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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I’ve been pondering this topic for a long time. It’s important, but a difficult thing about which to write, partly because to write about it well, I need to touch on personal things that frankly, I don’t very much want to share here on my blog. Situations have been coming up with clients, with some of the troubleshooting that I do, however, that have brought this to the forefront of my attention and since addressing this falls under ‘preventative measures,’ I don’t think I can avoid it any longer. I’m going to start with a brief story.
When my adopted mother died, I went through a really really bad period with Odin. I still did all my work, but in my heart whenever I would approach Him or He me, all I could think was ‘you killed my mother, you son of a bitch.’ and I wanted nothing to do with Him. I could not bring myself to go to Him for a very long time. Now, He didn’t kill my mother. Death is a natural part of living, a sacred thing every bit as much as birth, but I don’t think we’re always particularly logical in the face of grief. One would think being a spirit worker or vitki that I’d be more accepting of death, having some inkling of what comes after, but …it really doesn’t help, especially when it’s one’s mother.
There was nothing wrong in feeling as I did, and Odin gave me ample space to process and heal but I held onto those feelings. I pushed them to the side and worked around them and kept pushing Him away doing all manner of other devotional work and one day I turned around and realized that there was a huge calcified blockage where my connection to my God should have been; and I was horrified. I did divination on my own and with another diviner to see what I could do –because while grieving is natural, I had a choice about what I did with that grief and what I did to restore myself and my devotional connections and I”d made a poor one–and I did all the things suggested. I started seeing a grief therapist for a time to work through the intense pain of having lost a beloved mother. I did all the right things, a little late, but I did them and…while things got more or less back to normal, there was still a part of me, not a large part but something solidly, doggedly *there*, that wanted nothing to do with the Old Man. I suddenly found myself nurturing a deep aversion to something, Something holy.
I kept up my work, kept doing all the things that were helping me, started rather (in retrospect) ragged devotion to Him again and really didn’t think anything more about it. I figured I’d get over it or learn to live with it. The Work was more important. Then a man walked into my house for divination and brought a friend who turned out to be possessed by something very foul. Then I had a God come so strongly around me that my bones vibrated with the power of the Holy. Then I saw very clearly how allowing even a tiny little chip of aversion to the Holy could provide a foothold for something foul, for miasma, for pollution, for things and creatures that are diametrically opposed to the order that our Gods have created. I saw I had another choice and I begged Odin as fervently as I have ever begged and prayed for anything to take that last little bit of aversion away from me…and He did. It was a grace. I felt Him again as clean and whole and terrifyingly raw as when He’d first claimed me, and I am so grateful, so incredibly grateful.
I thought about that for a long time and really looked at how damaging holding onto that aversion could have been. that’s where the unraveling of one’s spiritual life, cleanliness, and goodness begins. I thought about how quickly it spiraled with me, how easy it was to turn a blind eye to it, and how fast it quickly became entrenched. I was lucky: I work with enough diviners that I had help. I have a clean, strong ancestor practice and had their help. I kept up a ton of devotional practice with other Gods, and even brokenly with Odin so I was open to accepting the gift of Their grace. But what about people who aren’t in that situation? Who don’t have those blessings? I thought about what the first and last symptoms of the pollution had been and knew I had to eventually write about it and it’s taken me a very, very long time to do so.
The first and last symptom was a subtle aversion to the Holy. Oh for me, it wasn’t everything or even most things, I just didn’t want anything to do on a personal level with Odin. It was, however, enough. I realized that when we have in any part of our being a deep aversion to the sacred, it’s a warning sign. It needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. I know that if I had recognized or acknowledged and dealt directly with my own right away, I’d have spared myself (and more importantly my Gods) so much pain. I’ve learned after all of this to see that aversion in someone as a major clarion call, a major warning sign. If we are in right relationship with our Gods, we won’t have any aversion to the Holy. That’s what it really comes down to and if we do, there’s a problem.
When I’m training apprentices and students, one of the assignments I always give them, and fairly early on, is to read C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces.” My friend Alexei Kondratiev once described it as one of the three great Pagan novels of the 20th century for all that Lewis was a Christian. It is a retelling of the story of Eros and Psyche with one addition: Psyche has a sister named Orual and Orual detests the sacred. She fights and rails against it, out of hurt and jealousy and it calcifies her until the very end when her epiphanies come. She is given in stark contrast to Psyche (named Istra in the book), who goes to her God with an open, passionate heart. One reading of the book looks at Orual and Istra as the same person, at different points in their devotional life.
My students recently were discussing the book and Orual is not popular. Several said that she is the embodiment of modern pollution and attitudes but several of them admitted that they see Orual in themselves sometimes (I think we all do, we all have those points of deep resistance, or times when we’ve been jealous of someone else’s spiritual lives, gifts, work, or times when we’ve curled up from hurt and let it become angry and bitter. We’re all works in progress). We were talking about how one deals with those times and one of my apprentices, T., owned by Freya, said potently: ” If the Orual in me pervades, if I am stuck, I go to Freyja’s altar and offer Orual to her. I give Her my service and I surrender Orual to her, and tell Her that She will guide me, Orual or no Orual. Then it passes.” Later, when I asked if I could quote her here, she said, “If I am struggling, it impedes my path that She wants me to walk. I need to know when to ask for help or I will truly be lost.” And it occurred to me that this is what it comes down to: we need to know when to ask for help and more importantly, we need to not be too proud to actually ask.
This is part of the contract we have with our Gods, and it requires a certain humility to acknowledge that we cannot always do it on our own, that we cannot right ourselves all the time, that sometimes we need to ask for Their help trusting that it will come. May we not be too proud to ask. May we have the humility to listen. Keep us clean, oh my Gods, keep us clean.
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