"He felt that he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality."
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapter XV
Thursday, August 19, 2010
What makes a classic work of literature, well, classic? Some may argue that broad appeal over many generations is the primary criterion. Some might aver that a certain sense of pushing conventional boundaries or being revolutionary in scope or style are the marks of classics. Still others might put forward that a work cannot achieve "classic" status unless it has been put under the scholarly microscope, subjected to reams of literary criticism. I would like to offer up something I find increasingly: a classic is a work which stands up to multiple readings, offering something new or unexpected with each. Under my definition (as well as the others), The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is truly a classic.
I just finished my third reading of it. I'm pretty sure my own personal demon has read it, too, because I think I fall prey to just about every diabolical trick delineated in this book aimed to drive me away from Father, time and time again. It's a squirmy, wormy feeling to read about "the Patient" and find that the patient is you. And, while I could relate to every temptation presented to Wormwood's patient, what really caught my attention in this most recent reading was the letter about peaks and troughs, not so much because that is my own particular struggle right now (though, isn't it always at least a shadow struggle that threatens to solidify?), but because my dear friend is mired in a bit of a trough, and I have been relentlessly praying for her.
In Letter VIII, Screwtape schools his nephew, Wormwood, in what he calls the Law of Undulation. We humans, you see, are amphibious — existing as half spirit, half animal. Being as such — this "revolting hybrid" — we can only achieve a state approximating constancy between our spiritual selves (which can be sited on eternal objects) and our natural selves (always subject to temporal changes) through "undulation — the repeated return to a level from which [we] repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks."
We had a guest pastor at our church this past weekend while our senior pastor is on an extended vacation. While, overall, it was a good sermon on 1 Samuel 15 and the progression of sin, I did have one disagreement. The speaker said something like, "Dry seasons in your walk are not blessed times nor times of growth; if you are running spiritually dry, it is a sign of unresolved sin in your life." Not only is this discouraging and disheartening, I do not think it is true — certainly not always true. The presence of Father can at times be clouded to our senses by our sin; but, there are times when, for reasons only He knows, His palpable presence is simply not revealed to us. And these are the times, C.S. Lewis surmises through the voice of Screwtape, when we grow in obedience.
God wants us to desire a relationship with Him; He wants, as Screwtape notes with disgust, "servants who can finally become sons." But, because He desires that we desire Him, He has given us free will, making "the Irresistible and the Indisputable . . . two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. . . . He cannot ravish. He can only woo." When the Holy Spirit first washes over our lives, bringing repentance, reverence, and reconciliation, we live on the peak of what Carolyn Arends calls the "overflow of perichoresis" — that is, in the abundance of the love and life that exists and has always existed in the presence and fellowship of the Trinity. But, then we wake up a day or a month or a year or a decade later and find that we are still half-animals. Make no mistake, eventually you will hit a trough. And why?
It's worth it to offer up as explanation this lengthy quote from the incomparable Jack Lewis: "Sooner or later [God] withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs — to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. . . . He cannot "tempt" to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there, He is pleased even with their stumbles." If this is true, and I suspect it is, then God must love the Psalms — that handbook for the broken-hearted, filled with David's (and others') prayers from the trough. Think for a moment of Psalm 27: "Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice! Have mercy also upon me and answer me. When You said, 'Seek My face,' my heart said to You, 'Your face, Lord, I will seek.' Do not hide Your face from me; do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; Do not leave me or forsake me, O God of my salvation. . . . I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." David, with all his sin and his dry seasons, was a man after God's own heart.
There are a lot of Christian songs about rain. I tend to like them, because I really like rain (being a web-footed Pacific Northwest girl), and also, I think, because I like the analogy that, after the dry seasons, the rain travels down to the resting seeds and nourishes what was already there; the next season brings fruit. The Lord provides this cyclical journey, because we need that sort of peak and trough rotation for equilibrium. The key is not to despair during the dry or barren seasons, but to recognize them and still follow the "sweet will of God." Here is the end of Chapter VIII which gave me chills when I came across it last week: "Our cause [i.e. the cause of drawing souls away from God into fodder for demonic sustenance] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." [Emphasis mine.]
I am praying for you, dear friend, without ceasing. And I know you will see again the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.