For those who have earnestly spent Lent praying and fasting, it is not uncommon for some to experience an increase in temptation and weariness during the last days of Lent (what used to be called Passiontide).
Combating our selfish desires and staving off temptations to vice is a cross to bear and crown to wear for those pining after virtue or holiness at any time of the year, but more so now as we enter Holy Week. While remaining steadfast in prayer and fasting is still the best route to take, taking some time for spiritual reading is a great way to stay focused and boost one’s morale.
On the topic of temptation, there is one work that shines above the others: C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” Written in 1942, the book is a fictional series of 31 letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, who is still learning the ropes on doing what demons do best — tempting souls away from God. Throughout the letters, Screwtape offers Wormwood ample and well-thought-out advice on how best to damn the soul of an unnamed British man who is simply referred to as “the patient.” The letters cover a range of topics dealing with all the normal vices we are tempted with in life, such as pride, lust, gluttony, and moral laxity. But they are always explained in a way that condenses Lewis’ extensive literary and theological erudition into a very readable book.
While straightforward, Lewis’ prose contains deep psychological insights into the human condition and a rather diabolical cunning that turns the most mundane events in the life of the “patient” into a path away from virtue and toward vice. In fact, the genius of“The Screwtape Letters” is how it shows temptation as not being a single “big ask” by the devil, but a gradual process of rationalizing or moral laziness whereby we walk ourselves into damnation one step at a time.
This is why to this day, “The Screwtape Letters” remains one of Lewis’ most popular works, and although he wrote a sequel to it, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Lewis admitted he did not like writing the letters. He found them emotionally draining and was concerned about what effect getting better at thinking like a demon would have on him.
The work remains a Christian classic that has inspired so many worthy imitators that the demonic advice format has almost become its own sub-genre. These include prominent works such as Peter Kreeft’s “The Snakebite Letters” or his popular lecture “How to Win the Culture War,” Dwight Longenecker’s “The Gargoyle Code,” Richard Platt’s “One Devil to Another,” and J.B. Cyprus’ “Letters to Bentrock.” Cyprus has a very modern and different take on the “Screwtape” format in that it takes place inside a prison (Cyprus was a prison ministry volunteer), which today’s younger and more jaded reader may find more engaging. Also, there is Jim Peschke’s book “The Michael Letters,” which turns the tables on the format and examines “The Screwtape Letters” from the point of a guardian angel.
For those who prefer an audio format, John Cleese’s audiobook version is well worth a listen. For younger readers or listeners, Marvel Comics produced a graphic novel of the story (if you can find a copy) and Focus on the Family produced an audio drama of all 31 letters that is available for free online. While there have been several stage productions of “The Screwtape Letters,” there has never been a movie version.
Chris Carter, the creator of “The X-Files,” also produced a series called “Millennium” that ran for three seasons (1996-99). The show starred Lance Henriksen as former FBI agent Frank Black, who had a psychic ability to see into the mind of criminals to solve crimes. One of the episodes was called “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” and in it, four devils sit around a table in a donut shop talking about how they go about “gutting souls” in the modern age.
While some viewers may find the episode’s dark humor, salacious content, and violence off-putting, it was a very well-made meta-episode that satirically examined the show’s own content through a “Screwtape” format. Moreover, the episode was rather prophetic about where our culture has ended up today, such as when one devil named “Blerk” quips, “You know we were so angry when mankind got free will, but what has it brought them today but the belief that their lives are controlled by everything but their free will.”
Whether it is with Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” or any of the book’s spiritual descendants, spending some time in reflection on the topic of temptation is time well spent. After all, Lent was meant to mirror the 40 days Christ spent praying and fasting in the desert before beginning his ministry, and at the heart of his time, there was his encounter with and being tempted by Satan. In his massive work “The Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic saint and doctor of the church, goes into great detail about the means by which Satan tempted Jesus.
Aquinas notes that Satan’s three temptations follow the same order he used in the Garden of Eden when he deceived Adam and Eve: lust of the flesh, vainglory, and pride of life. This observation is important to the Christian narrative, in that by overcoming the devil’s temptations, Jesus was shown to be undoing the original sin of Adam and Eve. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “just as through the disobedience of one man, the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man, the man will be made righteous.”
Jesus displayed this obedience in the desert when he contended with Satan, and later in another garden, Gethsemane, on the eve of his crucifixion. The devil is often depicted in the garden of Gethsemane in art and in movies, such as “The Passion of the Christ.” The reason for this depiction is to emphasize the devil’s persistence in tempting Jesus away from his salvific mission. But despite Jesus’ agony and anxieties in the garden and his prayer that his Father would “let this cup pass by me,” he was obedient to His Father’s will until the end. “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
It is this point, putting God’s will before our own, that should guide us into Holy Week. Given the abundance of the devil’s favorite vices in our contemporary culture, such as indulging in our bodily desires, coveting power and fame, and reveling in prideful egotism, learning how these temptations ensnare us is an edifying endeavor.
If you are so inclined and have not done so already, challenge yourself to make time for some spiritual reading this week with “The Screwtape Letters” or similar works. No matter your temperament, there is a format out there for everyone to enjoy Lewis’ classic, as well as further reading to strengthen one’s faith going forward.