Till We Have Faces
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
C.S. Lewis’s classic retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid contains as much irony in its title as anywhere. Till We Have Faces as a title implies our perpetual waiting for that great fulfillment, that great peace we all seek1, as if everything we see and are is simply incomplete. However, we really don’t live life as though we lack faces. How can one know what one lacks without a face to see?
What struck me most about this book was the levels of emotion with which the story feels real. So much literary emotion is invoked by Lewis without the reader even knowing it. At least I assume this was his intent, I could expect nothing less from a master of his art.
The basic construction of Till We Have Faces (without spoiling it for all of you, as if I haven’t done that already) is its presentation as a book written as a complaint against the gods (in the setting of Greek mythology). For those interested in the classic myth, read about it here. The writer of this complaint, the sister of Psyche and Queen of Glome, Orual, is an old woman by this time bitter at the pain and injustice of the gods, particularly with their silence. The first 99% of the story is Orual’s retelling of her life, particularly her years spent with her beloved sister, Psyche. I will admit that the majority of this book was rather slow, and somewhat confusing. I even present myself with the question of whether the gods spoken of by Orual even exist in the book’s reality.
I’m not one to quit on a book easily. Even those books I put down for a time I come back to later. I was inches from putting the book aside. What stirred this literary emotion with me was particularly its slow, confusing disposition through this first portion of the book in contrast with its ending. It is not until the very last ten pages that Lewis brings about his plain clarity which his point is made. Its seems that his format alludes to the very nature of the title, further explained by the quote at the top of this post. How can we understand the greatness of the final message and revelation without first being conditioned by the frustration and confusion of its precluding context?
The moment I came upon this realization I shamed myself for doubting the story’s potency, or Lewis’s intent. How humbling is it for us to place ourselves in such a context. I am not too modest to state that my own is one where all existence is clouded with doubt and confusion, and I have no doubt that I see it in the faces of all I meet. I’m afraid we know not the depths to which we’ve fallen, yet still demand justice and the immediate retribution of blameless existence. But I have no doubt our situation is not unlike that of Orual: our constant and confused presentation of a book of complaints2 against the gods and the nature of the universe, leading to our eventual confrontation. But one day we shall wake up and for better or for worse, faces we shall have, and how we’ve composed ourselves in doing so will make all the difference.
God, does grace reach to this side of madness?
‘Cause I know this can’t be,
The great peace we all seek.
Did your clouds stop his voice?
and brother have you found the great peace that we all seek?
2. A further analogy Lewis presents (but not very plainly) is the difference between a bowl and a book. When Orual first goes to meet the gods in a vision near the end of her life, she carries an empty bowl. At some point she realizes, however, that it is not a bowl, but a book — the book she has written as complaint against the gods. In contrast, in her late visions of the meetings of Psyche with the gods, Psyche is always carrying a bowl, and in fact uses it to carry out their bidding in return for her atonement. Its occured to me that this difference is an illustration of our disposition in such situations. A book implies a list of complaints and bitterness, while the bowl, as illustrated by Lewis, suggests sorrow for one’s betrayal and an article of service. The book implies a certain humility despite confusion and a willingness to pay the price for one’s absolution.