Monday, December 14, 2009

Spirituality, sin, and the ordinary

It is amazing how very predictable life is, especially when I begin to pay close attention and endeavor to live in the manner of disciple of Christ. I always convince myself that I am doing very well, making progress as it were...and, then, BOOM! Something happens. I respond to what happens by reproaching myself, by focusing on my failure, my lapse, before coming to understand all over again how merciful God is, how good God is, what Jesus meant when he said: "No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). It is too easy to read this verse as a reproach, to reduce it to a condemnation instead of a simple statement about reality. Experience is the only way to learn this truth, to know it.

It is always nice to receive sound spiritual advice because it is so rare. Sound spiritual advice is simple, not complicated. This is why the desert fathers are as relevant today as they were more than a millennia and a half ago. So, here's some simple advice: read C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters in a serious way, not as a fable, but as serious literature, like The Brothers Karamazov. It is very easy to reduce this work to a funny little exchange between one fairly harmless and one almost hapless demon. That this work is meant to be taken seriously is indicated in Lewis' preface when he writes: "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. The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has once learned the knack; but disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me."

To give an example of what I am trying to express, I offer an excerpt from the first letter written by Screwtape to Wormwood:

"Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch."

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