Lectio Divina for Screwtape Chapter 1

Quick Lectio Divina Primer

Lectio Divina is a spiritual reading practice rooted in Christianity. It comes from Guigo’s The Ladder of Monks, which I freely admit I have not read. I’m coming at this from the perspective of a spiritual n00b, and taking the way I’ll be practicing Lectio Divina on this blog from the steps that Casper ter Kuile lays out in his book The Power of Ritual.

First, I’ll randomly select a sentence from the chapter and read it out loud to myself four times, and then reflect on that sentence through the following four steps:

1. What is literally happening in the narrative? Where are we in the story?

2. What allegorical images, stories, songs, or metaphors show up for you?

3. What experiences have you had in your own life that come to mind?

4. What action are you being called to take?

Step 2 is particularly interesting to me because ter Kuile says in his book and in the HP Sacred Text podcast, you’re allowed to get kind of weird in step 2. It’s a free association game with the text. It’s okay if your mind makes leaps that aren’t logical, or don’t initially seem rooted in the text. This is the text working through you to create something new

I fully intend on reading The Ladder of Monks at some point, but for right now my goal is to get into the process and refine it as I go, not getting bogged down in too much research before actually beginning the practice. I have a bad habit of building up projects in my head too much, and not executing until I have it perfectly researched and planned out. This results in never getting anything done. Trying to embrace the good without getting bogged down by the perfect.

Today’s sentence

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

I picked this sentence by running my finger down the page until it felt right to stop.

Layer 1

What is the literal meaning of the text?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

Screwtape is chastising Wormwood for trying to sway his patient through logic and argument. Wormwood is trying to get his patient to focus on materialism, and Screwtape advises Wormwood not to frame the picture in terms of true or false but through an emotional context. Courageous or stark, for example. Opening up the topic to argument cedes ground to the Enemy (servants of God and righteousness), putting the fiends on a level playing field, or even at a disadvantage. The Enemy deals in truth. Wormwood’s objective should not be correctness but winning.

Layer 2

What images, metaphors, etc. come up for you?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

The thing that immediately springs to mind is Innuendo Studios’ excellent YouTube series on the Alt-Right Playbook. It’s an exploration of the rhetorical techniques that people on the fringe right will use to radicalize people, and to give the appearance of winning an argument and saving face in public debates. These tactics have been honed online through harassment campaigns and are frighteningly effective. It’s hard for me not to see a parallel between Lewis’s fiends distracting the patient and controlling the conversation and right wing troll accounts owning the libs who continually cede ground by being unprepared for these argumentative tactics

The next thing that jumps out at me is the pointed phrase “the Enemy.” Lewis means the heavenly host here, but something about that framing brings to mind faceless masses with vile intent. It’s depersonalizing. It’s oversimplified and reductive. It erases any goals, personality, or humanity that the other side of a struggle might have except for the belief that those goals oppose your own.

Struggle, and the idea of ceding ground also resonate with me here. It makes me think of strategic board games, especially Chess and Go. Both traditionally use black and white pieces. They focus on conquest, the capture of territory and the elimination of rival units abstracted into smooth game pieces. I think it’s interesting that Screwtape uses the word “struggle,” rather than the word “battle,” which I more traditionally associate with the Biblical fight between good and evil. It’s still about conflict, but it’s softer. The violence is washed away, made vague, just like with board games. I started reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet last week. It’s about a multi-species space crew, and one of the non-human characters remarks that all the traditional human board games focus on conquest and battle, in contrast to the Aandrisk (a reptilian species) games, which focus more on collaboration and puzzle solving. There are lots of ways to view the world and many ways to reach the same goal, but this character thinks it says something about humanity that we default to viewing things through the lens of conflict and bloodshed, even if it is abstracted away on a game board.

Layer 3

What experiences from your own life come to mind?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

It’s really easy to wash away the faces of those who disagree with you and turn them into “the Enemy.” I know I’ve been doing it recently in my own mind when thinking of anti-vaxxers, and I’ve struggled a lot with resentment toward members of my family who I know are Trump supporters. I’ve also done it in the past when dealing with abusive exes, or friendships that fell apart, or coworkers who seemed to live to be a pain in my ass. It’s easy to collapse all that context in my own mind and reduce it down to a struggle with the Enemy, and where I can or cannot afford to strategically lose ground. It’s easy to get caught up in that pointless back and forth, focusing on the idea of winning, rather than focusing on the idea of truth, or right, or compassion.

At a particularly stressful job a few years ago, two of the leaders on my team pulled me into a room and grilled me on why I felt the need to be so negative. I eventually burst out crying. My relationship with my team never quite recovered from that point. It was hard not to see enemies all around me, and anytime I opened my mouth I knew that I was being judged not for what I actually said, but for the way that the leaders interpreted my tone and presentation, which only functioned to make me more bitter and paranoid. It was true that I was giving a lot of feedback on things I thought that the team needed to improve on in that period, and I admit that I do not always have the most tact. I have trouble regulating the volume of my voice when I’m emphatic or enthusiastic about something, and my mom will heartily agree when I say that it’s hard for me to back down from an argument when I know I’m correct. But I was far from the most negative person on the team. But I had the gall not to be sweet while also not being a man, and I was socially punished for this.

On this particular team we had a code word that people could use in certain meetings when they thought someone was going into too much detail and boring other people in the room. It was almost exclusively deployed at me and a woman on my team in the same job function as me. It was often shouted at us, and I developed a habit of shrinking back and slumping my shoulders slightly whenever certain men on the team spoke to me. I developed an unconscious protective gesture because I’d stopped seeing the people on my team as colleagues and collaborators, but as an occupying force in my life, looking for any slip up that could make me more vulnerable. Likewise, they’d stopped seeing me as a person, but as a dour nuisance. Undoubtedly, both sides could have handled the situation better. It was early in my professional career and I did not have the coping strategies I should have, and did not pick my battles as carefully as I should have. But the constant chessboard struggle, looking to gain higher ground in any conversation, rather than actually solving the problems in front of us, came back to me in today’s reading.

Layer 4

What is the text calling you to do?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

It feels pretty clear to me that the text is asking me to reject the black and white thinking that allows me to flatten other people into a faceless enemy. Possibly to reach out and wish well to those family members who have expressed an anti-vax opinion in the past. Or reach out to friends I’ve grown distant from, who it’s easy to stereotype in unfair ways in my mind.

I’m struggling with this because in some ways, the way that we flatten people out is a self-defense mechanism. We don’t always do that because we’re on the offensive, looking to gain ground, but because we’re afraid of attack, and it’s easier to lump together the people that we think might find a reason to harm us rather than spending the mental effort necessary to simulate their minds as complete, independent individuals with complex wants and needs. We’re pattern seeking creatures, and I wonder if it’s worth it to break those patterns to delve deeper into the lives and stories of people who don’t want the best for us.

Of course, I know intellectually that it’s important to maintain those bridges, keep connections open to people who disagree with us. It’s what civil society is based on, and we can’t change hearts and minds blah blah blah of people we don’t regard as full people in their own right. But the reality is that when you open yourself up to someone else, create space for them to be vulnerable with you and possibly change their minds, you’re doing the same. That same vulnerability and willingness to hear argument reflects back at you, and in an incredibly charged and polarized climate, is that a risk that feels worth taking?

My reading of the text through this Lectio Divina practice seems to indicate that the risk is worth it. This is maybe a bit of a cop out, but I think I’m going to start small. Based on my reading today I’m going to respond to all of the holiday cards I got in December. Even the ones that I was originally going to ignore. I’m also going to do a loving kindness meditation and try to project warmth and kindness toward someone I suspect does not have my best interests at heart.

Last Thought & Next Step

I’m chafing against this call to action from the text. But I guess if it were easy it wouldn’t be called a practice.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with a small transformative work created from the chapter 1 reading. Until next time <3