How would you describe the virtuous Christian life? What are the things that would make it on your list? Our lists likely change over time as we experience more and more of the joys and sufferings that life brings us, but it is probably safe to say they involve a fair amount of doing. Surely a bit of abstaining. Perhaps even a fair bit of reading. Lots of going and working.
This year our juniors and seniors have the good fortune of reading “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis in Spiritual Formation. It is a weird one. It is a collection of letters that Lewis has written as the demon Screwtape. Screwtape’s job is partly to instruct junior demons in how to lead humans away from God. In this case, Screwtape is writing these letters to his nephew, Wormwood, on how he can better assure that his “patient” is destined to walk with their “Father Below” rather than fall into the hand of the “Enemy.”
I told you it was a weird one.
What Lewis has done is take a very silly premise and write a masterful description of what it means to live a virtuous Christian life. And that description is a bit surprising. Screwtape warns Wormwood not to attempt leading his patient into obvious sins like gluttony or violence or any number of sexual sins. Those are momentary failures, any one of which has the option of being used by God to lead the patient to repentance. Screwtape states with confidence that the truest way to lead people away from God is to keep them living in a fog. They must not be allowed to contemplate their place in relation to truths that are larger than themselves. Keep their friendships superficial. Keep their eyes trained on the ordinariness of the morning paper and the checkbook. Let them practice good deeds and make sure that they are completely aware of how good those deeds were and how good a person they are and how lucky everyone is to have them in their lives.
Screwtape chastises Wormwood in one instance because he has allowed the patient to read a good book and go on a long, reflective walk. This moment of true and positive pleasure has allowed the Holy Spirit to surround the patient, cutting off Wormwood’s access to him. This is how Lewis describes the virtuous Christian life. The truly faithful are AWARE of God in the present moment of their lives. The activity is almost irrelevant. Feeding the poor or taking out the trash. It is the AWARENESS that is the key. The patient may abstain from various sinful activities and still be lost because the battle is for the mind of the patient. As Dallas Willard states, “wherever the mind goes, the rest of your life goes with it.”
It is a beautiful reminder. We are busy all the time. If we finish the task before us or endure the current tragedy or somehow manage to survive our way to the next hilltop of life, we can rest assured that another valley is approaching. There will be no shortage of things wrestling for our time and our concentration. At times, we become so programmed by constant activity, we don’t even know what to do with ourselves when there is a break or a blank space on the calendar. It is comforting to be reminded by that grumpy ol’ curmudgeon Screwtape that the Holy Spirit is merely thoughts away from our presence. As our minds get lost in the fog of our everyday tasks and distractions, the Holy Spirit lies in wait, ready to remind us of what it means to dwell with God in the present moment. Because to be present with God amid struggles, victories, and perhaps most of all, boredom, is the virtuous Christian life.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” -Jesus to his disciples; John 15:4 (NRSV)