November is a great time to meditate upon our final destiny. Catholics are often reminded of the four last things which lay always before a soul on Earth: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The souls in Purgatory have already faced these and during the month of November we pray for them; but we are also reminded of our own sinfulness and our own pending judgment. This is the month to read C.S.Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce!
Every time I read Lewis’ works, I am astounded by the clarity with which he understood our fallen human nature. I am usually most impressed, or I should say nervous, by his ability to find the hidden idols and subtle temptations for which the human person so easily falls.
Often times, Lewis describes temptations as a desire for a good and noble love that has gone wrong. The human person is designed to love what is good, true, and beautiful and therefore temptations must appear good, true, or beautiful. If they showed their ugly and evil reality, it would be much harder for us to give in.
This kind of temptation is very effective in keeping a soul from God because it is hidden. There are sins that are obvious and dramatic. These can be easily recognized. For example, the sin of adultery is clearly, and obviously, wrong. Resentment and pride, however deadly, are not as obvious and can quietly starve our souls.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis presents the letters of a young devil tasked with damning a soul. In the book, Screwtape writes to his uncle, a more experienced devil. As one reads it, one cannot help but be impressed at their simple and subtle machinations to pervert the soul’s desire for goodness. Often times the temptation is vanity, a refusal to accept the will of God in small things, or despair, because a good desired is out of reach.
These interior acts of the will lead the soul away from God and unto hidden idols. Screwtape’s uncle often admonishes him to tempt the souls to do good works! Good works, that is, that have been tainted by vanity or hate. Good works that distract the soul from her real responsibilities. These attacks are so subtle that when I read them I cannot help but wonder which temptations I unknowingly face.
The Great Divorce also demonstrates with clarity the soul’s struggle to rid herself of idols. In this work, the reader finds Lewis’ version of Purgatory. The book is not meant to be a physical image of Purgatory; but Lewis’ description of the small sins that keep the ghosts out of heaven is, as expected, very perceptive. The ghosts are weighed down by the things that they love more than God. Often times, they love or desire good things but the object of their love is perverted into an idol.
One reads of a mother-ghost, whose son is already in Heaven, and who cannot herself enter paradise because she loves her son more than she loves God. Maternal love is actually a noble and holy thing, but this particular soul has turned it into an idol and so she is told that when “[she] learn[s] to want Someone Else besides” her son she too can enter Heaven. This mother-ghost only desires to enter heaven because she wants to be with her son, not to see God!
One also reads of an academic that has been destroyed by pride. As a young man, he loved Truth, and what is Truth if not God Himself. Yet, as he learned more and more, paradoxically he gained a love of self that replaced his thirst for truth. His pursuit, then, became self-aggrandizement and praise instead of true knowledge which stemmed from a desire for God. As he embraced his own pride, he became unable to surrender his intellect to the truth that lay in front of him and, out of pride, embraced the ideology of his time.
The Great Divorce also shows our desire to hold on to sin. After all, it can be a bit frightening to let go of our familiar pride, selfishness, anger, and sloth. Though these weigh us down and torture us, it seems much easier to hold on to our idols, to be on our own schedule, and to seek others’ esteem, than to set them down and live for God.
Let us spend what is left of this month uncovering hidden attacks against our souls. Perhaps by the beginning of Advent, we will have a better idea of what we need to be cleansed from in order to prepare our hearts for Christmas!
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