of months.  It started with finally getting around to reading his Reflections on the Psalms.  Definitely not the book I thought it would be, but brilliant nonetheless.  Then I reread The Four Loves as part of prepping for my series on Cultivating Friendship for chapel.  Then I felt the urge to reread The Screwtape Letters, which I have not read in years, maybe even over a decade.

I thought about rereading Screwtape because its content approaches the spiritual life in a way that we don’t often talk much of anymore.  Sure, there’s the demon thing.  But it’s more than that.  For years I’ve been trying to make sense of how we do (and don’t) talk about the spiritual life at church or in school or even in regular conversation between Christian friends.  I’m convinced that we approach the spiritual life close to the way Lewis saw people approaching the topic of demons:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils.  One is to disbelieve in their existence.  The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.  They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

On the one hand you have the “materialists” who think little to nothing of a “spiritual life.”  Perhaps church and worship and fellowship are these things that we do out of duty, and perhaps some delight, but that ultimately have little do with the indwelling Spirit of God or walking in step with the Spirit in a way that could be called dynamic.  For others, the magicians, the spiritual life is everything, to topic of every conversation, the fine-toothed comb that get applied to even the smallest of topics.  In this instance, worship and fellowship are tools for the magician (really an apprentice) to see tree after tree but never the forest of someone’s life.  The former approach is dull and defeating.  The latter is exhausting and defeating.  Which is probably why we don’t talk about the spiritual life at all unless things are falling apart or unless things at church are so dull that we need some kind of “renewal.”

Which brings me back to yesterday’s topic of the church calendar and the beginning of Advent.  All of these things, our habits and practices and calendars, are meant to help nurture the life of the Spirit within us.  Yes, an order of worship.  Yes, a way to celebrate in the home.  But not to the neglect of Jesus Himself.  In Ancient-Future Time, Webber asserts that:

the historical understanding of the Christian year [is] life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ.

It is not this thing observed from the outside.  And it’s not just a set of moments and motions that are simply hoops through which to jump.  Paraphrasing Webber quoting Saint Leo: what we retell we ought not simply “venerate,” we also “receive and imitate.”  And that’s not just the actions themselves or certain feelings alone.  They are both.

I would like to make it through this Advent season not just with an appreciation for the four candles or the songs song.  I do not want simply to hear the stories but to live within them, to live out of them in such a way that the reality is clear: clearly known, but also clearly felt.  And in the being known and felt, also clearly experienced as “a habitation of the Spirit” that is more than pietistic motions simply gone through.  We are neither materialists nor magicians when understanding the life of the Spirit.

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The Times of Your Life

Yesterday was “Christ the King” Sunday in many churches across the world (though many other churches across America probably celebrated Thanksgiving early instead).  As I understand it, the day is a comparatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar.  The Sunday wraps up the church year with a reminder of Christ’s sovereignty.  From Sunday morning’s psalm (145 in the ESV):

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!
11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
12 to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

I remember reading that passage at the beginning of the school year and finding great comfort in it.  I am grateful that it comes back around every few weeks.

Calendar TurningThis coming Sunday is the beginning of Advent.  I often start off the Advent season hopeful.  Much like the beginning of the calendar year or the school year, the beginning of the liturgical year reminds me that there can be a shape to things beyond our own whims.  And while the Sundays of the season are a big deal (at varying degrees depending on your church), it’s really the day-to-day that carries it.  Unfortunately (and this will come up later in the week), it’s the solitary nature of the day-to-day that serves as the leak from which hope tends to leave.

As such, this is the time of year that I always break out Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Time.  The book is a kind of primer on the Christian year, it’s traditions and practices.  It begins with a nice chapter on “ordering your spiritual life.”  The cover of the book has a subtitle on “forming spirituality throughout the Christian year.”  I bring that up because the chapter is good and because it reminds me of a chapter in N. T. Wright’s latest book, Broken Signposts.   In Wright’s estimation, “spirituality” is one of seven signposts that point us back to God and to Jesus. From the beginning of Wright’s book:

Human beings regularly experience the world as a whole as something that ought to make sense.  There are several signs, clues if you like, of the sort of sense it ought to make.  But things don’t work out the way they seem to suggest.

Wright then couches his discussion of “spirituality” with his own experience of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the popular move from specific religion to vague “spirituality” (which is why many Christians bristle at the word).  “Spiritual but not religious” is the way it gets articulated these days.  Wright beats a familiar drum in this part of the book, bringing philosophies like Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Gnosticism into the conversation.  Many people today probably move through all three of these on a regular basis, I imagine.  “As long as it’s not Christian,” Wright reminds us (and as much of the world nods).  Spirituality is about making sense of the world via our “religious impulse” with the religious sucked out.

Webber also couches his discussion of spirituality in the personal.  He recounts some of his own movement through college and graduate school that mirrored moral and intellectual engagement with the Gospel.  He brings in the idea of worldview, too.  And then he adds:

But I still looked for more, much more.  What I longed for was something that went deeper than pious ideas on morality or intellectually stimulating thoughts about the meaning of human existence, as good as these were.  I wanted something that actualized the pattern of being in Christ.  I wanted something that worked in my life, something that brought a realistic spirituality into being.  I wanted something that ordered my life into the patterns of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and coming again.  (emphasis mine)

Which sounds a lot like the Paul writing to the church in Philippi concerning what was gain to him and what was rubbish.

(image from depositphotos.com)

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Sunday’s Best: Masks in the House

I’ve got friends on all sides of the mask debate (as evidenced by both sides assuming there should be no debate).  Over the last few months, masks have becomes signs and symbols and not just a matter of safety.  So it’s interesting to see Peter bring the mask into the house.  As always, it’s about food.  Here’s today’s FoxTrot by Bill Amend.

FoxTrot MasksOn a related/unrelated note, it has been interesting to watch mask-wearing evolve in practical ways.  At one point, I was preparing to wear mask, shield, and microphone as I taught.  It has yet to get that far.  Beyond that, I was a a big fan of cloth masks early on, but now I use disposable masks more frequently.  They are much easier to teach in/be heard in.  The question, of course, is just how safe they are. 

(image from gocomics.com)

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Quizzical Changes

I mentioned Sunday that there was a number of good full-size strips to share this week.  Sunday it was FoxTrot and The Mandalorian.  Today it’s Frazz and some school humor with a twist of occupational reality.

Frazz Quizzing(image from gocomics.com)

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“Though the Fig Tree…”

It’s just Tuesday, but boy has it been a week.  I found good comfort in today’s reading from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk.  The minor prophet had this to say as his book drew to a close with its third chapter (ESV):

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

I also really liked this selection from Psalm 94, mostly because it almost feels like some kind of gloss on the teleological argument:

Understand, O dullest of the people!
Fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
10 He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
He who teaches man knowledge—
11 the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
that they are but a breath.

And then the Gospel reading from Luke 17 was one you don’t hear much of (but that someone like me probably needs to hear more often as a simple reminder for gratitude):

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Which isn’t about false humility at all.  Our duty, yes.  But also our grateful duty.

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Sunday’s Best: Is This the Way?

It’s been a good day for new comics in the Sunday paper.  I’ll get around to sharing a couple of other examples throughout the week, but I thought this week’s FoxTrot was definitely worth sharing today.

We don’t really get weekly “previews” of The Mandalorian from Disney+, which is probably a good thing.  I find the show a bit too formulaic, which means it has to grab me in other ways.  Last week it was the ice spiders.  This week?  Well, you should just watch it if you can.

It’s fun seeing Jason’s reaction to the show.  And it’s a great use of Quincy.

FoxTrot Mandalorian(image from gocomics.com)

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The Force of the Holidays

It’s not much of a struggle for me to hold off on Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving, but this one might sneak in sooner rather than later.  I’ll be curious to see whether or not it picks up after The Rise of Skywalker.

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Framed

Though a bit later than usual, this week was the week that students received their school portraits.  It might seem a small thing, but even with uniforms these pictures are snapshots of a particular moment in time.

Which isn’t to say that this most recent classic Calvin and Hobbes strip is quite the same thing.  It looks a bit like Hobbes got ahold of a camera and Calvin did his best to do every awkward facial expression imaginable.  It’s definitely a chance to showcase Bill Watterson’s great skill at drawing faces.

Calvin's PortraitsI’d be interested to see if there was any connection between this strip and the cover of the tenth anniversary collection.

(image from gocomics.com)

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Midweek Moment

Veterans’ Day was yesterday, which made for an interesting break in the middle of the week.  It often feels like normal work weeks are hard to come by, but a midweek day off feels a bit like a mid-week weekend (if that makes any sense): it keeps the week in two complete chunks.

Tuesday was a weird one for me: classes went well, but other parts of the day distracted and discouraged me a bit.  So I decided to take the day Wednesday to stay away from email and relax.  So I slept in (until about 6:30) and then made my way to Zippy’s, where I usually eat breakfast on Sunday.  It was a different experience, the midweek crew.  But it was nice to sit and read and write with a good cup of coffee and a warm breakfast.  The rest of the day involved, more reading, groceries, and a trip to the Pali Lookout, which just reopened a few days ago.  The weather matched the location perfectly, as the whole day has been blustery and overcast.

Today I finally finished my reread of The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis.  I started rereading it (for the first time in many years) because of series on cultivating friendship for chapel.  It’s such a great book.  I feel like I underlined at least one sentence per paragraph.  I think I’ve probably internalized a lot of Lewis’ thinking about the world and faith, and this reread was a reminder of that.  The book almost reads like a journey, starting with the big picture and then moving through affection, friendship, and eros until finally arriving at charity.  And that final chapter on charity is actually shorter than you expect, which is okay because the whole book hints all around it.  And even though the Augustinian connection near the end of the book is more of a negative example, there’s a lot about the ordering of love to mull over.

That makes two Lewis books over the last couple of months.  Just prior to Loves I read his Reflections on the Psalms (for the first time).  It took an approach to the Old Testament poetry that I found both surprising and refreshing.  I’m glad to have his voice in the mix of my life.

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Missing the Turn

This past Friday I went out to dinner with my neighbors.  We decided to grab a bite down at Ala Moana Center.  I’m a regular there, eating breakfast at a local diner there at least once a week whenever things are opened back up.  When we got there, the upper parking lot was full.  We went from restaurant to restaurant trying to find a place that would seat us together in a timely manner.  I have to admit, it was a little jarring.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been around that many strangers.  The good was great, and the company was wonderful.  But it was also a real reminder of how things can change for you psychologically even when so much of life is screaming to go back to “normal.”

+ + + + + + +

I think that’s a big part of a conversation that people should be having but aren’t.  After a long parenthetical existence, what does “returning to normal” look like?  And is going back to “the way things were” the best thing to do?  Now that there is rumor of a 90% effective vaccine, there’s talk of a return to “normal” even earlier than expected (and this as cases continue to rise).  How do you determine what’s worth holding on to and what is worth letting go?  I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a while, even before Covid, because of commitments and sunk costs.

I often think of the Alasdair MacIntyre quote from After Virtue that “inspired” Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and Saint Benedict.  (This post isn’t about the BenOp, just so you know.  At least not totally.)

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of goodwill turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.  What they set themselves to achieve instead– often not recognizing fully what they were doing– was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained.

First there is the “shoring up.”  Granted, the imperium died a slow death.  But what about the lifespan of things in our accelerated culture?  How do you determine healthy traditions and habits as opposed to fads and novelties?  When is maintenance no longer “worth it” with something?  Then there is what the maintenance signifies (they why that necessitates the continuation in the first place).  This is more than a case of losing face, I believe.  There is something about goodwill and morality and civility at play here.  Such a community finds itself immersed in “new forms” of what is most vital, forms that will allow for sustenance over time.  And that’s no small thing.

One of the potential lessons of Our Current Moment has been the realization that bigger is not always better.  And just because it might be better doesn’t mean it is actually sustainable.  This can be a difficult pill for our culture to swallow.  One of the correlations of acceleration is growth of the exponential kind.  To reject the notion of exponential growth is to reject the contemporary mindset of success.

There are no easy answers to these questions that we should be asking.  And I suspect that most of us will do our best to avoid the questions and simply jump back into the way things were as quickly as possible.  I hope not.  This is a good time for necessary conversations.  We’ll see if they can happen.

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