Screwtape’s Prostrate Exam

The devil Ragwort, though usually entirely in favour of encouraging corporeal excess, has found himself recently stymied by Lent. Ragwort, a ‘big picture’ manager if ever there was one, had no idea that there existed among the Christians of the Scottish Sector a widespread belief in the importance of self-denial. His outrage has clearly reached his superior, Screwtape, who has taken the time to respond with some sage words of advice and encouragement. Screwtape, a devil whose seniority has been earned through hard work, experience and skill, can still run circles round his underlings…



My dear Ragwort,

I wonder sometimes if you really are as naïf as you seem. The reports filter down to me, you know; most assuredly do I have my informants in your department even as you try to recruit some in mine (oh yes, I know all about that. I will deal with the matter, and with you, in due course). The story seems straightforward: you have been blindsided by a social phenomenon you ought to have seen coming, and as a result you have been sending increasingly frantic and incoherent policy diktats into the field. Meanwhile, the resulting confusion in the ranks allows souls to slip through our fingers.

This will not do.

But I understand the source of your confusion. You have been unable to distinguish between those acts of abstention caused by a moral decision and those caused by mere cultural conformity. There is, as it happens, some excuse: most of the patients themselves are victims of the same confusion. I think it is probably best that I lay out for you now what is going on, and what the High Command says we ought to do about it. That way we can get things back on track as soon as possible.

You are responsible for the Scottish Sector. Therefore, there are two very specific cultural influences at work. There is the Roman Catholic concept of Lent, and there is the Calvinist concept of self-denial. Although these would normally work against one another, on this particular issue they converge. This is not because they are naturally convergent, but because you are dealing with a social belief rather than an individual one. In other words, if you say something often enough, and in broad enough terms, it will become accepted even though it may not actually be true (remember they know no history, and those who do would never believe themselves susceptible to the technique one of our agents referred to as ‘The Big Lie’). So if we say that Lent is an inescapable part of the Christian tradition, and that Calvin preached a dour, strict abstention from everything not explicitly commanded biblically, it does not matter what the facts are: we are endeavouring to create a perception that supersedes such trivialities. In this way we have created a popular belief that Calvinist Scotland is as well suited as was the Soviet Union to the aphorism that “that which is not commanded is forbidden: the trick is to remember which is which”.

What we are trying to do, in this specific instance, is remove independent volition from the act of fasting. If our Christian patients choose to fast, let them do so because they feel they do not, in fact, have a choice. Let them believe tradition demands it, or doctrine compels it, or duty requires it. What we want to get them away from, more than anything else, is a desire to better know the Enemy.

For that is the purpose of the voluntary abstention. The time occupied by eating (in the traditional sense) or whatever else they forego (in the more modern sense) should be occupied with communion with their Lord. Our job, therefore, is to ensure that that does not happen. I am well aware of the difficulties. Fasting, through its very nature, removes from us one of our best weapons: sensual pleasure. Of course there is no vice in the pleasure itself: rather, it becomes such when it rates a higher priority in the patient’s will than knowledge of and obedience to the Enemy. This is the primary goal of all our sensual temptations. Gluttony is a sin not because enjoying food is bad but because elevating mere sensual satisfaction to a position superior even to that of their God is a sin.

The overarching sin I am describing, the sin to which gluttony is subordinate, has a name, but we have spent centuries disguising it. It is of course Idolatry. What else could it be? Whatever else occupies the space in our patients’ hearts that the Enemy designed solely to fit Himself is by definition an idol. It doesn’t matter what that idol actually is. I have known a love of football damn a man as efficiently as a love of Our Father Below. The important thing is that it forcibly excludes the Enemy from the place He most wants to be. You will seldom see a more naked example of the struggle our tempters mount against the Enemy than in that secret enclave of the heart. There, there is where the war will be lost or won: that is where the battle for the soul rages between Heaven and Hell, each side wooing the patient either to virtue or vice, the Enemy or us. It is stark. It is unequivocal. And it is of ultimate importance.

This is why fasting is in itself important. Fasting offers a real and practical defence against some of our most sophisticated stratagems for encouraging idolatry. It is a forcible reminder of the old truth that man does not live by bread alone. Through temporary abstinence it encourages an acknowledgement of the bountiful nature of God’s provision. It ensures the Enemy is elevated to precisely that position we most want Him not to occupy in our patients’ hearts. They concentrate on Him, and in so doing they cannot fill their heads with the kind of tat and dross we most want them to be concerned with. You know of course that under usual circumstances we achieve much more by keeping thoughts out of their heads than by putting things in – but if their thoughts do start to wander down perilous paths we must distract them. The discipline imposed by fasting forefends against this. If a patient starts to fast, and for good, personal reasons, our position is for the moment precarious indeed.

Our solution is to take refuge in the old certainties of human moral frailty. Let us suppose you have a patient who is fasting, who is determinedly seeking the Enemy. Our position is very bad – but it is not yet hopeless. It is not hopeless because we can always draw the patient’s attention to what they are doing rather than why they are doing it. This distinction is important. Instead of having patients concerned with fasting to better know God, we want to encourage them to become more like the Pharisee praying on the street corner. If they must be holy, let us poison that holiness with pride, and a desire to accumulate spiritual brownie points. Let them desire to be known as a holy person amongst their fellows. You know how it is done. It is always about subtlety. A half-smile, a wink, a slight incline of the head – these are the betrayals we must encourage, partly because our patients are almost (but not quite!) unaware of them themselves. As soon as we redirect our patients’ thoughts away from the Enemy and towards themselves, we foster the most corrosive form of idolatry of all: the elevation of the self.

Let them prostrate themselves before that golden calf. Let them focus all their energies on serving their own desires. Let them put their own interests at the centre of their personal universes. Let their modes of dress and speech and behaviour ensure their conformity with those examples of humanity they most admire (I trust you are continuing to push the Celebrity agenda in Scotland? Our replacing saints with nonentities is of paramount importance), and all in order to ‘fit in’ or ‘be like folk’. The folk we want them to be like, of course, are equally self-obsessed, and so we generate the delightful – and vastly amusing – situation whereby everyone is trying to be like everyone else for reasons purely to do with selfish vanity and not because anything they copy is inherently worth emulating.

In so doing we simultaneously encourage self-worship while introducing a nagging, never-quite-articulated fear that there is nothing really different about the self that they worship, nothing to distinguish them from a seething mass of undifferentiated humanity. This will, apart from anything else, excite an ever-greater fervour in their idolatry – through effort alone they will hope to make themselves worthy of the attention they crave. The irony is that this effort will have precisely the opposite effect, making them ever more insular, ever more isolated (this is why the Enemy makes such an issue of fellowship, since it defends against this). The idols we most want to create in Scotland, Ragwort, are hollow gods as insubstantial as the mist in the glens – because that is what we have reduced our patients to. Let them prostrate themselves before their own selfishness, and let the fulfilment of that selfishness achieve nothing at all. While the Enemy promises to fill and then overflow His sons and daughters, idolatry is an Ourobouros – a snake forever eating its own tail. If you encourage it properly, we will have all eternity to enjoy the bewildered horror its eventual exposure will reveal.

In the meantime, I remain, as ever,

Your fiend and mentor,


Wholly Dishonourable Under-Secretary for Inhuman Resources

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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