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A little advice from the abbot to the novice recalls C.S. Lewis letters

      Among the many books C.S. Lewis pounded out, “The Screwtape Letters”stands out for me. A master demon, Screwtape gives advice to his nephew and apprentice demon, Wormwood, on the best course to drive a wedge between Wormwood’s human subject and the enemy of the demonic world, God. This advice is offered through a series of letters from Screwtape to Wormwood, hence, “The Screwtape Letters.”

      Why not a letter from the abbot of a monastery to his novice on how to become a good monk?

      So, with apologies to Lewis, here is the Letter Bede.


Dear Brother Anselm:

      I am pleased to learn from Father Novice Master that your trial of rising in the middle of the night has eased somewhat. The night office is a trial for many a novice, so you mustn’t think that your desire for more slumber is unique.

      I recall with vivid detail my own battles with rising in the dead of night when I was a novice. Many a time I marveled that I did not take a tumble coming down the night stairs, so racked with weariness was I. However, the day will come, though you might not believe it at this moment, when you will tire at the very hour that you now enjoy to revel. Our Lord truly has a sense of humor.

      Now, as for your question. It resides in two parts: the whole concept of thoughts and the subject matter of those thoughts. I shall answer your question in that order.

      Do not worry about the random thoughts that assail you during prayer. Such thoughts have no power over you; they cannot harm you. You ask why these thoughts bombard you at all, and the answer is simple: you are a human being. Wishing to blank the mind at any time, but especially during prayer, is analogous to pouring water into a bucket with holes in it, and then wondering why no water is left in the bucket when you approach the flowers to be watered.

      Though thoughts cannot be extinguished, they can be ignored. As I said, these thoughts cannot harm you providedyou pay them no heed. When thoughts weigh into you, allow them to pass by unattended.

      It’s like this. I grew up in a town on the northern bank of the Ohio River. Now and then father would take us down by the riverbank for a picnic. Mother fried the chicken and made the potato salad; she spread a large old blanket on the grass on which we sat. And there, eating our picnic fare, we watched the river drift by, the current flowing from our left to our right.

      Father would read aloud to us as we ate. Usually the author would be Kipling or Twain, but now and then he brought a volume of his favorite poet, Wordsworth, and he would read, in a very dramatic fashion, from “The Prelude.”

      Every once in a while, as we sat there looking at the river and eating our food and listening to father, flotsam floated by, and our attention would focus on that. But the tree or the debris or the junk that floated by soon drifted out of sight, and once again our gaze, our focus, rested upon the river itself.

      My point, dear Novice, is that you do the same when in cell or choir or at work, “thoughts” enter your mind. Allow them to float by. They will soon be gone.

      In regards to your anxiety as to the subject matterof these thoughts that bombard you, I agree that such thoughts can be quite powerful; at times seemingly overwhelming. But I propose to you two factors to take into consideration: your age and the culture in which you lived prior to entering this place.

      Young men dwelling on sexual matters is as old as the hills. Your 24-year old body is simply throbbing to reproduce. That is not only normal, it is of God’s design. So do not fret about these desires as being “evil.” They are not. However, the culture in which you lived prior to entering this venerable monastery exasperates and degrades those thoughts you have. Hence, your anxiety.

      My blunt answer to your question is this: those images you pulled up on your computer and phone prior to your entrance here will remain in your head for some time. However, those images will grow blurry and eventually fade away. I repeat, those images cannot harm you as long as you don’t dwell upon them. Remember, the river is the focus, not the flotsam that drifts by.

      Age is on your side in this matter. Though thoughts of sex never disappear, they do dwindle in number and their intensity wanes as you age. My father was 65 when mother passed away. A year or so after her death, I recall him noting, “My mind still seethes with passion, but my loins limp in atrophy.”

      Nature has a way of evening things out.

      Your humble abbot,



      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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