Reviewing the Screwtape Letters as a Witch: Prayer is Hard to do Wrong

Screwtape and Wormwood have a problem. Now that the patient is a Christian, he’s going to start praying. At it’s core, prayer is an attempt to communicate with God. Obviously, demons aren’t big on the “God” part of that sentence. They also hate the concept of “communicate,” because it suggests an openness to insight and information. Also “attempt,” because with attempts come agency and learning and all kinds of potential for positive development. I suspect they aren’t even big fans of “with,” because their whole thing is being as closed off, competitive and aggressive as possible. If a real effort at connecting with something bigger is going on, the demons are strategically worse off.

They can minimize it but they can’t avoid it entirely. So their next best call is to bury it under as much gunk as possible.

I think this is a good time to clarify my relationship to prayer, because the term “witch” doesn’t imply anything specific. Witches engage in divination and spellwork; modern witches might also pray to gods or cosmic forces, or might perform magic without devotion to any kind of diety, or might view their actions as completely symbolic with no real power. I actually view my spells and divinations as a kind of prayer. I believe in a pervasive cosmic force that I’m comfortable calling “God,” and I believe that any kind of symbolic ritual can help us communicate with that force. It’s less about which symbols are right or wrong, but more about the fact that, as physical beings, we often need some kind of physical action to direct our attention to spiritual matters.

Oddly enough, Screwtape sort of agrees with that. Humans are a merger of material and spiritual matter, and the influence is bidirection. The spirit can strengthen or weaken the body, and the body can support or interfere with the spirit. He advises Wormwood to keep the patient thinking of successful prayer as a kind of generally holy mood that you can will yourself into. He says that the patient should be encouraged to think of the whole kneeling-and-reciting thing as childish, and instead try to just spontaneously feel prayerful for a while. Some people, who Screwtape describes as “advanced in the Enemy’s service,” really can enter a meditative state without some kind of physical correspondence, but it’s rare, and tends to happen after a long time building that communication channel between themselves and God. When people like the patient copy this without putting in the groundwork, the result is something shallow and self-absorbed.

Screwtape also recommends that Wormwood try to make the patient expect an unrealistic level of control over his emotions. He shouldn’t pray for courage, as in admit that he’s afraid and needs to work through it. He should pray for courage, and then try to will away any sense of fear right then and there. The more he focuses on his own mind, the less he is actually praying.

Honestly, it wasn’t until after my atheist detox that I understood that either kinds of internal focus were problems. I really did think there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t make myself feel perfectly devoted and worshipful on command. The churches we attended when I was growing up often had members who were awkwardly performative. They were the kind where most of the attendants sit or stand in with a tired, rote energy, but in every other aisle someone is being Obviously Very Spiritual. They are swaying in a way that seems sort of trancelike, or holding one hand up in the air and screwing up their face as if they are either receiving a psychic message from a distant spaceship or having an uncomfortable bowel movement. It’s hard to say they are faking it, exactly, but they feel disconnected from everybody else, because no matter how often the preacher proclaims, “I feel the Holy Spirit moving through this place!” eighty percent of the congregation just looks bored.

As a kid, I didn’t want the preacher to be wrong. I wanted there to be something holy going on. I wanted to be one of those Obviously Very Spiritual People who could feel the holiness. But I was afraid of faking it. I felt like I had to first conjure up a sense of being holy, and only then had the right to raise my hands to the heavens.

Now, I embrace crystals and candles and hokey new age music, because I have a body, and giving my body all those cues that it’s a different time helps it go into talk-with-God mode. I don’t think C. S. Lewis ever intended for me to draw quite the line between what he wrote and what I do, but that’s okay. I’m still going to draw it, because it works.

Now, despite the helpful tips he has just given, Screwtape has a serious concern. Again, the mere intent to pray is a distressing thing to demons. Communication is a two-way channel. It doesn’t have to be perfect to make progress. If everything else falls through, Screwtape advises Wormwood to try to make the patient conjure up a false image of God. Try to attach all kind of attributes and preconceptions to it. Try to get the patient to talk to that patchwork image of religious iconography, rather than anything genuinely divine.

If you’re into books about spirituality, (which, if you’re reading this, I think it’s safe to assume that you are) I’d highly recommend Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History. It covers historical, archaeological and anthropological research into the nature of our spiritual beliefs, without necessarily treating the explanations as a reason to dismiss them. Over and over again, he returns to this paradoxical wrestling between the idea of an ultimate, undefinable spiritual reality and the need to give that undefinable reality a face. I think that conflict is at the root of prayer. When we pray, whether as Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or vaguely spiritual witchy types or whatever else you identify with, we are reaching out to something bigger than we can wrap our minds around. Eventually we start personifying or simplifying that ultimate reality. Sometimes we recognize this and then try to create a new religious framework that gets away from all the personifications and simplifications. It can work for a time, but eventually our human limitations cause us to re-impose other limits on the nature of God. The Protestant Evangelical church is a perfect example. At the dawn of the Reformation, every Protestant denomination made its own attempt to strip away the rituals of the Catholic church, which many reformers argued were practically idolatry. But look at Protestant churches today. They all have their own rituals and their own icons, some of which are fairly absurd (like Blond Jesus. The real Jesus would have looked like the guy who gets “randomly” pulled over at airport security).

Here, too, Screwtape has to point out that, no matter how many illusions they layer, the patient has a way to make prayer work for him. The patient can simply acknowledge the illusions that he’s engaging in as illusions. As Screwtape puts it, “if ever he consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think Thou art but to what Thou knowest Thyself to be,’ our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside, or if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur.”

Of course our spiritual practices will reflect something more specific than the ultimate, undefinable reality that is God. What do you think undefinable means? The escape isn’t in shedding rituals, because, again, we are spiritual-material hybrids. What we do with our bodies affects our minds and therefore our spirits, and that is fine. Prayer is a conversation between ourselves and something that understands our human limitations. The obstacle to prayer isn’t those limitations themselves, because surely they can be overcome by anything worth calling “God.” It’s in admitting that they exist, and doing our best despite them.

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