Till We Have Faces

Just finished reading, or rather re-reading, this book, at my sister’s prompting. Though I originally read it quite some time ago and didn’t understand it at all. Not really sure I completely get it now, either; but I did get more out of it this time through.

I lost out on my afternoon nap today to finish it up. Just couldn’t put it down till I’d got to the end and just as I threw down the book and snuggled in to snooze, Bella began howling.

Some thoughts:

The first thing in the book that really grabbed me was Psyche’s conversation the night before she is to be sacrificed on the mountain. She is very much the mystic. “It was when I was happiest that I longed most. . . because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home…. The longing for home. For indeed now it feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover. Do you not see now—?” Her breathless excitement and radiant joy reminds me very much of Ste. Therese composing wedding invitations to celebrate taking her vows.

My sister remarked on how Psyche is so very like some of the mendicant saints, like St. Francis, in the scenes on the mountain when she sees the forest as a golden palace, her rags as royal robes, the water as fine wine and her hands as a golden chalice. Surely this might be some of the manner in which the passionate friar of Assisi might have answered a critic. 

I still don’t feel like I’ve quite got a handle on the significance of having a face. I get it, or kind of get it, but I have the vague sense that something is still slipping through my fingers. Maybe it’s just being tired and muddle headed. Theresa said it reminded her of St Paul’s now we see as in a glass darkly, then we will see face to face.

What really grabbed me actually links back to A Canticle for Leibowitz. At the end of that novel the two-headed woman Mrs. Grales (is that name a deliberate pun on grail, by the way?) comes to the abbot for confession, shriv’ness she calls it. But in addition to seeking to be shriven for her sins, she also plans to forgive God, to give him shriv’ness for making her deformed, for being Just. I couldn’t help but think of that scene when Orual brings her accusations against the gods.

I think both authors have hit on a psychological truth that is very interesting, so often man does find himself in this odd position, needing to forgive God. Not of course that God truly needs forgiveness. Instead, as Orual discovers, it is we who need to be forgiven. But part of our hurt is a refusal to see God as he truly is.

Orual is answered and satisfied in her complaint when she finally comes to listen to herself and to realize how petty her complaints really are, especially when compared with how glorious the god truly is when she allows herself to acknowledge that she has indeed seen him. It makes me think of that glorious scene in Job when God answers Job’s complaint: where were you when I laid the foundation of the world? In fact, just as with Orual, there is no real answer other than the fact of being: God is Who He is, the Creator, the All-Powerful. When we truly understand Who God is and who we are, then all our complaints against God crumble away to dust. But it isn’t that we are nothing, nobody. It is then that we truly have a face, that we see face-to-face. For how can I know who I truly am, unless I first know who made me? The most essential fact of my being is that I am a daughter of God. Until I see that, I don’t see myself at all, only a mask I have constructed for myself. Maybe I get the face thing after all.

In the final scene Orual reminds me of the other St. Teresa, Teresa of Avila, especially that moment that Bernini captured so beautifully, the Transverberation:

The air was growing brighter and brighter now; as if something had set it on fire. Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade. I was no one. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I love her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously, she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and the stars and the sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming.

When the soul begins to see God, suddenly her entire perspective shifts. Suddenly everything which was twisted becomes straight and everything is in the right order, the proper perspective. Love for the other does not diminish. It increases far beyond the power of mere human love. But it is no longer an end in itself, it only exists because of that greater Love. I can’t really add to the beauty of Lewis’ own words. I think this is one of his finest moments.

I think when I first read this book I was confused by he Greek myths and the pre-Christian trappings. Somehow it was easier for me to see Christ in Aslan than in Cupid. In this story Deus Amor est, God is Love. This time, more mature, a little wiser and better read, I was able to see how Lewis enfleshes Christian truths, or, rather the Truth. But I think this is a book that will bear re-reading. One of those that means more each time you read it, gets deeper the further you dig. It seems rather like one could keep going like that wonderful scene in The Last Battle, higher up and further in. I hope so.

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