C. S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, the Senior devil in The Screwtape Letters, has an interesting take on human nature. He observes that our lives have a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow, a series of troughs and peaks that affects every area of our lives—our interests, our loves, our work. We go through times of spiritual insight and responsiveness, and times of dryness and dullness.
That shouldn’t surprise us; the rhythm is written into nature. In simpler times I have sat by sea and watched the waves; the rhythm of the waves breaking on the beach, then retreating to break interminably upon the beach again. And I have watched the long ebbing of the tide and its flowing back; a rhythm governed by the cycle of the moon upon the earth.
The rhythms of our lives are part of the dance of life that all God’s creatures dance. The dance becomes un-rhythmical, disharmonious, erratic, when the dancers fail to move with the dance and try to force their way unnaturally. This often happens when the dancers fail to notice that they are dancing the dance, and that the law of undulation is a natural law.
Some of God’s children try to force their way into perpetual spiritual highs, others surrender to the lows and allow depression to govern all their days. You can’t live on the heights, and you best not camp permanently in the low valleys of your experience.
The first correction that we can make is the simple acknowledgment that we have highs and lows; that highs and lows are a natural part of life, and that there is nothing wrong with having highs and lows. Barring chemical imbalance, which is a matter for wise doctors and counsellors, having highs and lows is not a call for some pacifying medication to homogenize our days. Bland is not beautiful.
Rather than that, make use of your highs, those moments of greater energy and joy, and rejoice that your God has made you and all things good. In those moments step into the flow of His creativity and dance the dance with confidence.
In the lows, do not condemn yourself or accept Screwtape’s counsel of despair. Instead, use the steady tools of your faith; pray the prayers of Morning Prayer, read Holy Scripture, especially the Psalms; that book of ups and downs. Talk quietly with your friends, give love, accept love, read quietly things that delight the mind, listen to a symphony, and be at peace; the rhythm always returns and every ebb is always followed by a flow.
St. Benedict reminds us that “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked” (Proverbs 15:3). But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (RB 19:1,2). First, understand that your Lord is with you in the lows as well as in the highs. Even Screwtape knew that our Lord makes great use of the troughs in our lives, observing, “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best” (Screwtape, Letter VIII).
Second, observe that steady discipline maintained through both highs and lows is the clearest channel of grace. The simple truth is that if we steadily hold our souls aloft to God, He will pour His blessing upon us. Our daily prayer and Scripture reading doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to be as regular as we can possibly make it. There is a difference between infused grace, that moment of gratuitous spiritual intensity that we so often seek and cherish, and acquired grace. Infused grace is temporarily rewarding, acquired grace builds slowly but steadily towards a deeper union with the God whom we love.
Third, observe that we take ourselves too seriously. That is a result of our misguided view that we are actually in control. Banish the thought from your mind. The Psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength…I am shut in so that I cannot escape…I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4,8,15 ESV). You only think you are in control. That in itself ought to provide the biggest occasion for self-deprecatory humour, that is, if it weren’t so often painful. Relax into the hands of God, accept His forgiveness, accept His patience with you and extend some of that divine patience to yourself and to others. From a divine perspective, in all our solemn seriousness, we may all be somewhat amusing. That is to say, ease up on yourself and live in forgiveness and divine acceptance.
One of C. S. Lewis’s characters, at the moment immediately preceding her encounter with God, had the following flash of insight, “Supposing one were a thing after all—a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one’s true self? Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?” (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Scribner, 1945), p. 315). The question really isn’t, “What do I want to do?”, or “What do I want to be?”, but “What has my Maker designed me to be?”, and “How has he moulded me through the apparent accidents of life?”