Screwtape: Master of Misdirection

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This passage comes from chapter VI of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the correspondence between a senior demon, Uncle Screwtape, and his pupil, Wormwood. This is a favorite passage of mine because like all of Lewis’ work, it is such an eminently practical bit of insight into the the interplay of temptation, grace, and our free will.

“An important spiritual law is here involved. I have explained that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own state of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the thing feared to the fear itself, considered as a present and undesirable state of his own mind; and when he regards the fear as his appointed cross he will inevitably think of it as a state of mind. One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favour our cause, encourage the patient to be unself-conscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favourable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself. Let an insult or a woman’s body so fix his attention outward that he does not reflect ‘I am now entering into the state called Anger–or the state called Lust.’ Contrariwise let the reflection ‘My feelings are now growing more devout, or more charitable’ so fix his attention inward that he no longer looks beyond himself to see our Enemy or his own neighbors.” (emphasis added)

What Screwtape is saying in the first part, roughly translated into our terms and context, is this:

When we are in a negative mental or emotional state or experiencing temptation (i.e. fear, anger, lust, etc), we must take note that Wormwood or Uncle Screwtape will attempt to keep our attention focused outward – on the thing feared, the person or situation at which we are becoming angry, or the object of our lust. In a situation like this, Screwtape wants to keep our attention outward and away from the actually cross we are being called to carry at the moment. Consider an earlier passage:

“What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him – the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.”

In any situation where some strong negative emotion, passion, or temptation is present, we will be tempted to put reason and awareness out of our minds. One reason for this is so that we keep from checking ourselves, identifying an occasion of sin, and avoiding it. Another reason however, is to confuse us as to the actual task or cross at hand. Lewis continues:

“Let him regard them (things the patient is afraid of) as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.”

Often in a state of fear or anxiety, we let ourselves worry about many future potentialities that may or may not come to pass and in doing so, despair in the present. However, it is only the fear of the present moment we need to worry about. When we are angry, we are often so fixated on the person or situation, how obnoxious they/it are and how to fix them, that we forget that this present experience of annoyance or anger is itself what we are first and foremost called to embrace with virtue. In a state of lust, it is easy to linger long in the occasion of temptation, enjoying the thrill of almost but not quite giving in, never really looking inward to take stock of the danger we are entertaining. We must remain aware of our passions and thoughts in the present moment and make prudent choices to avoid occasions of temptation.

The second part of Screwtape’s “general rule” is that when we are in any positive mental or emotional state or experiencing the movement of grace, the temptation will be to focus on the thoughts, emotions, or movements themselves, rather than on the source of these (God) or on perhaps the intended recipient, our neighbor.

When we pray, Screwtape now wants us to be concerned with our feelings and thoughts rather than the object of our prayer, God. When we do good, he wants us to think of the good we are doing and how great we are for doing it. Ideally, he would like to relegate our goodness and virtue to theory alone, and keep it out of practice altogether.

“The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable (sinful) qualities inward into the Will.”

So, in time of trial and tribulation, identify the present and actual cross – i.e. whatever emotional or passionate or tempting state you are in. Endeavor to make the right decision now, whether to persevere with patience, fight, or flee, and deal only with future/potential fears or tasks or crosses when they arrive, and not until then.

On the other hand, when you pray or do good works, be in the moment, turn outward, and endeavor to forget about yourself. In the words of G.K. Chesterton “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

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With a topic like this, discussion of additional anecdotes and examples may be helpful for all listening. So, do you have any examples, whether personal or general, of either end of Screwtape’s general principle? In other words examples of either a) the temptation to ignore our internal state during fear, anger, lust, etc or b) to be fixated on our internal state during prayer or good works.

One thought on “Screwtape: Master of Misdirection

  1. David Moore

    Thanks for the post. I was listening to the audio book and wanted to process this section in a way that audio (though I love it) did not quite allow. Your quotes and thoughts gave just the context my brain needed to fully consider what was being said.

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