Screwtape Describes the Domestic Church


A combination of humor and contemplation fell across my heart yesterday as I read  Screwtape’s venomous description of what is obviously a domestic church.

The scenario? His nephew Wormwood’s “patient” has recently fallen in love with a young lady; Screwtape is so demonically disgusted and repelled by her that one can only begin to guess at her virtue.

And then, as if proclaiming his hatred of her to Wormwood were not enough, he goes on to describe her home with equal, and surprising, loathing:

Then, of course, he [the patient] gets to know this woman’s family and whole circle. Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered? The whole place reeks of that deadly odour. The very gardener, though he has only been there five years, is beginning to acquire it. Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them. The dog and the cat are tainted with it. And a house full of the impenetrable mystery. We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others–but we can’t find out how. They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind this pretence of disinterested love. The whole house and garden is one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven: ‘the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence.’

Mired down as we are in the demanding tasks and duties within the home, I’d be willing to bet that few Catholic families realize how infuriating and reviling a domestic church, which participates in God’s grace, is to the demons. The graces found within the domestic church, rather than being a merely angering idea, are a palpably nauseating stench to them; and the more graces emanating from a Catholic home, the more reviled they are.

The twentieth dirty sock the mother picks up without complaining; the shriek from the toddler which the exhausted father, just returned from work, accepts with calm patience; the sibling who reconciles instead of retaliates; the acts of selfless compassion and love offered between spouses; the patient spiritual and intellectual rearing of children; the consistent rejection of that which is sinful; and, above all, the prayers offered together by the family even when they are tired, upset, disorganized, spiritually dry, confused, and downright worn, make the domestic church a place of absolute visceral disgust to the evil spirits we daily combat.

Indeed, the domestic church is “full of the impenetrable mystery.” Screwtape wrestles with this fact, unable–in his demonically and eternally loveless state–to comprehend or give credibility to what he terms the ‘disinterested love’ he finds within this particular Christian lady’s home. To Screwtape, the self-giving love of the genuinely Christian family must surely be a lie behind which there lurks some form of selfish gain; but he can’t discover how this comes about. He will never discover this, because it does not exist.

Reading this inversely profound excerpt from The Screwtape Letters rose two clear points to me. Firstly, it brought about a sense of renewed encouragement and zeal in my heart to continue defending the domestic church and contributing to the holiness of my own; for as I firmly believe, the domestic church is where you will find either the wheat or the weeds that will spring up and come to define the spiritual state of our entire society. Or, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II,

As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.

If this reality of the domestic church, if this holiness of the individual family is so revolting to the demons, we should strive all the more to sanctify our homes and family lives before we do anything else for the betterment of society. The domestic church is the first and last battleground of spiritual warfare, where we must daily aid Christ to conquer, as He will do at the end of time.

And secondly, this leads into the fact that it should be no surprise that the home and the identity of Catholic marriage and family is more viciously attacked than nearly any other reality on earth. Practically every grave sin or perversion has the potential to sprout from, or to infect and eventually destroy the home and the true identity of the family: fornication, adultery, divorce, homosexual “unions,” contraception, abortion, pornography, the influence and takeover of the media, violence, disruption of familial communication, bitterness, hatred, refusal to forgive, and the eventual rejection of God. All of these closely prowl about the battlefield of the domestic church.

Family life, by itself, is hard; family life that strives for holiness is far harder. It requires a deeply Sacramental way of living; it requires constant cooperation with God’s grace; it requires starting over every morning; it requires family prayer, mutual charity and unfailing forgiveness, sacrifice, respect, authentic chastity and openness to life, and a real, unbending secession from the perversions in our society. As difficult as these things are, they are precisely what make the domestic church the last battleground, the final stand in the war between Heaven and Hell–they are precisely what will help to win it for Christ the King.

As Catholic families, we must daily strive to reclaim and defend our domestic church as our most precious possession this side of Heaven. We must make it a place where “all that is not music is silence” when, as Screwtape proclaims for all demons, “We will make the whole universe a noise on end . . . The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down . . .”

To the best of our ability, we must preserve that which has been given to us by the goodness of God: our home and our family. The domestic church is our most immediate and our best chance to truly influence the world for good. None of us are perfect; even the best of Catholic families have nothing like a seamless, flawless life of sanctity and peace–even the idea of it provokes a combination of realistic laughter and contrite regret from us! But what we can do, we must do; and that is to keep fighting, praying, and immersing ourselves in that which is good; and, above all, to remind ourselves soberly and often that our home, our family life, is a fortress on the great spiritual battlefield that, with God’s help, can become a powerful stronghold of holiness and faith . . . and, for Screwtape and his minions, a place that reeks of that deadly odor called grace.