C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters are a series of letters from one of Satan's devils to a trainee-devil, Wormwood. It's always an interesting read, especially in light of the very specific temptations issued to Jesus by Satan and the very specific advice given to Wormwood by his devil-mentor.
Let's think about three problems the devil poses for us today using Screwtape Letters as a point of reflection.
1) The Devil - A Problem
"There are two equal and opposite problems into which ..we can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive or unhealthy interest in them."
How true this still is today. The sophisticated dismiss belief in a personified evil like the devil as naive; others take the occult, magic and vampires far too seriously, even devil worship.
Jesus wasn't tempted by an impassive evil force. Since Jesus had refuted the first two temptations using Scripture, the devil even quoted Scripture in his third temptation.
2) Make the Christian Virtues Abstract and Therefore Unreal
Everyone has both benevolence and malice in their souls. "The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets everyday and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary."
I love humanity, it's people I can't stand is an aphorism which is not only humorous, but truthful in many cases.
We so often hear people describe themselves as basically good, honest, generous, etc. but their self-description doesn't always bear scrutiny especially when their actual behavior is observed. Sometimes we act virtuously in public, but quite differently when we feel our cheating or miserliness will go undetected.
3) Stir the Pot, Spread Discontent
"Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for a church that "suits" him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches...The search for a suitable church makes the man a critic were [God] wants him to be a pupil."
This is a vocational hazard of priesthood, but with increasing mobility and the many masses which are still readily available to our community, it affects the laity as well. For the priest or the liturgist, trained to critique liturgy, it becomes difficult to turn the inner critic off, and worship with open mind and heart at liturgies where priests gather and pray together.
Similarly, our heads can be filled with irrelevant chatter during mass which distracts us from worship and prevents spiritual benefits. "Why don't they," "You should" and "I think" have their place at liturgy committees, or discussions about the liturgy, but when too many critical observations pop into our heads at liturgy, we destroy the possibility of communion with God or neighbor.
So we should take the existence of the devil seriously, understand that our temptations may be very subtle and often invisible to us. We take reassurance that Jesus has conquered Satan and so too may we if we don't listen to Satan's wiles or ask Jesus' help to resist them.
Lent is a time for waking up to our spiritual state. As Lewis says, "the safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."