Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Notes on Screwtape, Part I

This Christmas season, I wanted to patch up one of the many holes in my reading and picked up a copy of The Screwtape Letters (for New York readers, there's a theater performance of it in town that I've heard some good things about, but please weigh in if you've caught it).  The book is clever and very enjoyable, and I thought it might be fun to share some passages over the next few weeks with the MOJ community for comment, discussion, remonstration, silently satisfied rumination, etc. 

Here's a passage from the second letter.  Screwtape, a highly placed demon, is describing to his nephew, the novice demon Wormwood, the best way to prey on the sensibilities of the recent Christian convert -- to direct him back to the devil's fold:

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.  The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every endeavour.  It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories From the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek.  It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together.  In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.

I was reminded of the statement (I can't remember where) that for the convert, the first experience of Christianity is like the first experience of the Post Office.  How marvelous!!  One's mail is picked up and is actually (by some sorcerer's magic?...no...but how, then?) delivered in timely fashion all over the world?  Not to be believed!  For the ordinary church goer, by contrast, the Post Office performs its regular, necessary and vital labor, just as it ever has and ever will.


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I must say that I have found disappointment and anticlimax lasts decades, not just weeks. I don't know if everyone experiences that, or only those who went to Catholic school in the 1950s and early 1960s and got their idea of Catholicism from such sources as The Baltimore Catechism. Everything was so simple and straightforward! Unbaptized babies went to Limbo, the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, the Church was the True Israel, the great thing about the Church was that you could go anywhere in the world and the Mass would be the same (in Latin, of course), it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays, the story of Adam and Eve was literally true, everything printed in red in the Bible was actually said by Jesus, by going to the Wedding Feast at Cana "Jesus raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament," the Old Testament was filled with "prophecies" that clearly came true in the Gospels, the Gospels were filled with "proof texts" that only Protestants could deny, the RSV was a Protestant Bible not to be read by Catholics (who had the Douay-Rheims Version -- what more could anybody ask for?), and I found C. S. Lewis to be one of the wisest men on earth. (I still think A Grief Observed is a great book.)

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 22, 2010 3:19:55 PM

David, you mean it's not a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays?? First I've heard of this. ;)

Thanks for the comment.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 22, 2010 3:53:17 PM

By the way, I don't think you've interpreted the passage correctly. Screwtape says that disappointment comes within the first few weeks. He doesn't say that it lasts only a few weeks. I'm not sure it would make sense to read the passage as saying that disappointment lasts a short time, since the other challenges he lists (building a lasting marriage and so on) can also take decades to meet.

Just a thought.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 22, 2010 6:31:12 PM

The Baltimore Catechism is still an excellent exposition of the Catholic faith. Vatican II did not create a new religion.

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 22, 2010 7:10:11 PM

Fr. J,

From the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 391. Why did the Jewish religion, which up to the death of Christ had been the true religion, cease at that time to be the true religion?

A. The Jewish religion, which, up to the death of Christ, had been the true religion, ceased at that time to be the true religion, because it was only a promise of the redemption and figure of the Christian religion, and when the redemption was accomplished and the Christian religion established by the death of Christ, the promise and the figure were no longer necessary.

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 23, 2010 12:30:06 AM

Wow. You guys really never stop, I guess. The subject of a post might be about the maladies of the Kenyan pink-spotted hippo, and somehow you'd find a way to fight this fight in the comments.

This is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek post about a clever and non-serious book. Get in the mood, folks!

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 23, 2010 10:09:05 AM


I personally feel so bad that I can't even begin to IMAGINE how Fr. J must feel. :-)

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 23, 2010 1:42:05 PM

David, we still don't believe in Judaism. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They don't. So of course we don't agree. You won't find Jews saying their faith is false and ours is true will you? Daily Orthodox Jews pray: "Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile." I am a gentile and it doesn't offend me.

I always feel great. My skin is thicker then an elephant hide. Almost nothing fazes me anymore.

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 23, 2010 6:28:59 PM

Fr. J., I will assume you meant that your skin is thicker than a polkadotted pink hippo. Be mindful of the comment thread, please.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 23, 2010 6:44:10 PM

This will perk you up. It's in the Christmas spirit. Trust the English to think of this.

From the UK Sun:
ANDY Park's love for all things Yuletide has often led to people calling him crackers.

But the 47-year-old's latest plan has left even his closest friends stumped.

Andy, who is known as Mr Christmas and has celebrated it every day for the past 17 years, claims he's "serious" about wanting to marry his Christmas tree.

The divorcee, from Melksham, Wilts, admits many will think he's had too much sherry but that hasn't stopped him drawing up plans for the ceremony.

He said: "I love my Christmas tree more than anything else, so that's why I want to marry it.

"I've already got a ring, although I'm not sure yet which branch I'll want to hang it on.

"The only problem seems to be finding a vicar who is willing to do the ceremony."

Andy said that although he'd only had the plastic tree for two years, he felt it was like "his best friend" and he never tired of seeing it sitting in his living room.

He said: "I can't see why we can't be joined in matrimony.

"I've heard of other people marrying their pets and so on, so why can't I get hitched to my tree?"

Andy began celebrating Christmas in 1993 and since then he's estimated to have eaten more than 6,000 Christmas dinners, although he's cut back on the scale of celebrations in recent years due to the credit crunch.

His daily habit once cost him more than 500 per week, but now it's down to around 200 per week.

In addition to feasting on mince pies, pulling crackers and popping open champagne he sits down to watch the Queen's speech every afternoon.

Once asked to describe how his festive fetish began Andy said he'd felt "bored" and "fed-up" one July and putting up decorations had made him feel so happy he decided to carry

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 23, 2010 6:48:51 PM