Till We Have Faces (3): Holiness and Horror

I have invited the readers who visit Living Our Days to join me in reading C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and to return here each Thursday for a discussion.  If you’re just joining us, you can find the reading schedule here and last week’s discussion here.

Living on this country hill in Maine, it’s easy to feel as if I’m a throw back to an earlier time.  My clothesline and my garden; the rows of canning jars full of colorful vegetables and homemade spaghetti sauce in the furnace room; the daily task of sweeping the bark and wood chips off the floor around the wood stove all tend to keep me well-grounded in the past.

However, a quick reading of the first seven verses of Hebrews 9 lets me know that I am not as comfortable in the past as I might imagine.  The author describes the Tabernacle, it’s furnishings and fittings, the sacred relics in the Ark of the Covenant, and the priestly activities that were part and parcel of relating to God under the Old Covenant.  The words that come to my mind when I picture the scene have nothing to do with worship: foreign, distant, and even frightening seem more descriptive.

I can just barely imagine the priest entering the Most Holy Place, cringing over his own sinful condition, his hands carrying the blood of an animal.  It gives the words “forgive my hidden faults” a whole new urgency, doesn’t it?

When C.S. Lewis created the land of Glome, he gave it a Priest and a religious system whose currency was the blood of bulls and goats.  His main protagonist, Orual, had a good many things out of whack theologically, but her radar was tuned in to holiness, and since the narrative of Till We Have Faces is from her point of view, Ungit’s Priest comes across as both frightening and holy.  His actions in Chapters 4-6 reveal an authenticity that neither The Fox nor the King possessed, and which remained solid even with the King’s dagger pressing against his rib cage.

Plot Summary

After a mere four pages of pure sisterly bliss, Orual and Pyche’s bond seems doomed to destruction.  Famine, pestilence, drought, “certain expectation of war” in Glome, starving lions foraging nearby for food, and the King’s inability to secure a male heir to the throne have made for desperate times and restless subjects.  Rumor has it that Ungit’s son, The Beast, is on the move and must be appeased with the blood of a perfect sacrifice.  The priestly lot has fallen upon Psyche who was immediately imprisoned.  We are introduced to Bardia, captain of the palace guard (and a practical materialist), who is set to secure the prison from all visitors, but who relents and opens the door out of pity for Psyche and respect for Orual, allowing the sisters to have what they believe to be their final visit.

Reflection

While C.S. Lewis’s views on inerrancy were not completely orthodox, it is clear from his writing that he held Holy Scripture as an authority and guide for his life.  A favorite illustration of this comes in The Silver Chair in which Jill Pole is given the four signs that she is to repeat faithfully every single day so that when she needs to know them, she will have them at hand.  It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to find with this reading of Till We Have Faces that Biblical allusions were jumping off the page at every turn.  I will share the quotes and their corresponding Scripture references below as an invitation for your reflection:

“‘Bulls and rams and goats will not win Ungit’s favour while the land is impure,’ said the Priest.” (45)

Isaiah 1:11 –  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats.”
Hebrews 10:4 – “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”

“The Brute is, in a mystery, Ungit herself or Ungit’s son, the god of the Mountain; or both.” (47)

Colossians 2:9 – “In Him (Jesus, God the Son) dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

“Our real enemy was not a mortal.  The room was full of spirits . . .” (54)

Ephesians 6:12 – “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

“It’s only sense that one should die for many.” (61)

John 18:14 – Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

Of course there are more.  Did I miss your favorite?

Some Issues to Ponder

Shame is a theme that was rooted in Chapters 1-3, but carries forward full blown into this section.  Orual is continually berated and shamed by the King for her ugliness.  He called her  “curd face,” (18) and “goblin daughter,” (26) , but, sadly, she was hearing words of shame about her appearance before she was even old enough to understand what it all meant, (“See if you can make her wise; it’s about all she’ll ever be good for”). (7)

The tables are turned when the King reveals his true cowardly colors in his relief that Ungit is requiring the death of his daughter Psyche — and not himself.

“(And this is the greatest shame I have to tell of in my whole life.”) His [the King’s] face cleared.  I had thought that he had seen the arrow pointed at Psyche all along, had been afraid for her, fighting for her.  He had not thought of her at all, nor of any of us.” (54)

And later . . .

“King,” said I, “the blood of the gods is in us.  Can such a house as ours bear the shame?  How will it sound if men say when you are dead that you took shelter behind a girl to save your own life?” (60)

Bardia’s fine act of courage at the end of chapter six foreshadows the larger role he will play later in the book, but if that is not enough, what do you make of this heart-stopping line from his warrior’s heart:

“Do the gods know what it feels like to be a man?” (66)

This is yet another example of Lewis’s incredible ability to tranfer foundational Christian verities into strange contexts that make them live in new ways.  When I read Philippians 2 and commentary on Jesus’ coming “in the likeness of man” that we celebrate in the incarnation, I appreciate the truth of the God Man, but when I read Bardia’s wrenching question, soft-hearted mercy from a hard-handed man who leaves matters of the gods to the “great ones,” I can feel the answering “YES” in my very bones.

For me, C.S. Lewis’s writing is an invitation to look along the shaft of light that his metaphors provide, and to see the truth with greater clarity.

Your Turn

I’ve shared what I noticed this week, and now I hope that you will share your thoughts on chapters four through six in the comments below.  Again, feel free to share links to any blog posts that you have written in response, and to pose questions that have come to you in your reading.

Next Time

Next Thursday, I’ll be here having read Chapters 7-9 and will look forward to meeting with you again.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

59 thoughts on “Till We Have Faces (3): Holiness and Horror”

  1. Michele, I can tell you have a teaching spirit. 🙂 For someone who struggles to put herself into the story of fiction, it’s always good to read your accounts. You break it down well. 🙂 Loved how you shared all the spiritual and biblical references subtly scattered throughout the pages. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Michele. 🙂 And, thanks for linking up with #ChasingCommunity today, friend. xoxo

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  2. Michele, I so appreciate all of your insights into the parallels that Lewis draws for us in this story! And yes, that “heart-stopping line” from Bardia brought tears to my eyes, and almost became the theme for my blogpost about the book this week. But, I just could not get that “horror of holiness” phrase out of my head, and ended up letting the Lord speak to me more personally about it. So here goes, again I guess I will be the first to share my post from this week:

    http://raseasons.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-holiness-of-grace.html

    Thank you so much for the invitation to join in with your Book Discussion. It has been a great journey so far, and I’m looking forward to what comes next! Blessings to you.

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    1. Thanks for begin willing to go first! I was also stopped in my tracks by the “Horror of Holiness” which only serves to underscore my amazement and thanksgiving for the gospel. I’m heading over now to read your good thoughts.

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  3. Good Morning Michele,

    These chapters and your comments make me think of something I heard Paul Tripp say. I don’t remember his exact words, but I took away two things: that we are all trying to make sense out of what we see around us and we all yearn to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

    Orual and the Fox are searching and reasoning and trying to make sense of things, as are most of the other characters in one way or another.

    Orual finds purpose by being a part of Pyche’s life. And all religion, true and otherwise seeks to connect us with that “something bigger.”

    I’m afraid I’m enjoying the story too much to go too deep, but I’m enjoying your comments immensely!

    Blessings my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that you are enjoying the story — and that’s a great way to begin! Thanks for sharing those thoughts from Paul Tripp. I always appreciate his insights, and I think he’s really nailed the yearning of the human heart.

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  4. Michele, I love the way you have so aptly paired quotes from the book with verses from Scripture! I see you have a distinct advantage in having been through this story before! I find it hard to follow the story line at the same time as savoring the analogies…
    However I highlighted several spots in the interchange between the King the Fox and the priest regarding the wisdom of the Greeks in contrast to ‘holy wisdom’. It very much reminds me of Paul’s words in I Cor. 2. “…we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age… but we impart a secret ad hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
    The marvel of it all is that this is the very wisdom we are said to have had revealed to us through the Spirit! in that verse (I Cor.2:10) that is almost always separated from its predecessor: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard nor heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him…”
    All who have received the Spirit of God are given understanding of God’s wisdom while to the ‘natural man’ God’s wisdom appears as folly–so aptly expressed by the Fox! “Do you not see Master, that the Priest is talking nonsense?…a child of six would talk more sense”
    I like the Priest’s commentary on Greek wisdom: “It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both. It does not even give them boldness to die….much less does it give them understanding of holy things” This is something to remember when in dialogue with those who mock the Bible and the Gospel. It sounds reasonable but is powerless.
    “Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe!” (I Cor.1:20,21)

    Intriguing thoughts too: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, no knowledge and words that we get in them. Holy wisdom s not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
    Personally, I would prefer if the analogy had been of blinding LIGHT rather than darkness compared to holiness. I think this would be nearer the truth, as reflected in the old hymn: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
    In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…”

    Thank you, Michele for leading us through this book. You greatly enrich the experience!

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    1. That’s an excellent observation about the Fox and Ungit’s priest. More than once they are depicted at opposite ends of the faith/reason debate.
      And I fingered that quote about blood (thick and dark) for a long time before deciding to just let it go because the post was getting too long. Your insight that light would have been a better picture helps me to see why it got under my skin.
      Thanks for the hymn — you shared a good one last week too, and I found my self singing it for days — which is certainly a gift!
      So glad to be reading along with you!

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  5. I’m still stuck on the masks! The girls that attend the priest have their faces covered with thick paint, wigs covering their heads, gowns covering their bodies. Who are they? Are they pretending? It made me think of how we come to God – He desires to be known to us – we are the ones who make it difficult. We sometimes don’t want to be known because of our ugliness inside so build a facade of “holiness” (who we think we are supposed to be and act represented by the face paint, wigs, gowns). Praise God!!!!! He sees us as we really are and loves us with a perfect love, has redeemed us from our ugliness, beautifies with His Holy Spirit and calls us “beloved”. That is JOY that causes me to weep!

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    1. That is such a haunting scene in the book! And even the way they masked Psyche when she went to the Tree made her unrecognizable (but I’m getting ahead of myself here). I’m enjoying all the parallels on this vein with the teachings of John Newton on God’s infinite patience and acceptance of us as deeply flawed and habitual sinners. So thankful for God’s acceptance of us so that we can come before Him with unveiled faces.

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    1. The Scripture parallels helped me, also. Michele, your insights are both thought provoking and encouraging. Thank you for breaking it down for those of us swimming on the shallow ending of the literary pool. We’re meeting today at Anita’s.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So glad to know that the Scriptures helped. I’m feeling the tension here not to OVER analyze, because the story is just so great — but then story is a strong conveyor of truth as well.

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  6. Thanks for the scripture pairing, Michele. I admit the priest’s statements had a familiar ring, but I didn’t pursue the matter. On one level I’m simply enjoying the story, yet on a deeper level, I sense the profoundness of Lewis’ story. Your reflections and those of others here are filling in some of the in between. Have a blessed week!

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  7. I love the connection Donna made above. The fact that we are all trying to make sense of things around us pertains to everyone. When I read, my deeper understanding is always a result of whether I am able to make that connection.

    I love how you teach and lead, Michele. Wonderful job!

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  8. “She was hearing words of shame about her appearance before she was even old enough to understand what it all meant”. This concept of shame is something that is so interwoven into our society today. I love how you really breakdown this part. Thank you!

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  9. Michele, while I have not been reading the book along with you all, I have been reading the posts. You always bring out a thought which sticks with me 🙂
    I so appreciated this >”While C.S. Lewis’s views on inerrancy were not completely orthodox, it is clear from his writing that he held Holy Scripture as an authority and guide for his life. ”
    This is my prayer for myself today … that Scripture would always be the authority and guide for me life.
    Blessings today!

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  10. Lewis was a master story teller–weaving in Scriptural truths in the most creative and provocative way. Thanks for revealing these bits and pieces from your reading so far, Michele. Sounds like a real page turner and heart melter.

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  11. I wasn’t aware of this CSLewis book, but will put it on my reading list. My son loves Lewis too. Sounds like we can share it! Thanks for putting this on my radar!

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  12. I wanted to join you in this journey through Lewis’ words, but it is now on my summer reading list with the busy season fast approaching for me. I am so glad to be reading your summaries and thoughts here, on it though, and glad I can come back to look at them when I do finally get the book. I love the way you open up literature here, Michele.
    Blessings,
    Dawn

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was an English major many years ago, and I read Lewis’s academic work before I read any of his fiction. And I absolutely adore ‘Til We Have Faces. It is not only Lewis’s best work, in my opinion, it’s one of the best works of literary fiction in the English language. And so few people know it or read it! Thanks for highlighting it. I hope many people discover it because of you!

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    1. It’s so much fun to hear from someone else who has adored this amazing book over the years. I also discovered Lewis in college and had lots of catching up to do. I return to his books like old friends, finding something new with every visit.

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  14. Michele,
    I love what you are doing with this book! Taking it piece by piece and inviting others along the journey with you. Fabulous! And what a meaningful book to choose for this plan. Shame is a topic I am diving deeply into this year, so it of course caught my eye.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us at #MomentsofHope. I am so thankful to see you visit each week. I have missed stopping by as often as I used to, but it is my season of Motherhood keeping me on the go and behind the wheel of a car often! You are always on my heart and in my prayers, though!
    Blessings and smiles,
    Lori

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  15. God’s timing is always perfect! This book was just brought into our house by a teenager and now you are summarizing the plot for me- thank you! Currently, I am in another class so I did not have time to read this book immediately. I figured I would get around to it eventually, but you just enlightened me on it. That is so exciting. There are no coincidences with our God! Keep up the fabulous insights.

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