I have made some interesting reading goals this year to challenge myself, and one of them is to read more of C.S. Lewis’s work. I’m an avid Narnia fan, but Lewis’s talent goes beyond great children’s literature, and what kind of reader would I be if I didn’t explore his stories for adults? So I eagerly dove into my inter-library loan only to hit a roadblock. The style of writing in this book is unlike any I’ve ever encountered, but in the best way possible. It took me several chapters to get into the rhythm, but I’m glad I was patient in allowing the story to unfold. This book is so worth your time!!
A Quick Synopsis
Till We Have Faces is Lewis’s reimagining of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. In the original story, Psyche is a beautiful princess who is worshipped as a goddess by all who meet her, and this attracts the jealousy of Aphrodite. Since no one dares to ask for Psyche’s hand in marriage, the king consults the oracle of Apollo, and discovers that he must sacrifice his daughter to a hideous monster, for no man shall wed her. This he agrees to do, but Aphrodite has other plans. She plots to curse Psyche with a love for only the lowest and ugliest of men.
Cupid is sent to carry out this errand, and upon seeing the beauty of his poor victim, he falls hopelessly in love. He erects a palace for Psyche and visits her nightly, eluding his mother’s (Aphrodite) knowledge under cover of darkness. Psyche is happy and all is well until her two sisters are permitted to visit her. They are jealous of the splendor that surrounds her and convince her that her beloved must be a monster if he only comes in the dark. They give her a lamp and challenge her to look at his face in the night. Psyche agrees to do this, although she has promised Cupid otherwise.
When she looks upon him that night, she sees how handsome he is and also falls instantly in love. A drop of the lamp’s oil falls onto Cupid and he wakes, angry and hurt that Psyche broke her promise. He flies away from her, leaving her to the mercy of his mother. Aphrodite forces Psyche to wander far and wide, completing impossible tasks. After having retrieved a box from the Underworld that contains the secret of beauty, Psyche becomes too curious and breaks another promise, opening the box against Aphrodite’s orders. This time, Cupid appears to her again and forgives her, pleading with Zeus to make her immortal. This request is granted, and much to Aphrodite’s chagrin, Psyche becomes a goddess and lives with Cupid ever after.
C.S. Lewis’s Twist and How It Has Affected My Plans for Lent
Lewis decided that he would re-write this myth from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister, Orual, who is her opposite in almost every way. While Psyche has the beauty of a goddess, Orual is incredibly ugly, hiding her face with a veil. While Psyche has a purity of soul and a strong trust in her Beloved, Orual is cynical and disbelieving. The two sisters love each other deeply, but when Psyche’s affection becomes divided after her marriage, Orual is green with envy and mentally scrambles, trying to devise all sorts of arguments to convince Psyche that her new life on the Mountain isn’t worth it. After a heavy disagreement, and upon forcing Psyche to reveal her husband’s identity, the sisters part ways and Orual is wracked with guilt at having destroyed Psyche’s happiness in a feeble attempt to protect her own.
The whole book is a fascinating meditation on what it means to love someone in the truest sense of the word. Orual learns by the end of the book that the real meaning of love is when the happiness of another person means more to you than what it may personally cost you. You have to love someone enough to let them go, to live their own life and to fulfill their own destiny. Her love starts out as possessive and selfish, but is transformed by suffering into something redemptive.
This book got the wheels turning in my head about the parallels in my relationship with God. Do I love Him just for what He can provide for me? For the sensible feelings of love that I’m granted? It’s much more difficult to put love into action when you don’t feel like it. But I’m not going to be happy in any real sense of the word unless I let God in. And that can be a painful transformation, much like Orual’s. So, I think it’s safe to assume that all of us can say, in some capacity:
I am Orual.
How many times have I worn a veil over my true features, to hide my flaws, to keep secret my deepest emotions and the fear they can inspire?
How many times has my love been misdirected in its motives, causing more hurt than joy? How many times have I held a bitter and cynical opinion, leaving no room for grace?
By my poor choices, I have stumbled and skidded into the dust from which I was made. Isn’t that what Lent is about? Standing in front of Orual’s mirror and seeing what we really are? But the story doesn’t end there…
We can learn through Psyche’s purity of heart and Orual’s trials and long-suffering spirit. Both of these are components of life that intertwine and blend with each other. It is undeniable that within us lies an deep desire for something beyond this life. Psyche describes it thus:
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from–”Till We Have Faces: Part I, Ch. 7
And Orual answers it:
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”Till We Have Faces: Part II, Ch. 4
I don’t find it coincidental that I read this book during my novena to the Holy Face of Jesus. My blueprint for Lent 2019 just took a whole different trajectory. What does love mean unless you do the hard stuff? I can think of a dozen different things to give up that would merely “pinch” me. God calls us to address the big stuff first, the problems and anxieties that are going to burn, even if they seem ordinary on the outside. What have you been avoiding? That’s what Christ calls you to examine this Lent. And He’s right there waiting to help you through it. His Face takes on the disfigurement of my soul, and because I love Him, it is only right to allow Him to transform my soul after His divine image. I want to look at His Face on Good Friday, and know that I’ve worked hard to help ease the pain I’ve caused there.
“All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me.”Till We Have Faces: Part II, Ch. 4
This Lent will be about not refusing Him any longer.