Resisting the Prowling Lion – 40 Days with Screwtape
Day 2 – Thursday after Ash Wednesday
From The Screwtape Letters:
Screwtape, a senior demon, is offering advice to Wormwood his nephew, an apprentice demon. The language he uses is ‘upside down’ referring to God as ‘the Enemy’ and the devil as ‘Our Father Below’.
MY DEAR WORMWOOD
It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very ‘spiritual’, that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother – the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.
Your affectionate uncle
Later on in the story Screwtape will talk of how ‘routine prayer’ can, to his disgust, help Christians during times of dry spirituality. Here however he is encouraging Wormwood in the ‘art’ of ‘unintentional intentions’.
Those who have travelled the journey of faith for some time will know well the challenge faced by the ‘list’ of prayers. In most churches there is an unintentional ‘hierarchy’ of prayer. There are those whose prayer need is urgent and so are prayed for by name aloud each Sunday and those whose conditions are long term whose names are available for personal prayer but are perhaps not always read out loud. This feels awkward and sometimes it feels that we are being a little nip-cheese with our intentions. But how are congregations to cope? If we prayed out loud for all those whom the Holy Spirit laid on our heart there would be little space left for the rest of the time spent in corporate worship!
Does this mean we have allowed our prayers to be ‘rendered innocuous?’ In our regular worship I think not. I know that faithful worshippers take the lists of names home and cherish them in prayer during the week. This is a parish wide ministry which sees the housebound and others unable to attend worship being provided with the weekly readings along with the lists of names so that they too, though not physically present, may join in the prayers.
But making ‘intentions intentional’ is hard work and I find myself on occasions half-way down praying through a list of names and then wondering if I can even remember that I have prayed for anyone at all! I suspect this is a common challenge for those who lead worship regularly.
How do we make prayers effective instead of rendering them innocuous? When Desmond Tutu was Bishop of Johannesburg he had a wonderful way of praying for his clergy and their families. He asked each of us for a photograph of ourselves and our families which he then placed in a photo album, the pages which he used to turn each morning as he prayed for us. In doing this he engaged as many of his senses as possible.
Using photographs, and other objects, as a prayer aid is a particularly helpful way of defeating the real/unreal dichotomy which Screwtape would want to set up in personal prayer. If I look at a picture of the person it is easier to remember the whole person and not simply the encounter with them at the breakfast table. (And with the advent of smart phones and other electronic devices doing this has become even easier – a screenshot of some of my prayer photos is included on this post).
There are many other ways to enliven ‘rote’ prayers and each of us will find that which helps us focus best on the intention rather than the list. It is a good discipline to re-visit our prayer routines frequently so that they are about the life-giving Spirit and do not become a dead letter.
Two tips if you use lists of names in prayer:
- If you have enough time, instead of reading throught the names, rewrite the list as you pray.
- If your time is limited, pray the list from the bottom up instead of from the top down once in a while.
A Psalm To Ponder:
Psalm 71 – A PRAYER OF OLD AGE
Refrain: As the winds of winter gather, do not forsake me, O God
You have been the source of my strength, O God,
from before the day I was born.
You brought me forth from the womb,
you sustained me before ever I knew of you.
You were the confidence of my heedless youth,
you gave my hope and my courage. Refrain:
When I strove with the evil in my heart,
when I fought the enemies of your truth,
you refreshed me in the heat of the battle,
you were the rock in whose shade I recovered.
You were my stronghold on the mountain crag,
you were my refuge in the homes of my friends. Refrain:
I have seen the eyes of the pitiless and cruel,
I have been wounded by words and by deeds.
I have been ignored and neglected by the powerful:
they pass over my name for promotion.
They have gossiped with glee at my failings,
they delight in rumour and lies. Refrain:
My fate has filled many with awe:
I have become as a warning and a portent.
And now I contend with old age,
withdrawing my eyes and my ears.
Few and grey are the hairs of my head
– no problem in numbering them now! Refrain:
In this new testing of faith,
still would I praise you, my God.
I long for you still with hope,
and I will praise you more and more.
My mouth shall tell of your ways
to the generations taking my place. Refrain:
Yes, you have brought me through deep waters,
through trials bitter and troublesome.
You have burdened me yet given me strength,
you have raised me up from the depths.
Bless me now in the days of my fading,
turn to me again and give me your comfort. Refrain:
Your just ways, O God, spread through the world
– great is the tale of your wonders.
I will make music in praise of your faithfulness,
through the days of my life and beyond.
I will sing of the mystery of your Love,
my being soul-deep will rejoice in your name. Refrain:
Even through the waters of death will you bring me,
keeping at bay my terror of drowning.
My lungs will fill with the breath of new life,
and I will praise you in the garden of delight.
We will dance as the poor enriched,
we will sing as the oppressed redeemed. Refrain:
Those who know not what they did,
and those who relished their malice,
even our enemies, through their shame and disgrace,
will be lured by the beauty of Love,
will weep at the music they spurned,
will at last speak the truth from their hearts. Refrain:
As trust and doubt, distress and delight, success and failure, wax and wane through the years, keep our eyes fixed on you, dear God, and give us courage to face the trials and temptations that have yet to come our way. AMEN.
Please Note: These reflections are also published on my blog: suffolkvicarhomes.com on Twitter as @SuffolkVicar, and on my public Facebook page Rev Andrew Dotchin
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Quotes from The Screwtape Letters are copyright © 1942 C.S. Lewis Pte
Prayers from Psalms for a Pilgrim People are copyright © 1989, 1991, 1993 Jim Cotter
Scripture quotations are copyright © New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright 1989, 1995, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
These Reflections, ‘Resisting the Prowling Lion’ are copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2023