On Again Reading “Till We Have Faces”
Last weekend I reread C.S. Lewis’ beautiful, poetic, and absolutely wrenching novel Till We Have Faces. It was the last novel Lewis wrote and I’m using it in an intro to theology class that I’m teaching. As it’s been nearly a decade since I had read it last, I’d forgotten how powerful a text this is. For those who may not have read it, Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the story of Psyche and Eros and no novel I have ever read better encompasses and explains the story of a soul’s journey to its God. By the time I got to the end of the book I was sobbing my eyes out. It happens every time I read it.
The story centers around three sisters: Oruel (the protagonist of the book), Redival (her second sister, a fairly minor character in the book), and Istra (whose name in the fictional world of the book means ‘soul,’ or Psyche in Greek). Oruel, whose physical ugliness is highlighted by the book, which in turn is written from her perspective, loves her youngest sister dearly and very, very possessively. Istra, in turn, is so incredibly beautiful and kind as a child that people begin to treat her like a Goddess. They begin to venerate her. Neither she nor Oruel encourage this in any way. Of course, those familiar with Greek myths will know immediately how spiritually dangerous this is, and the problems that may (and do) ensue.
Receiving praise due to a Deity is a form of hubris. It is violence against the proper order of the cosmos. It is a way of placing a human being and the human ego above the Gods in that cosmic order. Allowing this, even passively to occur, is tremendously disrespectful to the Gods in question. It’s a type of impiety that has the potential to spread like wildfire too. This is exactly what happens in the fictional city of Glome, where all the action of the story occurs. The people began to venerate Istra in place of the Goddess of Glome (a Goddess named Ungit, who, as the text tells us, is their Aphrodite). This leads to devastation in the land, with the result that Istra must be taken up to a sacred mountain and given to Ungit’s son. This spurs a painful, bitter, but ultimately enlightening journey for the book’s protagonist Oruel.
Oruel, for the first 2/3 of the book is deeply resentful and bitter toward the Gods. She spews vile, impious, and hateful things toward Them because They have “taken” Istra away from her. (Istra for her part, until Oruel intervened with bullying manipulation, was supremely happy and fulfilled). We see through the course of the book that Oruel doesn’t love. She covets. She is greedy, selfish, and deeply self-centered. Her idea of love is possession. Her complaint against the Gods was this, “I was my own, and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.” This included Psyche’s right to herself. Like so many self-centered people, Oruel was fully prepared to destroy Psyche’s happiness because it wasn’t centered on her (Oruel). She was fully prepared to shit on anything holy, to pull those she purported to love down into the empty, shallow morass of her own mediocrity and misery rather than allow them to exist, whole and happy away from her control in loving relationships with their Gods.
The book is about the consequences of jealousy. Spiritual jealousy – that is jealousy over someone else’s spiritual gifts, is one of the most destructive things in the world. It twists, corrupts, and destroys everything good, clean, and holy. It destroys the jealous person most of all. Oruel spends 2/3 of the book complaining that the Gods never answer her accusations, that Their answers are confusing, misleading, impossible to understand. She is presented with mystery and refuses to see (even when she is granted a vision). It is easier for her to condemn it as madness and her sister as mad. Oruel eventually becomes Queen of Glome and sovereignty begins to heal her, forcing her to care for those in her kingdom. What really cements that process is writing her account of Istra’s being taken up by the God. Only in the end, when Oruel herself begins to realize how misguided she has been, how cruel and selfish, do we see the true nature of this manuscript.
Here’s the thing: every mystic, every devotee, everyone who loves his or her Gods and works diligently to center their lives around piety and devotion is Oruel as much as we have ever been Istra. Every one of us must, at some point and often more than once face the “holy darkness” that Oruel so pits herself against again and again in the text. Every one of us faces the choice over and over again, day after day in how we respond to the call of our Gods, the press of devotion, or the press of the world and what we have been taught is “rationality.” Every day we face the temptation to dismiss it all as “madness,” just as it was easier for Oruel to claim that Istra was “mad” rather than to accept that she was loved by a God. The book even has Oruel asking, “Was it madness or not? Which was true? Which would be worse? (142).” It’s so much easier to dismiss a life-changing (or challenging) theophany as madness than accept that it is real and have the safe, known pattern of your life fall away. It’s so much easier to call it madness than accept that someone else has received this and you may not be there yet. Jealousy is a terrible thing, especially spiritually, and it twists our souls all out of true. It’s a challenge I think we all face at some time or another (1).
It’s with part II that Oruel starts to heal and come to fruition spiritually. After writing the first part of her story, she has an epiphany, and a theophany that causes her to realize the horrible evil she has done in trying to tear Istra away from her God. Moreover, she comes to repent of it and, gaining both insight and humility, enters finally into right relationship with the Gods. It takes her entire life, as the story is at its core, the story of the soul’s journey. Toward the end of the book, she asks her teacher ‘are the Gods just?” His answer moves me to tears every time: “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? (p. 335). They are ever and always better than we deserve, even though it might take us our entire lifetimes to realize that. It is a touchstone, a thing to contemplate, a thing that urges one to cultivate virtue and piety *better* — whatever better means for each individual soul.
One of the other key questions, the question that gives the title is something Oruel asks after she’s had her epiphany: “How can They meet us face to face until we have faces? (p. 335)” and the novel asks the reader to contemplate exactly what that means. What does it mean to have a face? Why is it necessary before we can experience the Gods? I don’t have an answer to this save that the story of the soul is one of becoming, of growing, of peeling away layers of pain, jealousy, and misunderstanding until we see what Orual finally grasps in the last couple of paragraphs of the book: throughout she has been demanding answers from the Gods. In the end, she realizes that the God –in her case the “God of the Mountain”—IS the answer. In the end, our Gods are enough.
- I’m not saying that one should not engage in clear spiritual discernment. This is always necessary. Just because one is engaging in deep devotion to the point of having mystical experiences, doesn’t mean one should ignore one’s mental and physical health.
All page numbers are from this edition of the book.
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