Spiritual Pride and Anguished Tears: Screwtape Against the Fathers

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The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Biese, University of Notre Dame

How does “an unobtrusive little vice” transform into “the strongest and most beautiful of the vices?” (Lewis 69, 130). How does ignorance transform the human soul into a “sleep-walker” (Clément 135)? C.S. Lewis depicts one of these ways, Spiritual Pride, in Letter 24 of The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape’s advice for tempting the Patient as he enters his devout girlfriend’s “inner circle” reflects the potential pitfalls of pride, particularly spiritual pride; the Church Fathers thoroughly warn against pride and its specific manifestations in Olivier Clément’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Further, Lewis hints at the spiritual progress that the Patient could make if he were to improve in humility and weep the holy tears described by the early Christian theologians in Clément’s work; humility and tears together awaken the sleep-walker and re-create the proud, distracted soul.

One of Screwtape’s major invectives against humility is in Letter 14, where he advises Wormwood to eliminate this newly-acquired virtue by drawing the Patient’s attention to it. “All virtues,” he explains, “are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility” (Lewis 69). Whether he becomes proud of his humility or proud of his attempt to resist being proud of his humility, whether he is instilled with “vainglory or false modesty”, the demons care not. Any type of pride—or even a twisted, incomplete humility—is a small victory for the tempter; Spiritual Pride, of course, falls nicely under that category.

“The chink” in the Patient’s girlfriend’s “armor,” Screwtape kindly reveals to Wormwood, “is an unobtrusive little vice… [which] consists in a quite untroubled assumption that the outsiders… are really too stupid and ridiculous” (Lewis 129). The “outsiders” are those who do not share her Christian beliefs; her scorn, though scarcely dangerous to herself, is potentially fatal for her newly-converted boyfriend (Lewis 129-130). It may be assumed that the members of the girl’s social group, her “inner ring,” also share this “chink”; Screwtape encourages Wormwood to seize upon this weakness to secure the damnation of the Patient’s soul: “Can you get him to imitate this defect in his mistress and to exaggerate it until what was venial in her becomes in him the strongest and most beautiful of the vices—Spiritual Pride?” (Lewis 132, 130). Even such a small, venial defect can bloom into a rotten vice.

This defect has the potential to do more damage to the Patient than to his girlfriend because the Patient is newly Christian and thus spiritually underdeveloped. He has not been spiritually tested as often or as intensely as his new compatriots: “He thinks that he likes [them] because of some congruity between their spiritual state and his, when in fact they are so far beyond him” (Lewis 131). Wrapped up in his attachment to the girl, the Patient can be easily blinded to his own spiritual infancy and convince himself that his acquaintances’ spiritual lives are equivalent to his own. As a result, the Patient would himself scorn “outsiders,” those who are not part of his Christian “set,” to which he mistakenly believes he belongs by merit (Lewis 132). By leading him to treat others with “an air of amusement” and to spend more time with his new friends, Wormwood’s goal becomes convincing his Patient that Christianity is nothing more than “a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates” (132-133). With two simple stretched truths and a simple exaggeration of spiritual prowess, Wormwood could send this human soul down “the safest road to Hell… the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot” (Lewis 61). A slow integration into his girlfriend’s community may prove to be a slow integration into a community of a more infernal nature.

Clément sheds further light on the Patient’s soul with his description of “the ‘three giants’: forgetfulness, spiritual insensitivity, and a kind of ignorance or stupidity. We forget that God exists… we ignore our neighbors… and we end by living like sleep-walkers” (135). These malignant giants all apply to the Patient’s potential predicament. He may easily “forget that God exists” by being complacent about the state of his soul and associating Christianity primarily with the pleasurableness of his new friends, instead of associating it with God Himself. He seems to already have “spiritual insensitivity”—if he is not sensitive to the overall state of the garden of his soul, how could he be sensitive to the little whisperings, the weeds and inner-workings of that overgrown, untended garden?

Echoing the third “giant” that Clément relates, Screwtape attributes the girl’s “chink” to a great deal of “ignorance and naïvety,” which he hopes will transform into Spiritual Pride for the Patient. And if he were to join in on the group’s scorning of outsiders, he would “ignore his neighbors,” as Clément says. “When he turns from” this inner circle, Lewis says, “to another society he will find it dull” without “the enchantment of the young woman” (Lewis 131-132), with whose slight, bad habit Wormwood is trying to inebriate him.

“Brotherly love” is “an infallible test” of and “the key to” one’s spiritual progress, Clément asserts: “That is, first of all—something very simple but very difficult—the refusal to judge, the refusal to assert oneself by despising or condemning others” (153, 144). These refusals mean withstanding the girl’s venial vice, which could become spiritually mortal for the Patient. Wormwood wants his charge to live like a “sleep-walker” who overestimates the strength of his spiritual life (Clément 135). It would do well for him to heed the advice of the Desert Fathers: “Do not put any trust in your righteousness… keep a tight rein on your tongue” (Clément 143, from Sayings of the Desert Fathers).

Thus a small defect in this man’s beloved could, by his assent to temptations, have the “cumulative effect” of edging him “away from the Light” gradually and even finally (Lewis 60-61). In Letter 12, Screwtape warns against allowing the man to in any way “suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun” (Lewis 57). He suggests using noise to keep the Patient from realizing his predicament, because it “alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires” (Lewis 120). He tells Wormwood to beware of “sudden turnings” (60-61), since

anything is better than that he should realise the break he has made with the first months of his Christian life. As long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian life… we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognised, sin, but only with this vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately. This dim uneasiness needs careful handling. If it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game. (Lewis 58)

The Patient must stay distracted so as not to see or remember the state of his stagnant soul, his weedy, untended garden. Through the half-hearted maintenance of Christian habits, facilitated by his new group of friends, he would easily remain spiritually stagnant and slothful, feeling that his obligations are satisfied—or, at least, nearly satisfied. Still, a “vague” “uneasy feeling” gnaws at him, though he is too spiritually weak to recognize the reality of his own vice. So how does this uneasiness “get too strong”? How is he awoken?

What would “spoil the whole game”?

Music and silence, which Screwtape detests, counteract the distracting noises of the world (Lewis 119-120). Music, beautiful heavenly melodies, the glory of the world—“the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry… are always blowing our whole [demonic] structure away” (Lewis 156). Silence gives man the chance to inspect his garden, to assess his spiritual health (or lack thereof), and to recognize what is rotten in his soul. The painful self-seeing that accompanies true silence means a realization “of our ‘unlikeness’, of our complicity in hatred and destruction” (Clément 162). Silence and humility are crucial to “interior poverty and renunciation” (Clément 160). Here the soul turns outwards, confesses its sins, and repents of its wickedness (Clément 152). The soul casts its powerlessness before God (Clément 148, cf. Barsanuphius Letter 142) and knows that God “will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility” (Clément 152, cf. John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p16).

Often accompanying this humility-infused metanoia are anguished tears; here the Church Fathers add a deeper spiritual level to the temptations and deliberations of The Screwtape Letters. These tears proceed naturally from the “dim uneasiness” Screwtape says “needs careful handling.” If not carefully handled by our temptors, we souls will cling to Christ “in all our anguish, in all our inability to repent, to purify ourselves, to pray” (Clément 151). The soul’s humble admission and crying out before God comes with “self-forgetfulness and trustful self-abandonment” (Clément 157).

These virtues are often manifested in the “gift of tears,” which come about through humility and through the “mindfulness of death” (Clément 162). From the “wilderness” of the time of Noise come these tears of sorrow of humility, which are transformed into “tears ‘without sorrow’… And,” finally, “he receives the true joy as a grace that is indeed a ‘free gift’, a joy that he can now welcome in complete humility, one which radically re-creates him” (Clément 164). Humility, anguish, trust, and a bit of memento mori—these are the interconnected ingredients for the radical re-creation of the slothful, uneasy, noisy soul. The sleep-walker is awakened and the demon’s game is spoiled by the soul’s “sudden turning” towards its Creator, the soul’s cry to God in its wilderness, the soul’s holy tears of anguished repentance, and the soul’s acceptance of a grace not its own.

A soul obsessed with its place within a religious inner circle of semi-Pharisees has no time for silence or self-reflection; it simply sleep-walks through the world on its own unkempt way. Steeped in pride and prodded on by the exploitative tempter, the weak soul is tricked into believing it needs no spiritual improvement. It scorns “outsiders”; it makes the self-righteous community and the self-righteous self into the idols of the soul. The soul abandons God for a cult. Relying too much on its own feeble strength and unaware of its weakness, the slothful soul sits in “dim uneasiness” until the man is wrested out of this uneasiness by its silent, sickly, tearful, self-seeing, self-effacing cooperation with God’s grace. Turning outwards, the man casts himself at God’s feet, crying out for forgiveness and grace and weeping for his sins and vices. Clément’s writings on early-Church asceticism assign new meaning and new potentialities to the exitus et reditus already extant in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

The Patient is lost and found, gone but returned, damaged yet re-created in Christ, Our True Father and the source of all grace. “What is blinding, suffocating fire to you,” Screwtape reminds Wormwood, “is now cool light” to the Patient, “is clarity itself” (Lewis 174). Humbly prostrated before the Presence of God, man finds his true delight (Lewis 174).


Clément, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary. New City Press, 2017.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Bantam Books, 1995.

Edited By: Mary Boneno

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