Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Till We Have Faces

Several years back I discovered C. S. Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces--an adaptation of a Greek myth about Psyche, who though mortal is so beautiful that she provokes the jealousy of Aphrodite. She ends up chained on a mountain as an offering to a dragon, but Eros rescues her and marries her. He will not let her see his face, but her sisters persuade her to sneak a peek while he's sleeping. She is caught and banished as a result. I never actually read the book back then, and it slipped my mind until recently, when someone referred to it in a talk I was listening to. I decided to get it from the library so I could finally read it.

It's a good story, all in all, and an interesting twist on the myth. What we get is the "back story" from the perspective of the sister (there are two sisters, but only one visits Psyche and persuades her to disobey her husband). She writes in protest against the gods, to set the record straight and present her complaints about their manipulation. We discover late in the book her specific motivation--that years after the key events take place, she encounters a temple to Psyche and is told the story in a different form. Essentially, the priest at the temple presents the classical version of the myth, but her own recollection of things is more complicated. One major difference is that the palace in which Psyche lives is invisible to outside observers. Aside from one brief glimpse at night, her sister cannot see it, or Psyche's clothes, but what appears to be a girl in rags, living (though living well enough) in the woods. She struggles with various doubts and theories about what is going on, until she finally determines to force Psyche by whatever means necessary to look at her husband and see whether he is actually a god.

There is a teacher in the story--a Greek slave--who speaks for secularism (he seems to be a stoic, but Lewis is, after all, writing for a modern audience), while the barbarian natives have a more ingrained trust in the supernatural. Neither contingent sees the truth, however, so for instance when the sister is processing Psyche's situation, one side says the "husband" can only be a criminal vagabond of the mountains, while the other allows that he is probably a demon or monster.

Probably the most poignant part of the story for me comes when the two sisters meet after Psyche is sacrificed. The joy that she is alive gives way to confusion when she speaks of a palace that should be present but isn't. To Psyche it is real and present and substantial; to her sister it is invisible and most likely a hallucination. There is a strong echo here of the dwarfs at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia. In the final chapters of the last book, when that world reaches its end, and those who refuse to side with the Antichrist figure are cast into a stable to be killed, most find the door to be a portal into heaven. A few, however, experience it as merely the entrance to a dank stable and act accordingly. The others can see them as if they were in heaven with everyone else, but as far as they are concerned, it's dark, and small, and smells and feels exactly like a stable should. A group of dwarfs who chose in the end to take no one's side falls into this latter category, and they sit in a tight circle, oblivious to the world around them. No matter what the others try, they cannot convince them that they are anywhere but a stable.

In Narnia, it's a pretty clear image of the notion that Lewis expresses elsewhere--that people who end up in hell are there by their own choosing, not even in some special place per se, but experiencing the presence and love of God through the darkness of their own hearts. This is a fully Orthodox notion--the light that the blessed will experience will be fire to the damned, only because they choose to experience God's love as hatred. Here, the interaction is very much the same, but without the kind of finality you get in the other story. What struck me when I read it was not so much the connection with Narnia, but with my own situation. Sometimes when I'm trying to communicate with Julie about Orthodoxy it feels like Psyche trying to tell her sister about the palace. To her, it is there, it is real and plain as anything, and she need only take it in--but to her sister, it is totally invisible and can only have some dark explanation (whether natural or supernatural).

In the same way, what seems so real and meaningful to me about Orthodoxy (I can only imagine) seems half-baked, if not downright insane to Julie. It's a desperate moment when you realize the other person can't see what seems so plain to you. You realize that the things that seem most obvious are that much harder to explain to those who can't see them, much less convince them that they're there. At the same time, you can't help but feel sympathy toward the sister in the story, who for all that she can see has no good reason to accept Psyche's story. (Except, of course, that she was formerly a very honest and very real person, who was not at all likely to make up such things--but there is no Professor Kirk in this tale to point that out.) Likewise, I feel sympathy for Julie and other Evangelicals who react the same way. There's simply no room in their world for all this mystical hocus-pocus. I didn't get here by "figuring it out" or by forcing my will to accept it. Only God knows what it really took to open my eyes so I could see, and only he knows what it will take for them.

The real problem is if someone does see and still refuses to believe. In the story, after Psyche glimpses the god and is banished, he appears briefly to her sister as well, and in no uncertain terms. From that point on, her continued resistance is of a different sort, because now she knows and has no excuse. It seems to me that something similar happens with Orthodoxy. For most Evangelicals, the big hurdle they'll never even bother to clear is recognizing Orthodoxy for what it is. Many never really encounter it at all; others might have some exposure but see it through the lenses of what they already know and believe and decide it doesn't measure up. It's when the glasses come off, and they see Orthodoxy in truth that the decision to reject it becomes particularly problematic. At that point, they've moved from not knowing to not wanting what they do know. Certainly such a response is possible, but if the Spirit has truly been at work in their lives, can it be common? I hope not.

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