Screwtape on Prayer

C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is one of my favorite books. From time to time I find myself in possession of a letter that appears to be from Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, but was not written by Lewis. Here is one of those letters, dealing chiefly with how to neuter a Christian’s resolve to pray.


My dear Wormword,

I have received your letter where you raise your alarm about your patient’s resolve to pray regularly. I do have some advice for you, but first and foremost: get a grip on yourself! In your letter your panic is palpable. If I can detect it in your written (and presumably measured) words, it is very likely the patient will sense it as well.

As you know, we must remain anonymous until the patient is firmly and irrevocably ours. As I think of it, anonymous is too soft a word; we must remain invisible. The patient must never suspect our presence. The greater their ignorance, the greater our power. You are too young to have tasted much yet, but few delights surpass the exquisiteness of the patient’s anguish and horror when they realize that we have been there all along, whispering a thought here, offering a pleasant distraction there; now a convenient rationale to avoid a duty, then a reminder that he is not the sort of person to be taken in by spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Many a delectable morsel has been elevated to ecstatic heights by the soul’s dismay and horror when at the last possible moment, we reveal ourselves and the creature sees who really has been leading him and how firmly he is ours. But I digress (and make myself quite hungry).

As to practical advice, if you are panicked by some turn of events, such as your patient’s resolve to be regular in prayer, you are likely to over-play your hand and increase the likelihood of the patient detecting your presence and activity. You have already failed in that he has joined that infernal church. There is every chance that should he notice you now, the patient will go groveling to the Enemy, seeking His help to defang us. That would prove damaging, if not fatal, to your cause and yourself.

Assuming you can master yourself and not give away the game, the question remains: what to do about your patient’s loathsome lurch toward prayer? Your naïve suggestion that perhaps “do nothing” is the best course is fool-hardy. Do not forget that anytime one of these creatures sets itself to prayer; there is the very real possibility that it will recognize that it has actually come into direct contact with the Enemy. Should that happen, you are dire straights indeed. No, passivity cannot be your strategy here.

Your first strategy is to keep the patient’s heart and mind entirely out of his prayer. Teach him that simply mouthing flowery words is all that is necessary. Do not let him think about what he is saying, and certainly do not let him notice how he feels while praying. In His pathetic love for these creatures, the Enemy will honor almost any attempt, no matter how feeble and half-hearted. So, you must teach your patient to say his prayers while encouraging him to not bother about attending to them.

It is a fine thing if the patient thinks of prayer as some sort of magic spell or incantation. Teach him that just saying the right words is the important thing. If you can keep him sufficiently distracted so that he does not notice the Enemy’s presence, your patient can easily be shown that “parroting a bunch of empty phrases doesn’t do one any good after all!”

A second strategy is to ensure that the patient does not come to understand that in the Enemy’s calculus, intent matters. It seems at times to be the only thing that matters to Him! Your game then is to keep the patient’s intent or expectation separate from his actions. For prayer, as for almost any overtly religious activity, he may undertake, teach him that it is a duty, something that must be done. If handled carefully, you can turn it into a bothersome and even resented obligation. Alternately, you can spin it up into a source of pride. Something he does to show his pious and religious nature. A man who brags about his prayer is a special treat.

The third card in your hand is to keep prayer distant from any sense of belief or expectation. These creatures have been carefully taught to distrust anything they cannot see, measure, and understand. As you know, this is due in no small part to our Father Below’s masterful work in what they call their “enlightenment.” Do not waste your time trying to understand how belief and faith enter into prayer; our best minds have been unable to solve that riddle. Nonetheless, you must teach your patient to wonder about “how it all works.” Show him that, since he cannot understand how something could happen as a result of his babbling, nothing is or even could be happening. You and I know that somehow what he believes about his prayers is essential; it is a key factor in his actually encountering the Enemy. Therefore you must keep the patient from any faith or expectations getting caught up in his prayers.

Taken all together, these strategies sum up to “settling.” Teach the patient not to expect anything; to settle. His church will teach him to be humble. You show him that humility means not expecting anything, settling for what you get. He must be taught that expecting anything to really happen is not realistic, certainly not in this modern age. Teach him that discontent is “sin.” Whatever state he finds himself in is what he should settle for, lest he is arrogant and proud! As long as the patient is content where he is, he is unlikely to take any serious steps that might lead to disaster for you.

Make no mistake, nephew. You have already badly blundered your assignment by allowing your man to become a Christian. (And don’t waste your time complaining that you did the best you could and that the Enemy isn’t playing fair.) Every move you make now is fraught with peril for your cause. This is nowhere truer than in the practice of prayer, where the Enemy inexplicably and unfairly offers to meet with his pets. Each time that is allowed to happen your danger multiplies. Diligently apply yourself to neutering his prayers in hopes that he will eventually find them tiresome and give up the whole undertaking. I need not remind you of the penalty you face should you fail in this. We will be fed. For my sister’s sake, I’d rather that our morsel be your patient.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape


If you found any instruction or encouragement in this letter, I highly recommend Lewis’s original: The Screwtape Letters.