In Common: Surprised By Joy

My 2016 reading plan has gone off the rails, thanks  to  my return to work. Even with working part-time, I am struggling to keep up with my self-imposed pace.

But that’s okay. My reading list should work for me, and not the other way around. I have been reevaluating my list, and have been deciding which titles are must-haves for the year, and which ones can be postponed.

My current Read pile includes a couple of titles I’ve been working on slowly since January, as well as a few new ones that I’ve just added.

During this season of life, I am finding myself drawn to books that focus on educational philosophy, parenting, and Christian faith.

One book that I am wrapping up this week (finally!) is C.S. Lewis Surprised By  Joy.

While I have been exploring the writings of C.S. Lewis, it has been incredible to read about his childhood and early life experiences. So often, we have a one-dimensional view of authors; we only know them through their writings.

C.S. Lewis is of course known for his writings on Christian apologetics, but to read about his transformation into an atheist and eventual discovery of true Christian faith is quite moving.

Lewis shared about his time living with and being tutored by a family friend Mr. Kirkpatrick, or Old Knock as he was sometimes called. He wrote of his time reading and studying Homer in Greek.

In our homeschool, we are just getting started with Latin, which I am quite excited about since I studied Latin all through high school.  We have also learned the Hebrew alphabet and are still in the early stages of learning vocabulary and basic grammar.

This passage, from Lewis’ time with Old Knock, really struck me as we work on learning new languages.

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.

As I find myself getting stressed out because I have less time available for personal scholarship right now, I am reminded of another passage, again from Lewis’ time with Old Knock. Reflecting on the ideal day of study and reflection, what he terms “settled, calm, Epicurean life.” This ideal schedule, defined by set study times and minimal interactions and distractions, sound wonderful to someone seeking a scholarly life. But as Lewis points out:

It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it, for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, not self-centered: for in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself.

These words will serve as a comfort as I try to find that perfect balance between family, faith, work and personal scholarship.

The Screwtape Letters Part 1

This is where I admit to having never read any C.S. Lewis.

(hangs head in shame)

I am participating in an awesome online book club, and we are reading several works of Lewis over the course of the year. This month I am reading The Screwtape Letters

I read one or two letters each morning during my early morning reading time. Each letter is only a couple of pages long, but each is so impactive, that I can’t imagine rushing through more than two in a single sitting. I typically read and underline passages that I want to chew on a bit more.

In Letter 4, Screwtape is discussing the topic of prayer. So many passages worth discussing!

“The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether.”

“… this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.”

“This is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.”

This is such a great description of something that is probably very common, especially among new or immature believers. While I am not one for scripted prayer all the time, I think at the beginning of our walk with God it can be too easy to fall into this vague feeling of communing with what we perceive is God, but we don’t know how to move beyond that to actually communicating with Him. One thing that can be helpful and inspiring is reading the prayers of men and women in the Bible. See how believing men and women poured out their heart to God in their prayers, and use those examples to help shape our own prayers. Another way to help guide our prayers is to keep a prayer journal. Writing out our prayers in a journal can help focus our thoughts and words, and can be a great way to keep track of who or what we are praying for.

In Letter 10, Screwtape is discussing with Wormwood about how a believer can be subtly led astray by the company he keeps and the behavior he first tolerates and then comes to embrace as his own.

“No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based.”

“He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” [emphasis mine]

“Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people ‘good’ by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be ‘priggish,’ ‘intolerant,’ and (of course) ‘Puritanical.'”

This really struck a chord, because intolerant seems to be a buzzword these days. As Christians, we are instructed to be a light in the world, to live in the world, but not be of the world. We can’t hide ourselves away from people who may have different values and ideals, and expect to show the love of Christ. But at the same time, we can’t reflect Jesus Christ to the world if we are indistinguishable from the world.

Okay one more. Letter 12, where Screwtape is talking about how to slowly turn a person from God.

We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however, slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space.”

“As long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was six weeks ago.”

“But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Sin and our separation from God does not happen in some grand flash or event, with some monumental sin that explodes and destroys our relationship with God. It often starts as some seemingly insignificant but that takes hold and becomes a habit or a distraction. We may feel not quite right as we know we aren’t living the way we should, and rather than tackle the little habit or distraction, we pull away from God, ever so slightly. “Small” sins are enough to set our relationship with God off balance, to where we don’t want to face Him and pull away. We can get to Hell easy enough with a smooth, comfortable ride. This is why it is so important to not shrug off the little things in our life, that we brush off as insignificant. It’s just a little thing, there are far worse sins that we could be doing. But the little things add up! The little things are significant enough to make us feel not quite right, and to pull back from God. That’s all it takes!

The Screwtape Letters is not a long read, but each letter packs quite a punch. I’m taking it slow, and will put together some notes on some of the remaining letters.