What's wrong? Nothing: Spy Wednesday, The Screwtape Letters, and, yes, Bob Dylan did make it in here
We call the Wednesday of Holy Week "Spy Wednesday" as a reference to Matthew 26:14-16 when Judas conspired with the chief priests to betray Jesus. Bishop Barron, if you're out there reading this, I hope all this Judas talk makes you think of that epic final scene in No Direction Home when Bob Dylan responds to his hecklers:
Anyway, back to apologetics and Scripture and stuff.
"Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one" is one of the more haunting lines from C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters. More on that later--first I want to share how what disturbs me most about Judas' betrayal of his Rabbi is this whole gradual business.
Y'all remember this part in John 12:3-6?
"Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said,
'Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages* and given to the poor?'
He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions."
All those little "no one will notice" sins with the money bag gradually lead up to the big one. It takes bad habit after bad habit after bad habit to get to the point of smacking your lips, hissing something like "watch me," and puckering up to the man who want dead. It's guilty pleasure in the realest sense.
Back to C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.
Here are some glamour shots in the realest sense of my linoleum block print "Your Affectionate Uncle, Screwtape." In slithering handwriting, I have my favorite passage written:
"Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending, to do our Enemy's will looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
In this epistolary novel (that's right, I know that specific sub-genre! I was an English major!), Lewis addresses of the problem of temptation through the voice of Screwtape, a senior demon mentoring his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. In a clinical practicum of sorts, Screwtape supervises Wormwood in his strategies of securing the damnation of a character known as "the Patient." C.S. Lewis admitted that this is the work he was most uncomfortable writing. And it's uncomfortable reading. Take for instance this passage:
"My Dear Wormwood,
...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.
Your affectionate uncle,
"...away from Light and out into the Nothing." Jeepers creepers, it reminds me of the claymation Mysterious Stranger (aka Satan) from the nightmare fuel that is The Adventures of Mark Twain (Google at your own risk). Total Nothingness, and what's worse: he puts on a mask.
God is the antithesis of Nothing. God is Being. Hell is parasitic privation. That's the tragedy of Nothing. It's the not to be, as Hamlet would put it (Hamlet, act III, scene i). Not to be dramatic, but consenting "not to be" makes you like literally such a devilish person. Y'all go ahead and remember Iago, the biggest frickin' liar in Shakespeare's corpus, who strait-up tells us, "I am not what I am." (Othello, Act I, scene i). The False Spirit could say the same: "I am not Who Am."
It's Spy Wednesday, the day we remember Judas is not who he pretends to be. The thing is--you can't lie to Christ:
"Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, 'Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” He answered, “You have said so.'" (Matthew 26:25).
In the Fall of 2020, I took a graduate course at called PT 611 Theology of Ministry. Theology of Ministry of course sounds like a chapter from one of the Harry Potter books, but stay with me.
On the topic of spiritual warfare in the context of human formation, our professor brought up St. Ignatius's descriptions of the three guises the False Spirit seems to take when tempting us to take our eyes from Christ. Rules 12-14 describe how The False Spirit operates as a sort of bully who relentlessly harasses us so that we may "weaken and lose heart." The False Spirit is also like a licentious lover wanting to keep his affair secret. Finally, the False Spirit is like a chief military commander, patrolling around us to find and target our points of weakness. Here, he "looks in turn at all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral; and where he finds us weakest and most in need for our eternal salvation, there he attacks us and aims at taking us."
Our professor offered us his own rules on what the False Spirit lies to us about in terms of our sin. Satan, smacking his lips, hisses to us that, no, it's nothing, really. Come on. Do it:
it'll be loads of fun
it won't cost you anything
I'll keep it a secret.
No one has to know. It's nothing. Really, it'll be nothing.
On the bright side, and I mean that more than metaphorically, Light dispels darkness. The thing about nothingness is that it's privation, as St. Augustine tells us (The City of God, Augustine of Hippo, Book XI, Chapter 9). Not wouldn't exist without is, but is exists without not. And that's how we squash our vice--by flexing virtue.
I'm literally going to quote close to page of David W. Fagerberg's Consecrating the World: Mundane Liturgical Theology, so bear with me. He just puts it really well and like references the Church Fathers or whatever:
"What awakened Augustine from the spell of the Manicheans was seeing the parasitic nature of evil. Evil is not something. The relationship between good and evil is not commutative: subtract the good and you will get evil, but subtract the evil, and you will not produce good. We must get our ontology straight, and avoid dualism. Where I in a bright room, I could produce darkness by subtracting light (block the windows, tape over the keyhole) because light is something and darkness is its absence; but were I in a cave, I could not produce light by subtracting darkness because darkness is not something, it is an absence. Gregory of Nyssa applies this ontological understanding to the vices and virtues. 'For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice. It is, in fact, not possible to form any other notion of the origin of vice than as the absence of virtue.' A virtue is something, and a vice is the absence of that virtue; but it does not work in reverse. What other origin could vice possibly have? It cannot come from the hand of God, who is good. And Satan is incapable of ontological product; he can only deceive and corrupt. Though it is convenient to make a side-be-side list of vices and virtues, this tidy organization should not fool us into thinking they are like two columns on a restaurant menu, from which we choose. A vice is where a virtue should be, but is not; a vice is a virtue in disorder; a vice is where a virtue should operate in a certain manner, but does not. There are not two things to choose between, darkness and light; light is, and darkness is its lack. Neither do we choose between a vice and a virtue, because a vice is where a virtue is lacking. Vainglory appears where humility declines, anger appears where meekness has failed, and gluttony appears where temperance is absent. Similarly, we do not choose between sin and deification, because sin is simply our failure to participate in the life of God that has be kenotically extended" (Fagerberg 9).
I don’t know if I can tell you what "kenotically" means. Anyway, go read that book. Light up a virtue and dispel that vice to disappear back where it belongs--into the Nothingness.
I guess I should bring it back to Dylan because I mentioned him earlier and because I like to imagine I have a niche reader out there who loves to say the rosary but also loves to listen to Blonde on Blonde on repeat on repeat (Bishop Barron? Right? Sure). The False Spirit heckles you, just tell that liar "I don't believe you."
But like I guess you shouldn't say Bob's next line with the F-bomb. I get mixed responses from confessors about whether or not vulgar language is a sin, but we can talk about that in another blog post.
Don't kiss anyone on Spy Wednesday. Don't. Y'all have a holy Holy Week.