Screwtape and the Banquet

Once more, a diabolical epistle has fallen into my hands. Screwtape, a devil long experienced, is here writing again to his subordinate, Ragwort. Ragwort has responsibility for overseeing the ‘Scottish Sector’; the more senior Screwtape has responsibility for overseeing Ragwort, and answering any questions he might have. I can’t imagine that Screwtape ever intended these letters for public consumption, but since ‘consumption’ appears to be the theme on this occasion perhaps my publishing them represents a kind of poetic justice…

—GB

My dear Ragwort,

You catch me just in time. I am dressing for dinner. My instructions stipulate ‘top hat and tails’, and I have grown another one just for this occasion.

The occasion in question does in fact have some bearing on your query. This is the annual Feast of Souls, which we hold at this time of the year principally to annoy the Enemy, but also to commemorate the three days during which we held Him captive. When you ascend to my rank – assuming that your career, like mine, will be one of unbroken and unbridled success – no doubt you too will be invited to remember the moment when the War seemed almost won.

For it was a glorious moment. Though brief, it seemed to us magnificent. Something very like real happiness pervaded every corner of the Infernal Kingdom. We had won: we had brought God down to our level, and though we had not re-entered Heaven we had trapped Heaven’s Lord in Hell. It was a victory.

And then – oh, the vile obscenity of it! He left! He returned to the Earth and left us here. We thought we had won: we discovered too late that Christ came here to defeat us all the more savagely. He left us the sins without the sinner. We had thought the world damned: He shook off that damnation and returned to a world thus redeemed. From the moment of Christ’s escape every instance of sin, every transgressive particle of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every year of every aeon had to be fought for. We claim souls as being ours only after we spend a lifetime securing them. That splintered wooden cross, for all that it seemed to torture God, turned out to be the rod He fashioned for our backs. We suffer and slave and toil to secure souls all the while knowing that the Enemy might at any moment reach in and pluck a sinner from our grasp. He earnestly desires the company of His creations for all eternity: thanks to that cross, He can have exactly that.

And so, every year, we feast at this date to demonstrate that we are by no means impotent. I have before me the menu. Are you interested in the cuisine with which we are to be presented? Allow me then to regale you with the carte du jour:

To start, a pâté en terrine du Glutton. I have to say, it is excellent to see that we are beginning, as is traditional, with something rich. We do it to yet further distance ourselves from the barbarous practices of Lent. And given the paucity of the fare in other regards – we seldom feast on sinners of great defiance, and when we do, they are defiant of Christian belief, not morality – it is particularly gratifying to be presented with a species of human soul so completely and utterly self-absorbed. And, more to the point, ignorantly so.

Do you recall the last occasion on which you, in your capacity as overseer of the assault on the Church of Scotland, heard a sermon preached that took gluttony as its theme? We have worked hard to create a peculiar blindness to the ‘sins of the flesh’ – or, if not blindness, then at least a kind of tunnel vision – in which we have fetishised sexual immorality while at the same time disguising all the other physical immoralities that these corporeal creatures are capable of. The result is a kind of hysteria, whereby improper sexuality is the only recognised sin of the flesh and the others – intemperance, gluttony, or any other craving after physical or sensual pleasure – are either ignored or excused. Chocolate eggs are in themselves no bad thing: when they become the focal point of Easter celebrations, when they dictate how children treat their parents, when they supplant the awful figure of the Christ as the symbol of the festival – that is when they become very bad indeed. At least, for the humans concerned. To us the confections become invaluable. Sins of the flesh are important to us primarily because they foster, in the mind and the body and the spirit of the patient, a kind of deep-rooted selfishness that very quickly becomes almost impossible to eradicate. We teach our patients that it is only appropriate that they ‘attend to their needs’: quietly, without them quite noticing it, we supplant ‘needs’ with ‘desires’ and then watch as the creatures become slaves to the physical demands which they choose to place upon themselves! Such an attitude naturally pervades the whole of the patient’s heart and will. And yet they themselves seem cheeringly oblivious to the simple and obvious fact that their bodies affect their minds and their minds affect how they interact with everyone and everything with which they come into contact. I have known patients damned for an attitude that was birthed with the desire for a really good hard-boiled egg. I could show you a pretty cageful down here – at least, until the kitchens get hold of them.

After such a rich starter, we move to a more substantive main, Fanatic en flambé. You will have observed, I’m sure, with the great delight common to our kind when we encounter patients indefensibly vociferous, the evolution of that global soapbox known as the Internet. Or known, more pungently and appropriately, as the Web. It is, after all, infused with websites whose purpose it is to ensnare the unwary. In the old days the fanatics, the Pharisees and the outright heretics could reach only a relatively small audience: now their grasp is global. All of them are united by their desire to put forward, with more certainty than they can lay any real claim to, a certain theological position; while at the same time all of them are mutually antagonistic and loathe each other with all the venom they can muster. It gives them, when they are served to us hissing and spitting on their platters, a certain tang, a particular piquancy one can’t experience from any other source.

There are variations, of course, subtleties of shade and texture and grain and flavour, but in the main they fall into three broad camps. The fanatics so focus on some sin, perceived or otherwise, that they become crusaders against it. They set themselves (as they see it) against Society, and in so doing focus so heavily on Society and its woes that they increasingly abandon their God and their own imperfections. These are the characters whom we must blind to the real practicality of the Enemy’s advice concerning motes and eyes. We must ensure that while they rail against the Decline of Moral Standards Today they never once acknowledge that their hatred of their neighbour doing DIY on a Sunday afternoon is every bit as real a stumbling block to their experience of the Enemy as the Great Sin (whatever it is) that so exercises them.

Then there are the Pharisees, all petty rules and regulations and don’t do that and we do it this way and who said you had any right to comment? You remember, I’m sure, the story of the Sunday School teacher who, after reading the story of the Pharisee praying in public to garner public praise, concluded the lesson with “And now let us all bow our heads and thank God we’re not like the Pharisee”. Pharisees replace religion with religiosity and replace God with seeming Good. But in recent years we have managed a delightful doubling, whereby Christians who are genuinely in obedient service to the Enemy have been labelled ‘Pharisees’ by their more ‘liberal’ counterparts. The liberals to whom I refer are not true liberals, of course, but rather those who attempt to have the Enemy and the Enemy’s Word permit that which is not, nor ever will be, permitted.

The third category is that of the Heretic. We have worked hard to ensure that the term has fallen out of favour, reserved only for those whose interpretation of the Enemy’s Person and the Enemy’s Book is so utterly far off the mark that very few would subscribe to the position in any case. In so doing we have enabled heresy to close in, without ostentation, on the core of the Church. We have done so not by having people actively decide to endorse positions which they cannot maintain scripturally but instead by so muddying the waters that the heresy might almost be inadvertent. Note the ‘almost’. There is still a decision that must be made, but our task is to have our patients make it without recourse either to the Enemy or the clarity of their own unencumbered mental faculties. Heresy, after all, was the root of the temptation to the first sin. As Our Father Below put it: “Did God really say…?”

To finish the meal, then, an exquisitely insubstantial soufflé du Flibbertigibbet. These are souls so ephemeral, so flighty and frivolous, that although they might have known of the Enemy they were always so occupied with the present distraction that they never had either the time or the inclination to know Him. So obsessed were they with Celebrity, or Fashion, or the Latest Thing, they spent all their time chasing after a knowledge that proved worthless and a social acceptance that was ultimately transitory. Flitting from flower to faddish flower, they never once alighted on the grave and solemn truth that the Enemy represents. Of course there is Joy to be found in Him: He is disgustingly forward with it, advertising it at every turn. But the souls we now consume we kept from that truth with an endless succession of useless distractions that, while individually harmless, are cumulatively calamitous. And so I look forward to consuming them later this evening.

My mouth waters at the thought. So I shall end this letter now, that I might not be late for what promises to be an evening of the most diabolical revelry, with the heartening thought that although we may not (to finally answer your question) have some great or overarching strategy for dealing with the celebration of Easter amongst the Christians, we do not need one: all we must do, the rest of the year through, is maintain the attitude that has Christ on the cross put to the back of the mind. It is sin, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, that brings our patients ever closer to our ovens; it is sin that poisons Christian endeavour; it is sin that will secure our triumph in the end.

I remain, as ever,

Your fiend and mentor,

Screwtape

Wholly Dishonourable Undersecretary for Inhuman Resources

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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5 Responses to Screwtape and the Banquet

  1. Eruntane says:

    Thanks for this. Food for thought as always (haha). Didn’t Screwtape write something to Wormwood about the desire for a really good hard boiled egg too? I guess he likes it as an example. Perhaps there is something diabolical about boiled eggs.

    • starlingford says:

      I don’t have my copy of Screwtape to hand but you may be right – it’s the letter in which he talks about the patient’s mother and her attitude of ‘all I want’, though as I recall she seemed mostly to want toast, properly made.

      Having said that, I don’t know that there’s anything particularly diabolical about hard-boiled eggs. If there were, wouldn’t they become…(drum roll please)…devilled eggs?!

  2. louis says:

    Excellent, as ever. Food for thought, indeed, and an important reminder to have a balanced and biblical view of sin. Good work, Gavin! ‘He left us the sins without the sinner’. Masterful!

    • starlingford says:

      Louis! Always good to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words. Hope all’s well with you otherwise?

      Take care,
      Gavin

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