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Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold Paperback – July 9, 1980
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This is a book I would highly recommend to anyone, at any stage of spiritual development. It tackles tough questions about belief in something more than the material, the problem of pain in our world, the dichotomy of the human heart needing both logic and emotion...I could go on and on.
But the main character drives the themes! She is a flawed character -- highly flawed -- but because her flaws are realistic and relatable, she is also a sympathetic character and the things that happen around her give her narration credibility, even as she revels herself to be an untrustworthy narrator.
In many ways, the novel is a fictional exploration of the deep ideas that Lewis touches on in many of his non-fiction works (Mere Christianity, The Problem with Pain, and especially The Four Loves). But it is much, much more than that. I consider this to be C.S. Lewis' best novel and, more than being my favorite novel by Lewis, the best novel I have ever read.
There are many among us who have suffered some life changing event; an event that changes us in quick or slow ways, forever. These are the kinds of events that cause us to build “public faces.” More often than not, these changes build a wall between us and others at least in part because we do not wish to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to suffer more pain, or its repercussions, ever again.
We also build these walls in our choice to push those who are suffering away. Much like Job’s friends, we seek, in whatever way accessible, to understand the cause and effect of what we see. As humans we are creatures always in search of order. We cannot tolerate the arbitrary, we must find a pattern. In some of us that results in a search for God (or gods), in others it is the explicit effort to eradicate even the hint of the divine from our lives.
I believe, in some way, this was the seed to human sacrifice. In our ancient civilizations, with vastly less understanding than we have today, there was a strong belief that the gods must demand blood and restitution for the shortcomings of mankind. After all; there were famines, natural disasters, accidents, pestilence, and all sorts of ways to die. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they thought to choose those to send to the gods in order to save their own hides.
We have, of course, changed this view over the last several millennium or so. Although the Aztecs were hard at it in the early centuries CE, there had arisen a culture in the Middle East that looked on the sacrifice of human life as an abomination. They did, however, hold tightly to the sacrifice of blood offerings. This interpretation of divine demand remained through the birth of Christianity. There was still a strong conviction that someone somewhere had to pay the price for all that was not right with the world. One of the problems we seem to face most consistently is what constitutes restitution and what constitutes the natural course of the universe and is there a difference?
This weekend, I decided to re-read a favorite tale I had read many years ago. There are times when I go through stages of hunting down everything by a particular author and read through it all. This remembered stage was a search for C. S. Lewis. He is best known for titles such as the Narnina series, the Space Trilogy and Christian apologetics. The subject of my blog is a bit off the usual track. It is a retelling of the tale of Psyche and Cupid. I found it quite intriguing at the time and deeply thought provoking now. Let’s visit Glome and meet the Queen whose thoughts and actions may touch your dreams and your fears. Perhaps you’ll find a treasure to take back home.
The story of Cupid and Psyche is quite old. We know it best from the Latin novel, Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) written in the 2nd century CE by Apoleius. The tale itself must be quite ancient since depictions of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BCE. The basic story is about a king with three daughters, each quite beautiful but none as beautiful as the youngest. Although the older sisters marry, the youngest finds only worshipers and no lovers. So much is the attention she receives she draws the ire of Venus. Venus sends her son Cupid to end the competition, but Cupid falls in love and takes her away to a hiding place. His only request is that she never tries to discover his identity.
Time passes and the young bride tires of being alone all of the time and begs to see her sisters. The visit is disastrous. As a result of their jealousy of her new style of living, her sisters coerce her into revealing the identity of her husband. By exposing him, she brings the wrath of Venus upon them both and Psyche is forced to wander in a quest to meet the demands of this very jealous goddess. She wins in the end and is restored to her beloved Cupid.
I don’t want to give you all the story twists of Lewis’ retelling; it’s really a charming read. What I will do is tell you something of what I found within the pages of this rather different interpretation of the tale. You see in this story the elder sister does not see the palace, except through the mist in the middle of the night of betrayal. She believes her young half-sister to be quite mad. She seeks some way to believe, some way to find an answer from her goddess or her Greek philosophical training and finds only contradiction and doubt. She finally makes the decision to coerce her sister into revealing the identity her new found husband.
The results are disastrous as Orual discovers her sister was quite sane and she is now responsible for sending the young lady into the wilderness to be tested by a jealous goddess. Princess Orual returns home to become Queen Orual on the death of her father only a few days later. Shaken to the core, she vows to always wear a veil, so that none can see how homely she is, and to slowly extinguish that part of her that was the caring and loving protector of her beloved little sister. She lives her life in constant fear that the gods will strike her down. And she never allows herself to love again.
Queen Orual is a wise ruler. She reverses the policies of her father and finds ways to protect the country from the vagaries of nature, to build their treasury and to protect their borders. An excellent fighter, she rides with her armies when required. The kingdom finds peace, and yet she suffers. It is by chance that during a casual trip, taken for pleasure, she happens upon a temple, built in honor of her little sister Istra (Psyche in Greek). The tale she hears is nothing like the story she knows and she vows to write her own story, the truth. She vows to seek justice from the gods.
I find the tale compelling because it is a search for a very elusive thing; something that we are so sure we know, and yet we face trials, suffering, and retribution. Like Job, we believe we are doing our best, that we make appropriate decisions based on the knowledge we have, only to discover we didn’t have all the facts. No matter how hard we seek answers, we only see darkly the things in this world. And, like Job, we reach a point where we begin to demand answers. Not because we don’t believe, but because we do.
In the book the Queen muses as she writes, “There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite and our capacity without limit.”
No, not so different from the world we live in. Seeking guidance, following precepts and yet suffering. Seeing a world in pain, and noting that much of what happens is an accident of birth. Is it any wonder that our highly developed, rational minds seek answers? That we reach a point when we stop and demand of the universe, of God, “Why?”
Our Queen sets out her tale in order to challenge the gods, to ask them to tell her what more she could have done with the information she had. In the end she learns that her love for her sister, her suffering throughout her life, brought solace during the years of Istra’s wandering. It provided support during times of trial, and that when the final test came her sister had grown to the point that even her dearest and most loved could not sway her from the task at hand. Istra (Psyche) does, in the end, earn the approval of the gods and win back her place at Cupid’s side.
Orual brings us to the lesson that although we often suffer the consequences of ill informed decisions, we still have a chance to build on our failures and turn them into something productive. We gain “face” if you will by what we do about suffering, how we treat those in pain, how we use the tools we are given to make the world a better place, however small that improvement may be. It is when we strive in this way that we earn the right, the obligation to stand, “gird our loins like a [rational being]” so that when we are asked we can inform. That search for understanding can never end; else why are we given these incredible gifts of a rational mind, a spirit of wonder, and a will to seek truth?
”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?”
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