A few days ago I read a passage from Arcana Coelestia that keeps coming back to me:
They who are in the loves of self and of the world cannot possibly believe that they are in things so filthy and unclean as they actually are in, for there is a certain pleasure and delight that soothes, favors, and allures, and causes them to love that life, to prefer it to all other life, and thereby to suppose that there is nothing of evil in it; for whatever favors anyone’s love and the life thence derived is believed to be good. Hence also the rational consents, and suggests falsities which confirm and cause such blindness that they see nothing of the nature of heavenly love; and if they were to see it they would say in their hearts that it is a wretched affair, or a thing of naught, or something of the nature of a phantasy that takes hold of the mind, as in sickness. (AC 2045)
The part that particularly struck me was the description of the pleasure that comes from self-love as “soothing, favoring, and alluring.” The description of it as soothing especially resonated with me. It reminds me of a part of the first letter in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. The senior devil Screwtape is advising his nephew, the junior devil Wormwood, how to keep a man away from spiritual thinking:
I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true.
The point is that as soon as we start to doubt our habitual life, to wonder if whether what is comfortable may not in fact be good, it stirs up anxiety. And it’s so much easier to give into that soothing routine of thinking the way we’ve always thought than to live in that anxiety. The example of wanting lunch is a seemingly innocuous example, but even that in the letters averts a turning point in the man’s life. The pleasure that comes along with love of self is even more insidious, and more soothing. One of the biggest obstacles I face in trying to seriously examine myself and see my own evils is the voice that says, “Yeah, but you’re doing better than so many other people.” It’s a voice that soothes me when I’m starting to really see how much I need the Lord’s help, and seemingly pulls me up from dark places – but the reality is it pulls me back, back to stasis and inertia. And as the passage from Arcana Coelestia says, the idea that there’s comfort on the other side of temptation after I no longer love myself above others – seems to be “a thing of naught,” since it’s difficult to imagine. Intellectually I know that the comfort of staying in an unhealthy place is not a real comfort – goodness knows I should’ve learned the lesson a hundred times by now – but that soothing voice, telling me I’m fine where I am, still speaks powerfully every time I try to see my evils and repent.