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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