The Gods, Face to Face

Today I finished reading C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. I first read it a few years ago and was almost completely bewildered by it. Yet I have no doubt it helped make me Orthodox.  Now it provides endless material for cogent, deep thought.

It’s funny. You don’t really understand something; but it makes you more Orthodox. Then you become Orthodox, and you go back and the thing begins to make sense.

Till We Have Faces is food for tears.

I think it contains clues, or start-up ideas, for the answers to all the important questions, only a few of which I will inadequately mention.

First of all, the holy Mr. Lewis provides a few antitheses for our benefit. First, and most obviously, there is the antithesis between true love of one’s own soul vs. a possessive love of one’s own soul. Then, true desire to be made divine in union with God, vs. a foolish, proud desire to be made divine as mere arrogation. And, finally, the true sacrifice which God requires of human beings – that he may have them all so that they may be fitted to have Him – contrasted with the terror and ugliness of the ravening appetite of death and our constant confusions between the two. This last contrast leads deeps into winding ways in which death and appetite actually become ways and means for life and love…but I will not speak further of what I barely grasp, if at all, myself.

Making distinctions is an important art. It’s one door to understanding.

I think Mr. Lewis shows us things far more mysterious as well, which I struggle to paraphrase. Why did the human fall happen at all? If we insist on asking the question as a why, there’s no answer unless it is the face of the Lord. But if you learn to ask the question a little differently – what is the meaning of it, for instance, he seems to have some things to say.

Apparently for him, as for other orthodox thinkers, the story of mankind’s salvation is not merely one of a height, a fall, then a return to that same height. In the story, Psyche undergoes the same journey she would have had she not turned on the light too soon. Mankind follows the same basic path to God’s Purpose as we would have had we not eaten of that tree of moral knowledge too soon. Now the journey goes down deeper before it rises to the originally intended heights. But still the soul (Psyche) starts out mortal, and is eventually “godded” – yes, Mr. Lewis uses that very word – through a journey in which she has nothing to do really but confirm her love to her god through obedience. The outward or reasoning or self-conscious “I” – as I interpret Orual – now suffers tortures of confusion and loss and anguish. But even that is saved through a mysterious, usually unconscious interchange of duties and motives between the steady, unswerving Psyche and the anguished self.

Finally, some words here lead me to contemplate once again the series of ideas by which we are led to think about our relationship to God.

At first one thinks that God is implacable. He is like a stone that cannot be moved or entreated or petitioned. He is wholly Other, wholly dangerous, wholly a source of destruction and loss.

Then one recieves like a child the saying that God repents the evil he means to do to man, and that when man himself repents of his own evil, God returns to him. When we draw near to God, God reciprocates by drawing near to us, we are told, and we learn to trust the saying. When we run from him he is angry and punishes us – perhaps forever, we hear.

But you cannot stay there forever. For it is necessary to return to the knowledge that God is changless, passionless.

At some point it strikes you that the same Will says yes or no to you depending on what you ask of it.  The same Food is lovely or hateful depending on what you can stomach. The same God is good to all – that is the deepest truth (unless you want to go deeper and say that God is beyond even good.) Ranged beneath that are the truths that we receive reward or punishment, praise or blame from God as we ourselves are worthy or unworthy. But prove him – probe the boundless with all humility – and the light dawns clearer and clearer that he is with you when you know him not, that everything is God’s mercy.

This is the point at which you want to go and write hymns to Christ – or at least to study the art of hymnwriting.

4 thoughts on “The Gods, Face to Face

  1. I recently finished the wonderful new biography of Lewis called “The Narnian” and have been tempted to give “Till We Have Faces” a go. Fantasy is normally not my thing, but you’ve given me reason now to reinvestigate.

    Thanks!

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  2. I’ll have to check out The Narnian.

    And must add that Lewis’ fantasy is not usual or common in any sense. It’s more like myth. It’s like cosmic literature, written by someone with a sense of all literatures in all times. Till We Have Faces is subtitled ” a myth retold.” Narnia is fantasy stright up, while the space trilogy is cast as sci-fi. All of them are pretexts for that thing Mr. Lewis does best, that can’t quite be classified. He puts all of our story, the story of the world, into all of his stories. That’s why Narnia is not an allegory: it’s too true for that. Too sacramental, you might say, for where an allegory merely represents, a myth “partakes” of the greater reality of which it truly speaks.

    Somewhere along the line it reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative” but I don’t know how to put it all together so I’ll stop babbling.

    Put simply, Till We Have Faces reads almost like light quasi-historical fiction. It’s the life story, in a few telling episodes, of a woman in another time and place. The story then culminates in a short series of visions seen by the main character. No magic or fantastical beings, just a barbaric kingdom that happens to lie on the border between all the other kingdoms, and a holy mountain inhabited by gods and theives.

    Of course Mr. Lewis wrote much more than stories. His prose is superb as well and if that’s what you prefer, you’ll not lack for material from him.

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