In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author, Screwtape, writes to his junior tempter-in-training named Wormwood. He instructs him that his task is to darken the heart, to train “his patient” to love things worldly and reject God by keeping him self-involved and clueless about who he is. He advises him “to keep him spiritual and not practical, as it is the practical that often brings people to God. Encourage him to pray for tangible, desired ends and so direct his prayers to objects and not to God. Allow him to be oversensitive until everything grates on their nerves. Keep his prayers formless, as they are easier to manipulate. Turn his gaze away from God toward himself.”
The aim is to create people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness and pride, fear and a need to control. None of us are strangers to the temptations Screwtape offers, pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy—all flowing from distraction from God’s purpose.
We turn the expansive freedom that is ours in Christ into ideologies of freedom that keep self at the centre. What we conveniently forget, or mightily repress, is the subtlety of distraction. Where there is no realistic acknowledgement of our capacity for self-centeredness and our ability to rationalize whatever we desire, the result is not human flourishing but brokenness. Yet even then, God responds not with justice but with unexpected mercy.
Lent is the time for adopting and practicing the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and study as avenues of loving more fully with heart, mind, and strength. All have within us a yearning to be in union with God. Closeness to God involves conflict and struggle that will lay bare our deepest passion and loyalty. There are many detours on this journey into desire. How we long to be seen, known, and come to that place of abiding. When we are not afraid to enter into our own centre and concentrate on the stirrings of our own soul, we come to know that being alive means being loved.
Lenten penitence engages the dark places of our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It is not about guilt. It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us all. It’s about amendment of life and new beginnings.
Br. Robert Magliula