Till We Have Faces (4): Work, Weakness, and Sweat

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.  This is week four, and the insights offered by readers have been both encouraging and insightful.  It’s not too late to join us — click here for last week’s post to get you started.   

There is nothing on this planet that can bear the weight of all one’s hopes and dreams.
No relationship.
No set of circumstances.
No profession or vocation.
No political outcome.
They were never meant to bear that weight, and the laser focus of our longings will crush any earthly object, forcing us to admit that all our loves are pale adumbrations of a love for God. They are like the “the cords of infinite desire” that drew Ransom into the stillness on Lewis’s Perelandra.

In Chapters 7-9, with her mind cleared of pain, Orual learns to muffle the longings of her heart with hard work, but has not taken into account the plans of the god of the Grey Mountain who, in our world, has a reputation for loving His way past our defenses.

Plot Summary

Orual and Psyche’s final visit before Psyche’s sacrificial death is marred (for Orual) by Psyche’s calm acceptance of her fate, her willingness to be food for — or to be wed to — the god of the Grey Mountain.  Devastated and incapacitated by her loss, Orual loses days and weeks of time and then returns to consciousness to learn that (either by chance or by the efficacy of Psyche’s death) the threat of war, the scourge of plague, and the heaviness of drought have all been “scattered” (84) from Glome.  The birds have returned and the King is the darling of all the land.

Turning herself to the task of retrieving Psyche’s bones for a proper burial, Orual receives from Bardia the unexpected gift of a new skill and the offer of his assistance with her mission.  The balm of work, weakness, and sweat carries her through the days of healing and preparation for her pilgrimage to the Grey Mountain.  After the emotional roller coaster of the journey, Orual finds no sign of Psyche’s body and is plunged into hopelessness.  Capping C.S. Lewis’s glorious description of the lush beauty of the land beyond The Tree, chapter nine ends with the “quivering shock” and “terror” (101) of Psyche standing — very much alive — on the far side of the river.

Reflection

Glome has followed the pattern of all human civilizations:  create a religion; work to keep the gods happy; designate a religious class so that the average citizen can “out source” his religious duties; and perpetuate rituals that keep the gods happy — or at least at arm’s length.

An amazing repudiation of this human tendency came blasting onto the scene with words like these, spoken by the God of the universe:

“If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
For the world is Mine, and all its fullness.
 Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats?
 Offer to God thanksgiving,
And pay your vows to the Most High.
 Call upon Me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.”  Psalm 50: 12-15

Or these:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30

And of course:

“For by grace you are saved, through faith — not of works lest anyone should boast.”   Ephesians 2:8,9

The gospel looks all the more glorious when viewed against a system like Glome’s in which the whole point of life is to get the gods to like humans more than they do.

Orual wastes not a thimble-full of love on the gods, blaming them for her loss of Psyche (71), and even viewing the return of her strength (90) as a curse from them that increases her mental anguish.

One thing is certain:  After the cliff-hanger ending of Psyche’s appearance at the end of chapter nine, we’re all poised for just about anything to happen and to hear just about any explanation of Psyche’s survival and well-being.  And that’s not a bad place to be, for whenever Divine influence comes to bear upon a scene, the outcome is unpredictable.  And that’s not true only in Glome . . .

Some Issues to Ponder

For all Orual’s loyalty and love for her sister, do you see any disturbing tendencies surfacing during their visit in Psyche’s prison cell?

Orual may not have much truck with the gods, but she certainly has formulated a position on the theodicy question.  While Psyche’s view of the deity in the Grey Mountain is all of a piece with Lewis’s Last Battle (“Further up and further in!”), how would you characterize Orual’s view of suffering as it relates to the gods?

What do you make of Lewis’s inclusion of Iphigenia and Antigone’s stories in the conversation between The Fox and Orual?  Is this a device to set the story in time with Greek culture or is there something else afoot?

Are you noticing Lewis’s incredible descriptions of landscape and scenery?  Whenever I read his words about the outdoors, I picture him on one of his walking tours, swinging his walking stick, and mentally stringing together combinations of adjectives to describe the beauty — which will show up later in his writing!

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from these chapters. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. I’m thrilled that we have been reading this book together.

Next Time

On Thursday, February 2nd, I’ll be here having read chapters 10-12.

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Michele Morin

I am a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. I have been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 27 years, and our four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, two teens still remain at home, and along with an incorrigible St. Bernard, we laugh, make messes, clean them up, and then start all over again. I love hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop me in my tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. I lament biblical illiteracy and advocate for the prudent use of "little minutes." I blog at Living Our Days because "the way I live my days will be, after all, the way I live my life." You can connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

26 thoughts on “Till We Have Faces (4): Work, Weakness, and Sweat”

  1. I was struck by the loathsomeness of religion, the utterly repellant high priest who, even as he still reigned supreme even over the kind, was already dying. Poor Orual related ‘holiness’ with the smells and sounds that surrounded the priest, only because there were no other options.

    If you use a word as terminology to describe a thing, in this case ‘holy’, people may believe that’s what it is, but it doesn’t make it that thing. We know a God who is high and holy, who lives in inexpressible light. His holy-ness is so far removed from the stench and filth that Orual attributed to the word ‘holy’. I feel so sad that people look at some aspects of the Church and see and smell only the pale, stale, frail efforts of people to express God and they turn away, without ever witnessing the true and beautiful Church of Jesus Christ.

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    1. What an amazing application of this story! I’m sure that our self-manufactured brand of holiness is a stench in God’s nostrils as well. So much of Orual’s struggle seems to go back to this misunderstanding of holiness that you’ve pointed out.

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  2. Oh, yes, Michele, I love Lewis’ descriptions of nature. I am always drawn in and then find my heart being stirred on a deeper level than I had thought previously. I’m sharing some about that this week on my blog:

    http://raseasons.blogspot.com/2017/01/breath-of-god.html

    I am appreciating this study so much, and the questions that you ask us to consider. I am wondering if Lewis’ inclusion of the Iphigenia and Antigone Stories is one more way to look at myth pointing us toward the greatest story of all, and the longing that is built into our hearts to find God’s truth? Thank you for all of your work, and your encouragement to keep reading and looking for God’s Words! Blessings to you!

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    1. Just returning from reading your great thoughts over at your place, Bettie. I hadn’t thought of your point about Iphigenia and Antigone, but it certainly goes along with Lewis’s thinking that all myths in all cultures are ultimately theological and linked. I’m so glad that you’re following along here, and it’s so encouraging to read your blog posts each week. Thanks for sharing them!

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  3. Psyche has such a soft heart, so ready to accept her lot and to forgive… In referring to Redival she says, ‘she also does what she doesn’t know’, reminding me of Jesus (and Stephen) forgiving those who were responsible for their deaths. I was also struck by her effort to show Orual a different way of thinking about her sister: ‘Would you like to be Redival? What? No? Then she’s pitiable.’
    Oh. Hadn’t thought of it that way!

    Other thoughts that were beautiful– Psyche refers to philosophers who have taught that:
    “…death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet–” What an enticing and comforting picture. Sadly, Orual will have none of it because she can only think of her own loss, not of Psyche’s potential gain.

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  4. Hello Michele and all… just some random comments this week about spots that grabbed me as I read and reminded me of places I’m concurrently reading in Scripture….

    ‘Do not let grief shut up your ears and harden your heart’ (Psyche’s words to Orual)
    This reminds me of the passage in Nehemiah I have read this week which is the setting for ‘The Joy of the Lord is your strength’. The returned exiles have just heard the law read and have recognized their guilt. They are weeping but Nehemiah says they must not grieve–“Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)He sends them home to celebrate that at least now they have heard and understood the law of the Lord!

    In the same way, I see Psyche trying to bolster Orual’s faith: “If only you could believe it, Sister! no, listen. do not let grief shut up your ears and harden your heart…”
    The question in my mind is, how much of God’s goodness and grace do we miss because we have hardened our hearts toward Him in a time of hardship rather than coming to him for comfort and hoping in His word.

    I’ve done some meditating in various passages of Hebrews this week–so much parallels and contrasts to Lewis’ story. I commend the whole book to you as a companion read!
    See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble…(Heb.12:15)
    Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Heb. 4:16

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    1. It shouldn’t surprise us that Hebrews provides commentary on this novel, because it also provides commentary on Leviticus, the record of Israel’s dealings in the blood of bulls and goats. Your observations remind me of why I am so drawn to and (at the same time) repelled by the character of Orual. She turns all her strength and determination into need and ends up weak and wanting. And I think you’ve really nailed the reason: a hard heart that comes from suffering turned to bitterness. We need to guard our hearts against this tendency. I’m going to share a link here to the article at SheLoves for today because the woman who wrote it has allowed God to turn her own suffering into a beautiful and empathetic spirit: http://shelovesmagazine.com/2017/sacred-work-empathy/

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  5. One more bit–just beautiful, and perhaps it could be said of all who believe…if our hearts are soft enough to recognize it…
    “All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me….
    “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–“

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    1. Yes, when we look in the rear view mirror of our lives, we do see how we have been pursued by the Hound of Heaven, and how so much of our journey has been a following of the gift of that longing. Thanks so much for sharing those quotes.

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  6. I’m not reading along, but I can tell you what jumped off the words you shared right away is the names of the characters. This alone intrigues me to want to add it to my “to read” list. My collection of unread books continues to grow as I continue to visit your site Michele! 🙂

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  7. I love reading all the comments because they shed light on things that I didn’t quite catch in my reading. I was struck with the difference of Psyche and Orual’s outlooks – Psyche was free to love, serve, and minister to others and also free to give up her very life to the gods. I see this as characteristic of the Spirit filled believer, filled with joy and peace and able to look to the good for others. Orual, on the other hand, is so bound by shame and fear that she can only see her own hurts, perceived rejection (self-inflicted) from Psyche, and she’s miserable. This would be characteristic of the person who has not found God yet, searching and trying their hardest, but needing to come to the end of themselves in order to gain spiritual perspective.

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    1. Me, too, Linnea. The comments have been so helpful. And I’m always surprised at how different aspects of the story stand out for different readers. Orual’s story is a sad one, but this reading has made me more aware of gospel truth than ever.

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  8. Excellent insights, everyone. Michele, thank you for hosting this discussion. I’m getting so much more out of the book from your commentary and that of the others. It’s great.

    I should point out that I’m not familiar with Greek myths including the one of Cupid and Psyche on which this story is based, so my mind doesn’t draw or see the obvious or intended parallels.

    I love Psyche’s free and open heart. Reading about her relationship with God makes me yearn for the day when we will enter more fully into that truth. In contrast, it’s hard not to pity Orual. Her heart is cold. No matter what Psyche says to try to break through and share the truth with her she is so consumed with her anger, distrust and her selfishness that she can’t see beyond the darkness they create. It’s tempting to condemn and judge her. Yet we benefit much more by seeking to understand her. Not only does this help us to have compassion but it also helps us to avoid the same type of unbelief.

    I need to go back and review before answering your direct questions, Michele, but the one thing that struck me most about the scene in which Orual visits Psyche in the prison cell was how Orual was completely focused on how the situation hurt her(self)! She was even offended by Psyche’s acceptance of the situation. I really felt that this scene showed the truth of Orual’s heart and the flawed type of love that she has for Psyche.

    Like the others, I too am enjoying the imagery Lewis writes into his stories. Looking forward to more of your insights next week, friend!

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    1. You’re thinking is a lot like mine regarding Orual and Psyche. I feel so sad for Orual and her grief and the grasping nature of her love. I’m so glad that you’re reading along with us, and I’m looking forward to moving forward as well!

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  9. Michele, you have a real gift for this kind of writing–summarizing and reflecting in a way that makes me want to read the book even more (hurry up, library hold)! And that cliffhanger–I can’t wait to hear how Psyche ended up on the other side of the river. (And no, reading about it here first will not spoil it when I actually read the book!)

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