C.S. Lewis has had a significant impact on my theology. I have benefited from his wisdom in different ways throughout my life. When I was a child, I devoured the Narnia Chronicles and learned about goodness and the triumph of good over evil. The character formation that takes place as the selfishness of Edmund and Eustace are curbed. The kind, innocence of Lucy that is rewarded.
As an adolescent, I was convicted through the conversion of C.S. from atheist to Christian. I relished his thinking in Mere Christianity. When I lost my daughter in stillbirth, I read Grief Observed and my pain was normalized. There are many ways Lewis has been used as an instrument in my journey. I am grateful to God for his life and his ability to capture his thoughts in writing. One work that has been on my mind of late is The Screwtape Letters. It is a series of letters between a demon. Screwtape, and his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape coaches his protégé in the ways of tempting.
Wormwood has a “patient” that he is assigned to bring to damnation. He waxes and wanes in his success with this individual. The part that has been on my mind is his dealings with his patient when he becomes humble. This is a misfortune for Wormwood and he asks Screwtape what he should do. Screwtape advises him to make the patient aware of his humility—even proud of it.
Christ invites us into a way of being that involves living the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Each of these is a worthy goal and a manifestation of the kingdom. Yet as we grow into these characteristics, a temptation is to be aware of and proud of our achievements. The incorporation of the fruit of the Spirit is entirely a grace from God. We achieve nothing by will power—our role is to make ourselves available for God’s shaping. This is how the Christian disciplines work. They place us in God’s presence. Abba Moses, one of the desert fathers, said “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you.”
What stays from the advice of Screwtape is that of a balance between vigilance and surrender. It is a paradox. I am vigilant in attending to my relationship with God. I commit to the disciplines and in “going to my cell.” In this vigilance, I am aware that it is not my power, but God’s that is at work. I at times recognize the ways that God has changed me. This is thrilling to me! Or I might be aware that I am being fully used by God; that all my mind, soul, and strength is occupied in kingdom work. How wonderful! Yet, I must fight the temptation to take credit. How quickly my notice is drawn to me. Even in my rejoicing, my attention is drawn away from the one whose work I want to join. I must surrender my pride and control again and again.
Thomas Merton shares a tale of a woodcarver as told by Chuang Tzu. Read it with an eye to his surrender…
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
My vigilance is to remain in relationship with God through the disciplines. The more I know God, the more I am aware of the vastness of God’s love. I rest in God’s embrace and forget all else. I surrender the offering of my little life and God does the shaping.