After my initial post a friend of mine asked me what I think the difference is between sacred reading and just literary analysis. Neither of us have religious backgrounds, and I thought it was a good question, so I wanted to address it up top here. With literary analysis, I think you’re trying to get to the heart of a text through a number of different lenses, or view a text in conversation with another piece to find some sort of truth between them. The way I’m approaching sacred reading, I’m thinking of my life as a secondary or tertiary text in conversation with whatever I’m reading, and trying to genuinely believe that the text is capable of speaking directly to my life, both as metaphor and something that can call out to me to take actions or deliver moral instruction. It feels out of bounds for what you’d do in a traditional literary analysis. This is my first foray into sacred reading though, so I’m sure my definition of it and how it factors into my life will change as I develop a practice. For right now I’m pretty much aping the process from Harry Potter and the Sacred Text while I try to figure out what works for me.
With that out of the way, on to Chapter 1 through the lens of Connection!
Brief chapter summary
In chapter one we are introduced to the two principal characters, Wormwood and Screwtape. Wormwood is a lower level demon in charge of a “patient,” who writes to his Uncle Screwtape for guidance on corrupting the patient’s soul. We learn that Wormwood has been attempting to steer the patient into the company of his materialist friend, and while Screwtape thinks that’s not necessarily a bad idea, he is baffled that Wormwood thinks that logic and arguments are the way to corrupt a patient’s soul. Screwtape argues instead that a demon should take pains to avoid logic, reason, the fundamental sciences of the universe, or anything that might awaken critical thinking and contemplation. The pressure of ordinary life and minor distractions like hunger pangs or the hustle and bustle of “real life” are far more effective at derailing soulful contemplation than any argument for indulgence or sin could ever be. He concludes his letter “Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!”
Reading through the theme of connection
I’m not going to lie, when I drew the Connection card for reading through this chapter, I kind of dreaded it. First off, I’m giving myself a bit of a challenge by using a text that operates on examples of how not to live your life. Second, in my real life, connection is one of the things I struggle with the most right now. I barely leave my home, and I think social isolation has gotten to us all through the course of the pandemic. So what could I possibly have to say about connection? What could Lewis impart that’s relevant to these strange and unpleasant times?
The first, most obvious place I see connection in the chapter is through the fact that Wormwood is reaching out to Screwtape for advice. We’ll see later in the text that this may not be the most prudent choice in the long run – fiends don’t have anyone’s best interests at heart, especially not that of other fiends. But even demons, when they struggle, seek out advice and approval from their peers and mentors. Surely they must know that the bureaucracy of Hell is a cutthroat world where you should be suspicious of any connection. But even in Hell they can’t help themselves from reaching out to one another.
The second place I see connection is in the first paragraph. We learn that Wormwood has been trying to influence his patient to forge a stronger connection with a “materialist friend.” We don’t learn much more than this before Screwtape launches into his philosophy of obscuring the truth and distracting the patient from deeper thought. But it implies that connection is not necessarily a universal good for us. The people we surround ourselves with have a profound impact on our psyches and souls, and while Screwtape dismisses the idea in favor of other distractions in this chapter, he doesn’t completely shut down the idea. It’s been a long time since I read Screwtape, so I don’t remember exactly how the patient’s relationships with other people play out. But it’s clear that connections are something that can be leveraged both for our growth and our destruction. This seems obvious enough when you write it out, but during this period of extreme isolation it’s easy to romanticize all human connection as good, and to fantasize about relationships that did me a lot of harm in the past. Throughout the course of the pandemic, I really pruned a lot of the people I talked to on a regular basis, and there’s a real grief that comes with losing connections, but the ones I was able to devote more time and attention to are deeper and more rewarding as a result.
Lastly, I was surprised to see connection in a different light throughout the chapter as well. When I first drew the card, I only thought about Connection through the lens of social ties and interaction, but this chapter really seemed to speak to the joy and fulfillment of deep introspection and drawing connections across disciplines and concepts. Building connection, whether it be social or forging neural pathways, requires intention, attention, time, and repetition. What Screwtape says about distracting his patient by insisting that real work and thought should wait until after lunch, or knocking his patient off course by befuddling him with meaningless stimulus really hits home. In my intro post for this series I talked about how I feel like I’m constantly distracting myself, pumping as much information as I can into my brain without really giving myself time to process and integrate what I take in. I’ve been listening to the Screwtape on my shoulder who says that real work is “too important to tackle at the end of a morning…Much better to come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind.” Of course, there is always such an excuse. It’s easy to never come back to that real work of reflection, self-discovery, and meaningful connection between minds, ideas, and souls.
This last manifestation of connection (or hindrances to creating meaningful connection) is surprising to me. I wasn’t expecting to find something in the text that speaks so directly to how I’m feeling, especially not so soon. If I were reading this text as I normally do, reading through the chapters but not spending time dwelling on them through a randomly determined theme, I’m not sure I’d be viewing my own life through the lens of the text quite so carefully. It’s nice to be surprised. It’s nice to feel like I’m seeing and thinking something new after so many months shut up in the same place. I have to seek out novelty and meaning where serendipity used to throw things at me on the train or walking down the street. Now the only places I go are the gym and occasionally to the store, always masked, with limited connection to both the strangers around me and to the people I used to see regularly and take for granted. The pandemic has fundamentally altered the ways in which I interact with the world around me. But waiting for “real life” to return and putting my connection with both the world and with a deeper part of my self is giving in to impulses that do not serve me. We are living our real lives right now, whether we like it or not, and who we become at the end of this pandemic will be forged by our day to day lives until then.
That’s what I’ve got for chapter 1 and the theme of connection. I’m coming back tomorrow with a Lectio Divina reading from the chapter. I’m going through the text very slowly, trying out a few different spiritual reading practices as discussed on the HP Sacred Text podcast. I’m still getting my sea legs with this sacred reading thing. It feels weird to mull over chapters so long like this, but I’m trying to embrace the discomfort. Anyhow, if you’re reading Screwtape along with me I’d love to hear your thoughts. Right now this project feels awkward and self indulgent, but I’m trying to remind myself that all new things feel weird and dumb when you first start them. Reading Chapter 1 hasn’t brought me any closer to understanding the fundamental meaning of life, but it has reaffirmed some of the things I’ve been thinking about. I need to take some time to slow down and try to process the world outside of a production/profit lens and find what other meaning there could be. I think we could all benefit from that right now and I hope some of you will join me.