C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters, came out in 1942, smack in the middle of World War II. When the book, a satirical series of “letters” written by a demon uncle to his demon nephew, was released, Europe was still fighting to keep its citizens and its patrimony safe against invading forces, with no hint of when – or how – an end would come.
A similar response, admittedly on a much smaller scale, has sprung up in the aftermath of Friday’s Paris attacks at the hands of ISIS. Rallying cries of unity and solidarity (profile pictures, #prayersforParis, etc.) have come from all corners of the globe. Though most of us go about our days living common and pleasant lives, on Friday we were suddenly – and rudely – shaken from our slumber by the death knell of 129 souls.
We’re right to be agitated. We’re right to be angry, sad, or in disbelief. We’re right to demand that the world be a better place. But the change must start with each one of us. In our agitation, a 73-year-old lesson from The Screwtape Letters would do us good, and can even help us find a way out of this mess.
A situation like Paris, like 9/11, or any other unprecedented and seemingly senseless attack awakens our moral sensibilities in a way that normal life doesn’t. Our sense that good and evil are indeed tangible things tends to dull in the everyday, but spikes when the unexpected happens.
From the perspective of the demons, Lewis affirms this:
In peace we can make many [humans] ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them.
What comes along with our heightened sense of good and evil is the “fight or flight” instinct — the impulse to either rise up with courage or shrink back with cowardice, hatred, and despair.
This, as Lewis writes, “is probably one of [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world–a world in which moral issues really come to the point.”
[God] sees as well as [demons] do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. (161-162; emphasis added)
The beauty of our intertwined, God-breathed existence is that no single human is inconsequential — we all matter in the grand scheme. What that means is that each of us has a part to play in effecting positive change in the world following this horrendous attack on the homeland of Therese of Lisieux, Louis IX, and Joan of Arc.
So as we go out from this, we do pray for Paris, and we should continue to do so. But our solidarity with them shouldn’t stop there. In our lives we should live in chastity, honesty, and mercy with a fierce zeal, even (and especially) when it’s troubling or difficult to do so.
May God be with us all.