When we are spiritually weak, God often uses gentle means to draw us to Himself — aware that anything harsher would drive us off. This is one of the most attractive aspects of our divine romancer: that He woos as a true lover would, and protects like a firm, loving parent. Complications arise when we’re clever enough to figure His strategy out, and we calculate as follows:
- God’s treating me really tenderly because He knows I’m just a beginner.
- He treats the saints really roughly because He knows that they can take it. (I’m still unclear on why he wants them to take it.) Think of St. Teresa of Avila, who complained to God of her sufferings. He answered: “That is how I always treat my friends.” She quipped back: “No wonder you have so few.”
- So if I make any steps toward holiness, He’s going to try and purify me, “build me up” as He did all those mystics whose lives strike me as cautionary tales. He will start tapping the “smite” key, and might not let up until I’m a leprous victim soul lying prostrate in some dungeon subsisting exclusively on the Eucharist like poor Lydwine of Schiedam — sustained, we’re assured, by a kind of “joy” of which I have no earthly experience, and to which I feel no attraction.
- Therefore, I want to give this “holiness” business a very wide berth. Happily, that isn’t hard.
However, if I stray too far from the straight path, God will do one of two things:
- Start striking me down in order to forcibly grab my attention — like a father who lets a stubbornly disobedient son burn his hand on the stove, so he’ll remember the damned thing is hot. This typically doesn’t happen in some dramatic, Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus fashion involving hysterically blind Jewish tentmakers, but rather creeps up in the form of liver disease, divorce torts, or bankruptcy proceedings.
- Just give up on me and leave me alone. Which sounds pretty good at first. (Think of all those countries that have sent God on hiatus, compared to the ones that keep Him constantly in mind. Be honest, who wouldn’t rather live in Sweden than the Philippines?) The only problem here is the hangover. Spiritual writers say that the truly wicked who prosper in this life may have “spent” all the actual graces they’re ever going to get, and it may be God has given up trying to twist their arms. Instead, He’ll let them rut and rave or waste and spend till their mortal frames give out. What’s left of their souls will trickle down to the cosmic biohazard facility, where it will be permanently contained so it can’t do any more damage. This doesn’t sound very appealing, either.
Therefore, it seems to my risk-averse, utility maximizing mind that the wisest course of action is to shun at once the madness of the saints and the worst excesses of sin, to keep my head down in the security line lest the Theocentric Security Angels (TSA) stop me and frisk me, hoping that I can make it onto the flight with my 7 oz. bottle of illegal tequila. The key is to avoid all eye contact, if you don’t want to watch them pour that sweet stuff out in the airport trash can . . .
Remaining in such a state is not the ideal way to spend a Lent — and we only get a limited number of them before we die, so it only seems prudent to make each blasted one of them count. So I’m trying a few expedients to pry my slothful soul from its Tempur-Pedic® easy chair. As a writer, I find it a tiny penance to read most things that I haven’t personally written. (Who wouldn’t rather talk than listen?) So that seems like a good start. Spiritual reading it is then — spaced out and amply incentivized with those little motivational dog treats I keep for myself. So I make myself the deal: Thirty minutes of lectio divina for every hour spent watching reruns of Law and Order: SVU and matching its psychopaths with ex-friends of mine.
To keep myself reading, I’d better choose something that offers plenty of secondary satisfactions, to cushion the blow of whatever spiritual beating I am in for. For some people, that would entail battle narratives, covert ops, and rip-roaring tales of sin — e.g., the Old Testament. For me, it means clever writing, engaging style, a good deal of humor . . . oh wait, I’ve just blundered into One-Click ordering Waugh’s The Loved One — a nasty satire of Hollywood funeral homes and pet cemeteries. Well, it is by a Catholic author . . .
No that won’t do. Nor can I really justify (on the same grounds) rereading The Silmarillion. There’s always Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson’s extraordinary tale of the antichrist; written around 1900, it’s an eerily accurate depiction of how we live today. But (knowing myself) I’d simply use it as an occasion to snark about the UN and “media elites,” and the point of Lent is (for once) to turn our guns inward. Most of C.S. Lewis is at once delightful and enlightening, but I’ve probably read his popular books too many times already. Skimming through his bibliography, I see some titles I haven’t read, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama does sound rather Lenten. But it’s still too far off topic.
I found to my delight that those who are hungry for more Lewis — or, rather, for more of the sort of thing he did so well, updated for modern sinners — a book by Rev. Dwight Longenecker, which I’ve finally adopted (halfway through Lent) as my belated spiritual reading: The Gargoyle Code. In the spirit and much the same voice as The Screwtape Letters, it is that very rare thing — a worthy variation on a theme. I wouldn’t say that Father Longenecker impersonates Lewis, for instance by making the book sound purposely British, or emulating Lewis’s stylistic quirks. But Father Longenecker does an excellent job of adopting, as Lewis did, the haughty misanthropic tone appropriate to a professional tempter.
The easy fun in books such as this comes when the author skewers sins to which we aren’t tempted. Father Longenecker’s account of washed-out postmodern parishes fixated on vapid “social justice” goals instead of (say) the Corporal Works of Mercy had me sniggering in my vichyssoise. Likewise, when his tempter praises stripped-down, “relevant” liturgies that step around the sacred like a dead white elephant in the room. For other readers, these sections might be the ones that provoke ugly epiphanies and late-night shivers, but not for me. For a good part of the book I thought I might be safe, that The Gargoyle Code might prove the kind of polemic that left me thumping the table, lighting a second cigar, and harrumphing about what a jolly sort of fellow I really am.
His demon, Slubgrip, analyzes with the fine eye of a predator the spiritual lives of several Christians, offering keen insights on the battle for human souls from the Enemy’s perspective. Conveniently, the book is divided into 40 tiny chapters, for each day of Lent — so if you pick the thing up now you’ve got some catching up to do. But isn’t it true for most of us by this time that we’ve fallen a bit behind whatever schedule we set ourselves this season? Are those rosary beads getting all the exercise you promised them? Have you written that check to Catholic Relief Services to use in Japan? How many daily Masses, weekly confessions, non-random acts of kindness have you actually accumulated? If you haven’t yet fallen short, you’re a better man than I. But then, you already knew that. There’s no point preening in the mirror on that account . . .
Alas, it was not to be. My easygoing fun screeched to halt just shy of a school bus when I read the following lines — which splashed a bowl of ice-cold cider vinegar in my eyes. Speaking of his client, a thoughtful “conservative Catholic,” Slubgrip recalls:
I have encouraged his reading of spiritual books and his enthusiasm for all the outward signs of his religion. I have encouraged his tendency to pay attention to detail and his inclination to criticize those who are different from himself. This has led him to an exquisitely constant attitude of being critical and suspicious toward any aspect of religion that is unlike his own. By making sure that he believed he was right in all things and had nothing to learn I was soon able to guarantee that he would, indeed, learn nothing.
With that paragraph, I recalled all the Masses where I spent the consecration inwardly, grimly muttering, “Second Eucharistic Prayer . . . If I wanted to go to an Episcopal church I’d find one — with better music!” I remembered the glorious liturgies whose graces I frittered away by gathering all the most cantankerous members of the congregation for a long brunch spent on ecclesiastical gossip — a topic that has offered constant distraction since at least 2002:
- “Have you seen the latest abuse settlement?”
- “Why can’t the Muslims blow up that ‘cathedral’ in Los Angeles . . . while it’s empty, of course. Now that’s my kind of ecumenism!”
- “That sermon was kind of Americanist, don’t you think?”
Indeed, I remembered a cold and sobering moment in the 1990s when I found myself admitting: It’s not so much that I love the pope and the faith as that I can’t stand liberal Catholics. In fact, I’d hate them if I were an atheist, those envious, soft-brained, civilizational vandals. At the time, I rather congratulated myself on this sentiment. It’s only now, in the cool, full-spectrum light cast by Father Longenecker’s sobering book, that I see the origin of this idea. It came from Screwtape. Or, rather, Slubgrip.