3 Stories Completely Ended: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (2)

My faith unraveled at a Christian college. I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, and I can remember wishing that a hostile, atheistic professor had bludgeoned me into my doubts with brilliantly irrefutable arguments.

It would make for a much better story.

Instead, the truth is I just got numb. The constant barrage of meaningless requirements that were, somehow, mysteriously related to Christianity: plowing through a three-inch thick commentary on Romans with no specific assignment in mind (other than to reach the back cover), fending off the desperate and over-bearing overtures of my “dorm mother” who wanted to befriend all “her girls,” and trying to stay awake while the combed-over, suited-up preacher-of-the-day got carried away and stole time from the class that followed our mandatory chapel.

One day it all got to be just too ridiculous.

Eventually, of course, I realized the problem was localized and what I had been objecting to was not “Christianity” itself, but a mindset that existed on a particular campus in a specific zip code.

Perhaps if Jayber Crow could have reached that conclusion a bit sooner, he would have been able to finish his education and then take his questions and his refreshing insights into ministry instead of just out the door and down the road with no clear destination in sight. Later in the book, we’ll see that he does eventually patch things up with organized religion, but even then, his musings about faith often sound as if they are coming from an outsider.

Living the Questions:  Calling

Since Jayber ended chapter three with the observation that Aunt Cordie’s death made him “the survivor already of two stories completely ended,” I’ll add that his departure from Pigeonville College made for number three.

This week’s discussion of Chapters 4-6 covers the bulk of the twelve year period in which Jayber lived away from Port William.  During those important growing-up years, the foundation was laid for Jayber’s understanding of what it means to be “called.” He starts out hedging his bets with a decision that it would be wiser to “accept  the call that had not come, just in case it had come and [he] had missed it.” I’ve heard it said no one should go into professional ministry if they can be happy doing anything else. Maybe that advice would have helped young Jayber with his sorting process, but Dr. Ardmire helps Jayber turn a corner with this wise and wonderful conversation:

“I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

Maybe, like me, this conversation brought to mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s words about living the questions.  Just in case it did not, I’ll share it here:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I think we will see that Jayber Crow gave the questions his best effort throughout the seventy-two years of his recorded ponderings.

Living the Questions:  Dualism

Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd with Brother Whitespade at the helm practiced a kind of dualism which gave the Apostle Paul plenty to write about 2,000 before, and which the church is still battling today. Jayber remembered it as a “divided world” with an “ideal world of order” there within the safe and secluded boundaries of the school and the “real world of disorder” which was forbidden . . . and therefore, very attractive to the students. His description of localized naughtiness brought an understanding smile to my face:  “They would not have been easy in their minds if there was something they could have got away with if they had not got away with it.”

(I think there’s a warning here for those of us who are parents and want to shelter our children from all the evils of this world.)

The same rift between body and soul showed up at Pigeonville College, but this time, Jayber recognized it for what it was.  Do you ever see this same contradiction in your own Christian circles?

“Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins –hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust — came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world.  And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.

Living the Questions:  Power

I was disappointed with the way Brother Whitespade handled names at The Good Shepherd, effectively un-naming every student who walked through the door. Although his affection for Jayber was increased with Jayber’s “call,” even this is a form of un-naming him, for although Jayber had not changed a whit in his inclination to become a better student (or a deeper Christian), the notion of his calling was perfect camouflage for his lackluster performance and somehow made him more valuable or worthwhile in the headmaster’s estimation.

Living the Questions:  Home

Home is more than a place. It’s the people who live alongside us, and all this was lost for Jayber when Aunt Cordie passed away. He was made to feel the weight of his “homelessness” with continual reminders that he was counting on someone’s good graces to feed, clothe, and educate him at The Good Shepherd.

Isn’t it wonderful that Jayber felt at home in The Good Shepherd’s library?

Jayber held himself separate and “solitary” during his time at the school, and I wonder if his loyalty to “home” — even though it was a place that no longer existed for him — was what allowed him to retain his personhood in the midst of pressure to become a cookie cutter boy in the image of Brother Whitespade.

We’ll see as we continue reading that “place” is a huge influence in Jayber’s story.  But, then, it’s true for all of us, even though we are sojourners on this planet.  God’s story began in a garden, and one day it will end in a city, so just as our bodies are not incidental to our salvation (sorry, Brother Whitespade), place is not unimportant either.

And as God’s children, we are never homeless.

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I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and criticisms of my conclusions in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 21) having read Chapters 7-8.

And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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Jayber Crow: Welcome to the Discussion!

The house where I grew up is gone, and I haven’t returned to pay homage to the empty space.  For me, home — the place of belonging and permanence — is this country hill which has created in me a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of place.  Expecting to live solitary and transient, I have been amazed to find that I’m content in a long-term zip code, but, as usual, I’m just catching up with what God has been doing all along.  He has always worked within a context of place, choosing a backwater Palestinian setting as ground zero for His arrival and as the backdrop for His earthly ministry. The incarnation brought dignity to the mortal body and to the notion of occupying a particular time and a beloved space.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is a book about a man, but it is also a book about a place. Chapter 1 introduces Jayber as the barber in Port William, and then goes on to introduce the reader to the town he called home, employing six vignettes which feature various members of the Port William Membership.

Somehow, throughout the book, Jayber manages to sidestep the spotlight and to relate his tale through the observations of others.  However, he describes Port William as a place that “repaid watching,” (5) and clearly, Jayber saw plenty through his barbershop window.  It’s interesting that Berry makes his introductions in this order:  (1) Port William culminating in the first mention of Mattie Keith; (2) Jayber’s early years; (3) the Kentucky River which, we will see later, is so active in the plot that it nearly becomes a character in the story.

This is as good a place as any to address Wendell Berry’s curmudgeonly preface to Jayber Crow:

“NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”

This makes me smile, but you will recall (if you participated in the book discussion group around Till We Have Faces) how we acknowledged that Orual and her associates provided a wealth of material to deepen our understanding of God and His ways.  However, C.S. Lewis was primarily a story teller, and the story superseded all the themes and character analysis we discussed.  So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.

If there is really such a thing as a “fictional memoir,” William Berry has mastered the craft.  Through Jayber’s musings, we will explore themes such as vocation and calling; the blessings and bane of change; the idea of belonging; and the unfolding of time in a particular place.  Writing from the perspective of 72 years of life, Jayber ponders the lay of the land:

“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory.  Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever.  And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

What Are Your Thoughts?

I hope that you are already beginning to fall in love with the people of Port William.  Have you noticed how Jayber describes in elaborate detail the characters’ background, temperament, and manner of living?  Some of these individuals will appear later in the story (or in other books that Berry has written about the Port William Membership), but some of them never appear again.  Even so, Berry has given gratuitous attention to them, like that of a painter to one tree in a landscape of forest.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jayber himself.  I’ve never had a brother, but I think I love Jayber the way one would love an odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.

I hesitate to mention this at the outset, but I want to discuss it when it comes up, so I’ll front-load an observation from this read-through of Jayber.  Wendell Berry, in addition to being a poet and stunning author of fiction, is a farmer, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic.  I noticed several incidents in which Jayber’s monologues sounded as if maybe Wendell had jumped in front of the microphone for few paragraphs.  Not yet.  But bear this in mind as you read on.  I’m wondering . . . is it just my imagination, or do you notice it as well?

One of the reasons I have called Jayber my favorite fictional theologian is his ability to make observations about the faith which sound like an outsider and yet to be profoundly orthodox on so many points.  I’m hoping for some lively discussion on the state of Jayber’s eternal soul, but listen to this insight on God as Father from later on in the book:

“I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply:  the love, the compassion, the taking of offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death . . . Divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world.  Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death.”

And so . . . back to incarnation once again.

What are your thoughts on barber chair theology?
Is there a place in your history and memory that anchors you in the way Port William anchored Jayber?

Let’s Get Started

I would love to hear your thoughts as we read. If you do not blog, just share your insights directly to the comments, but if you have a blog, I hope that you will write a piece or two (or a post about each section!) and then share them here by copying the URL of the post into the comments section below.  It will be fun — and enlightening — to learn from each other’s insights.

Don’t feel as if you need to share earth-shattering observations.  Just write about what impressed you in the section we are reading. If something puzzled you, pose your questions to the group.  Let’s commit to reading the book and learning from it in community!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 14) having read Chapters 4-6.  I’ll share a summary to get us started, mention some of my insights, and then throw the door wide open for your input.
How do you participate?
Simply get a copy of the book and read along.  You don’t need to register or commit to anything other than just reading the book!

In the meantime, are you planning to read with us?
Will this be your first time through one of Wendell Berry’s books or are you a repeat reader?
What else have you read by Berry?  Do you have a favorite?
Where are you, who are you, and what do you love?
Do you plan to blog about your impressions?
Let’s begin to get acquainted in the comments below!
And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 7………………..CHAPTERS 1-3
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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Die Before You Die (Till We Have Faces Discussion Group — Conclusion)

I’m a little tentative about the practice of assigning meaning to my dreams, but there’s one that came to me when my children were tiny, and its message was clear.  In the dream, I was making piecrust and realized, to my dismay, that I had forgotten to double the recipe.

“No problem,” I thought with the amazing clarity and decisiveness that comes in dreams, and I tossed a wet dishcloth into the bowl.  Genius, right?  It mixed in rather well — until I started rolling out the crust, at which point, my makeshift piecrust was exposed in all its fraudulence.  I awoke from that dream a little shaken, but galvanized against the artifice of cutting corners with my family for the sake of appearances or easy solutions.

Whether my dream was a message from God or the product of a guilty conscience, it’s clear that the gods of Glome have Orual’s attention around the clock as she comes to the end of her long and tumultuous reign “drenched in seeings.”

Plot Summary

Orual begins Chapter 3 of Till We Have Faces Part II with a resolution to plum the depths of the god’s admonition to “die before you die” — although it’s clearly anybody’s guess whether she actually understood what the god meant by his words.  Interpreting it as a call to change “an ugly soul into a fair one” was no small project for a woman who had already set her face like a flint against the help of the gods.

A series of dreams follows in which Orual is striving to complete various tasks —  with little success.  However, she receives her long-awaited opportunity to present her complaint against the gods, only to conclude, in the end, that her elaborate arguments had shrunk to a tiny and shriveled scroll.  The Fox guides Orual through a series of picture/stories that reveal the essence of Orual and Psyche’s oneness throughout the years — and the truth that perhaps Orual’s claim that she had “at least loved Psyche truly” is not as valid as she had once thought. The sisters are reunited in the presence of the god who reveals himself once again, this time to both sisters, and Orual learns that this — the face of the God she had long feared and hated — was the answer she had sought all along.

Reflection

So often we expend our efforts, gathering evidence and building a case in our own minds to defend ourselves against the truth and then find, like Orual, that the evil in our life (which we would dearly love to blame upon another) has been, after all, of our own making and that our defense has shrunk to a toddler’s tantrum:

“That there should be gods at all, there’s our misery and bitter wrong . . . We want to be our own.” (291)

The discovery that her complaint is, indeed, the answer she has been waiting for reminded me of Job’s persistent questioning which was, in the end, answered not with words, but with a Person, causing Job to realize that only now did he truly “see” the LORD.

Lewis the story teller and Lewis the theologian have joined forces in these last two chapters, creating a tale that defies allegory.   I’m longing to put a neat little translation guide here in this final post, but, in true Lewis-ian form, there are just too many aspects of the story that will not fit.  We have empty bowls, books full of poison, and a well-timed eagle who comes to the rescue. We have Christ (the god of the Grey Mountain) as the unseen lover and Psyche as His bride, while Orual, in her dreams, wears the face of Ungit — but finds in the end that she will indeed be Psyche as well.

The sad truth of Till We Have Faces is that Orual spends her entire life striving to make herself into what she is not, losing herself in the identity of the Queen, even wasting her energy on furious last-ditch efforts at self-reformation, until, finally, at the end of her life, she becomes herself.  She finds the face she abhorred and hid when she comes face to face with the god she had abhorred and hidden from throughout all her days.

The dire warning that resonates from Orual’s history of natural love gone rogue is not a warning against love, for God makes it very clear that love is the foundation of all our works of righteousness.  However, as we were reminded in week seven of our discussion, if the lover is not healthy, then neither is the love. Once Orual found a right relationship with the gods, she was able to discover a right kind of love for Psyche that was not based in control or devouring.  When she realized that her cry for justice from the gods was met not with justice but with love, she also was enabled to see the emptiness of her accusation against the gods.

Some Issues to Ponder

  1.  Sehnsucht:  For all her days, love and longing have been two sides of the same coin for Orual.  Remember, for Lewis, Sehnsucht is attached to beauty of surroundings, memories of the past, and the continual search for joy — which is just out of reach as long as we abide on this planet.  His ending to Orual’s pilgrimage was jarring for me — one minute she’s in despair, and the next she’s standing with downcast eyes before the One who is the Answer she has sought. And then she dies.  I find myself wanting to rewrite the story with an ending in which Orual gets to live “unmade” (307) in Glome with the walking-around-living-her-life knowledge that she has been wrong in her assessment of the gods. But then, of course, the story would not be as tantalizing and thought-provoking, right?
  2. It is ironic that Lewis makes the Fox Orual’s guide through The Deadlands.  After all, the Fox had spent his life in the role of the rationalist, even though we noted that his armor cracked at times.  Still, he shows up in the end as an interpreter of all that had been going on in the unseen world he claimed to have despised. Lewis scholars claim that one of the lessons of Till We Have Faces is the limitations of reason, and that the character of the Fox is the conveyance of that lesson.  We are able to see this even in the post script by Arnom (the priest) who, along with glowing accolades for Orual, communicates her desire that her words be taken to Greece and shared with the population of rationalists who produced the Fox and his kin.
  3. Did Orual succeed in following the god’s admonition?

“Die before you die.  There is no chance after that.”

Having spent her life making a god out of being right, I do believe that, in the end, the crashing down of Orual’s elaborate case against the gods was a kind of death.  Shouting her complaints over and over, she hears her own voice and finds it strange to her ears. Witnessing the record of her brutal treatment of Psyche on the wall of paintings, she hears, once again, her own voice coming from her suffering self as her arm dripped blood.  Her words of confession to Psyche reveal a changed heart:

“I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you.  I was a craver.”

As with the “un-dragoning” of Eustace (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), Lewis has portrayed the “unmaking” (307) of a character through a painful and frightening process that results in an individual becoming more fully themselves than ever before.

Your Turn

This is the final installment of our conversation, and the invitation still stands for you to share the link to a blog post or your insights on this journey in the comments section below.

I have mixed feelings as we bring the discussion group to a close.  While I rejoice in the resolution of Orual’s questions and accusations, I would love for her to have listened to her momentary impulse beside the river in the land beyond The Tree.  What if, instead of holding Psyche to her horrible promise and instead of denying the vision of the castle, she had given herself over to the Truth that, at the time, seemed like such a great loss to her?

However, even in the world of story, I have to acknowledge the wisdom of Lewis’s words about this kind of wondering:

“We can never know what might have been but what is to come is another matter entirely”

Therefore, my friends,  it is my prayer that Orual’s story will impact on “what is to come” in our own stories.

May we, too,  be “drenched in seeings” that purify our love and cause us to overflow with gratitude for the truth that it was not only Psyche for whom Another bore the anguish.

May our whining cries for justice stick in our throats as we consider the Great Love that makes all our efforts at “mending” our own souls fall like rags around our feet.

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Writing Her Way into Truth: Till We Have Faces (9)

Before children and homeschooling, I worked as a compensation analyst in a large hospital, so whenever a manager wanted to change a position or to reorganize a department, it was my job to look at the changes in relation to their impact on the incumbents’ compensation.  Are the additional duties essentially the same kind of work they’ve been doing all along, or do the proposed changes require additional skill or give the employee increased responsibility?  Often, I would come to the end of all my meetings and market research with a pile of information and no clear sense of what my recommendation would be.

And then I would start writing.

I laid out the facts:  changes in reporting relationships, job duties, skills required, percent of time spent in various roles.  As I wrote, it all became clear to me so that by the time I came to the end of my writing, I was ready to make recommendations and to confidently explain my reasoning.

I see something similar going on in this blogging life of mine, and, so I wonder if, perhaps, Orual might have become a blogger if the kingdom of Glome had acquired the technology in her day.  In Book Two of Till We Have Faces, she shares her discovery that her case  against the gods set forth in Book One was not what she had thought.  Coming to the end of her writing, she found that “the past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering.”  Whether she knew it or not, Orual had begun the process of writing her way into truth.

Plot Summary

Orual’s nephew and heir to her throne has been notified that she is near death. Even so, at the end of her long life and reign, the elderly queen is finding the strength to set down a revised perspective on her life.  Two events seem to have triggered the avalanche of memory:

  1.  An encounter with Tarin (her sister Redival’s old beau who was made a eunuch by their father the King) gave Orual insight to Redival’s lonely childhood during the days in which Orual was occupied first with The Fox and then with Psyche.
  2. Upon the death of Bardia, captain of the guard, Orual visited his widow, Ansit whose bitterness eventually overflowed into this (courageous) accusation:

” . . . I know that your queenship drank up his [Bardia’s] blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The rite of the Year’s birth in Ungit’s house and a series of dreams sent from the gods lead Orual into still deeper insight into what the god of Grey Mountain meant when he spoke out of thunder and chaos with the words, “You, woman, shall know yourself and your work.  You also shall be Psyche.”

Reflection

Ansit (Bardia’s widow) and Orual have a conversation that evolves from tense civility to electric warfare.  In giving up Bardia to his work, Ansit had refused to “make him so mine that he was no longer his,” while Orual realized, in hindsight, that she had been using up Bardia through his work, “heap[ing] up needless work to keep him late at the palace, ply[ing] him with questions for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice.  Anything to put off the moment when he would go and leave me to my emptiness.”  Orual is coming to the realization that she has spent her life filling up that emptiness with the lives of others, that like the Shadowbrute, her loving and her devouring are all one thing.

As Orual dreams of sorting seeds by night, she sorts through her memories by day, “separating motive from motive and both from pretext,” (Kilby, p. 177).  But that’s not the end of revelation, for, as she becomes more willing to see truth, she finds that she is “drenched with seeings.”  Visiting Ungit’s temple for the rite of the Year’s birth, Orual laments the waste of the temple girls’ lives and the endless silver that is offered to a god who offers no return on investment, and then later sees that she, like Ungit is “an all-devouring, womb-like yet barren thing.”

Lewis scholars note parallels between the gods’ pursuit of Orual and C.S. Lewis’s own encounter with The Hound of Heaven.  This is reasonable since Lewis has described himself as “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.”  It is interesting that Till We Have Faces was published in 1956, the year after the memoir of Lewis’s conversion, Surprised by Joy.

Some Issues to Ponder

Orual’s growth in self-perception has been an unveiling process.  When she tore off her veil in the presence of Ansit to reveal the ugliness it hid, Ansit was also able to read the Queen’s heart and call out the love for Bardia that had been hiding behind that veil for decades, a love that, sadly, had deteriorated into something that Orual described as “nine-tenths hatred.”

In her dream of descending into Pillar Room after Pillar Room, each one deeper and smaller, she is confronted with her own image in a mirror and sees, to her horror, that, in the dream, her face is the face of Ungit.  Realizing that she is known by her veil rather than by her face, Orual begins to go bare-faced into her kingdom when she wants to go undetected.  Is it a coincidence then, that when she is unveiled, contemplating suicide, and realizing that she is even too weak for this that she hears the unmistakable voice of a god once again?  This time, there is “no rebel in [her]” and so she hobbled home to await the meaning of the god’s words:

“Die before you die.  There is no chance after.”

Orual’s journey encourages me to embrace Truth as it comes to me, for like her, I am also a “cold, small, helpless thing.”  And yet the voice of the true God invites me into a holiness that is neither dark nor ugly, but is full of light and beauty and that calls me to deeper Truth — about God and about myself.  May we all be open to His Truth, and may we find that we, too, are consequently “drenched with seeings.”

Your Turn

Chapter 1 and 2 of Book Two comprise some truly elegant thinking and glorious insights into both human and divine nature, and since nothing I can say will improve upon them, I will remind you of one of these sections now, and invite your thoughts, insights, and interpretations on it, or upon anything else that swept you away as you read.

“Of the things that followed, I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream.  But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth.”

I will remind you, too,  that links to your blog posts are welcome in the comments below, and I look forward to your insights.

Next Time

I will be here once again next Thursday, March 9, for the last installment of our book discussion.  Since those last two chapters really put a ribbon on all of Orual’s journey of self-understanding, feel free to refer back to content from earlier chapters, especially if you are blogging about the book.

Blessings to you!

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Long Live the Queen! Till We Have Faces Discussion Group Week 8

Today we come to the end of Part I!
With only four chapters remaining in Part II, I’m amazed at how quickly the time for this discussion group has flown!

Plot Summary

Queen Orual has plowed into her new role with gusto, handily defeating Prince Argan with her sword, celebrating her victory as a lone woman in a place of power among men, and then settling into the routines of running a kingdom.  Her identity as the ugly princess is continually being swallowed up into that of the mysterious, veiled warrior Queen who leads her soldiers into battle and implements far-reaching economic and social reforms.  Even so, Orual is there behind the veil, haunted by grief and weighted down with the futility of a life devoted only to a dutiful completion of the day’s round of tasks.

A long recreational journey alleviates Queen Orual’s restlessness and brings something close to joy — until she stumbles into a secluded temple and learns that the story of the goddess who “resides” there is based on the story of Psyche with some important changes in the narrative details that settle once and for all Orual’s conviction that the gods hate her.  She resolves to set the record straight by writing the story from her own perspective and by bringing before the gods her charges against them for their injustice.

Reflection

Orual is a brilliant leader, and part of her brilliance lies in recognizing the importance of tapping into the wisdom of her counselors, Bardia and the Fox.  In her own right, however, she is enthusiastic, progressive, and a lover of justice, so even though there is no joy  or satisfaction in it for herself, Orual rules well. Lewis’s friend Screwtape would grudgingly admit that his Enemy (God) would be pleased with this human who does what is required, day after day, purely from a sense of duty.

Her veil, the “treaty made with her ugliness,” serves her well as a tool of intimidation and also advances Orual’s disappearance into the identity of The Queen.  All the grief, unhappiness, and bitterness can go on behind the veil while The Queen soldiers on, keeping up appearances.  She speaks with strong verbs that unmask her self-hatred, saying that she will kill Orual (225), that she has “locked Orual up” and “laid her asleep as best [she] could” (226).  As Orual’s face is lost to the world, queenship becomes her new face.

As with any addiction meant to deaden and smother pain, Orual’s ceaseless work and her string of accomplishments don’t satisfy her for long.   Her longing for the slaking of thirst and the old memory of satisfaction comes through clearly (and poignantly) with these words:

“Oh, for that bowl of milk, drunk alone in the cool dairy, the first day I ever used a sword.”

Some Issues to Ponder

Desperate to gain some relief from the sound of wind-blown chains that sound like Psyche’s weeping, The Queen builds a formidable stone wall around the well. Later, she refers to this building project in the same breath as triumph in the Battle of Essur (235).

“I heard Psyche weeping no more.  The year after that I defeated Essur.”

The Queen may have succeeded in walling up grieving Orual, and she may have felt powerful in the face of what she perceived to be  a “weakened” version of Ungit who smelled “cleaner and less holy” (234).  She may even have been rich enough and broad-minded enough to contribute silver to the temple for the fashioning of a new replacement for the “old, hungry, faceless” Ungit.  However, it was not long before she discovered that the gods were clearly at work behind the scenes, striving to have the last word.

Remember:  Orual had told NO ONE that she had seen Psyche’s palace.  Imagine her horror when she heard in the sing-songy repetition of the “gods’ version” of her story that it included the detail that the sisters had seen the palace and, yet, still enticed their sister away from her husband.

Orual had learned on the banks of the river near The Tree, when she saw the god’s face and experienced his power:   The god of the Grey Mountain is “no tame lion.”  Moving into Part II in which the Queen plans to argue her case against the gods,  it seems certain that we’re in for some sorting of the truth and revealing of motives:

“Let no one lightly set about such a work.  Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant . . . The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. (253)

These are cautionary words for us as well, for it is God who writes our story and it is His prerogative alone to “set the record straight.”

 Some Issues to Ponder

If readers in the U.S. are busily completing tax forms, Orual’s attitude about her sacrifices to Ungit may have struck a chord with you.  She considers the task burdensome and the temple requirements to be an odious chasing after the prosperity of others.  Whatever we might think about the demands of the IRS, we know that whatever we give to God is simply a return of what is already His in a glorious affirmation of our free will and of our design for worship.  Sadly, this is not the case in Glome.

Orual’s heaviness and gloom reminded me of the writings of Paul the Apostle who did not lose heart — whatever hardships he endured — for he considered every difficulty to be light and momentary when weighed against the “exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”  In Chapters 19-21, The Queen has her own tragic system of measurement.  On one side of the balance scale rest the adulation of the people of Glome, her huge impact for good, and all the daily doings that go into the management of  a kingdom.  They land, in her estimation, like feathers on the scale when weighed against the howling wasteland of a life without Psyche, of a relationship of cool professionalism with Bardia, and the piercing loneliness of an existence in which, in her own words, “one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself — that is with a nothingness.”

We live an a world full of Oruals who keep themselves busy and fill their lives with stuff and accomplishments in order to quiet the questions and mask the ache of longing.  This ending to Part I leaves me feeling sad for our main character and her present-day sisters — and wistful about finding a way to share the hope Paul wrote about, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” which gave him the ability to view this world with its trials as light and momentary, which indeed it is.

Your Turn

I would love to read your thoughts on this section — or on Part I as a whole.  Join the conversation by linking up a blog post or by commenting below.

Next Time

On Thursday, March 2, I’ll be here having read Chapter 1 and 2 from Part II.

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Till We Have Faces (6): The Demands of a Ravenous Love

Readers here at Living Our Days are working our way through Till We Have Faces, one of C.S. Lewis’s lesser known books, but the one which he claimed as his favorite of all the books he wrote.  Chapters 13-15 feature the key scene of Lewis’s tale and perhaps the best-known and most-quoted section of the book. Thanks to all who have persevered in the reading and discussion, and just a note here:  If you’re behind in your reading and want the story to unfold without spoilers, stop reading now and come back later to share your thoughts.

Plot Summary

Orual returns to Glome and finds The Fox waiting anxiously to hear of her encounter with Psyche on the Grey Mountain.  Leaving out her glimpse of the palace, she reports that Psyche is alive, happy, and full of tales of an unseen but loving husband.  The Fox concludes that Psyche is being taken advantage of by a tramp or runaway who is playing into Psyche’s delusional story of a god in a golden palace, and he helps Orual plot a second trip to the Grey Mountain to rescue Psyche.

Since the King and all his men are embarking on a lion hunt, the opportunity to execute the plan comes to Orual quickly.  However, Psyche is adamant that she must remain faithful to her husband and refuses to leave or even to question her unseen lover’s motives or his identity.  Upping the ante, Orual plunges a dagger into her own arm and promises to kill herself (and Psyche) if Psyche will not steal a look at her husband.  Providing the necessary lamp and oil to her younger sister, she camps across the river and waits, stifling her misgivings over this emotional blackmail.

The light of the lantern is followed quickly by an enormous, blinding light and a full-on view of a beautiful and terrible figure that called forth from Orual the terrified “salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things,” (171).  Psyche’s inconsolable weeping fills Orual’s ears, and she returns to Glome with the knowledge that she and Psyche are joined forever in horrible separate exiles — along with her heavy weight of unspeakable sorrow and remorse.

Reflection

Out of a multitude of possible themes/emphases, I’ve chosen two:

One – Because I’m reading Hanna Anderson’s Humble Roots, The Fox’s nail-on-the-head identification of Orual’s prideful motives (148) reverberates with the precision of the slave’s good math:

“Daughter, daughter, you are transported beyond all reason and nature.  Do you know what it is?  There’s one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”

I am also indebted to Hannah’s theology professor for an amazing word picture that helps me to understand Orual’s anguish in deciding what to think about Psyche’s situation.  Orual fell into the common logical fallacy of of the false dilemma which does to the mind what carrying three huge watermelons does to the body.  Bardia’s input helped Orual to wrap one arm around the large and terrible idea that Psyche could be married to a hideous beast-god.  The Fox convinced her to pick up the heavy and horrible theory that Psyche’s mystery husband may actually be one of the “vagabonds, broken men, outlaws, [and] thieves” (143) who lived on the Mountain.

Clumsily juggling those two “watermelons,” there was no room in Orual’s mind for the third possibility, especially since it, too, is a huge watermelon of thought, and also because she did not want to believe it:

  • that the supernatural may not be terrible after all;
  • that the glimpse of a palace that she saw on the far bank of the river was actually a gift and not a taunt;
  • that the whispered voice that urged her to realize she was “among marvels [she could] not understand” (152) was the truest voice in the room.

Two:  To completely switch metaphors now, Bardia, The Fox, and Orual all remind me of the tale of the Blind Men of Hindustani and their examination of an elephant by touch alone.  Feeling the tail, the trunk, and the ear, they define elephantine nature as rope, snake, and fan, when one good look at the whole creature would make all things plain.

Orual was granted that one look for a few fleeting seconds, but allowed her adversarial relationship with the gods to deprive her of the Truth of it.  With that done, she was free to come down on the blind side of trusting in her own fear as a more solid reality than a castle viewed through shreds of mist.

On the other hand, Psyche demonstrates the glorious truth that believing is seeing, but even this is not sufficient to strengthen her against the terrible demands of Orual’s ravenous love.

Some Issues to Ponder

Oh, goodness, there’s just so much to wonder about here in these chapters.

  • Did anyone think of the fourth figure in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace when Orual saw the figure of the god that was “something like a man”(172)?
  • Have you ever prayed like Orual, stretched out in “piety” before God while delivering an ultimatum and a deadline?  Have you ever interpreted God’s silence as abandonment and then gone off to solve your problem on your own?
  • Permit me a nerdy moment to revel in the fact the the word ferly (142) was Dictionary.com’s word of the day on October 23, 2011, and the citation they used to illustrate it was the excerpt from Till We Have Faces.  “I had had half a thought, at the outset, of telling him about the ferly, my glimpse of the palace. But I couldn’t bring myself to it.”   It means “something unusual, strange, or causing wonder or terror.”  The hoplites (147) that The Fox wishes for are “citizen soldiers armed with spears and shields” and are part of his ancient Greek culture.  (Leave it to C.S. Lewis  . . .)
  • Let us pray to steer clear of Orual’s self pity and consuming love and, instead, to know Psyche’s brand of faith that weighs the evidence, listens to objections with love, and then concludes, “What is that to me? . . . I know.”; that fiercely defends the right of Deity to be incomprehensible, seeing this not as a weakness, but, rather, as a divine prerogative (159); that fears the shame of disobedience more than the shame of ridicule (163).

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 16th, I’ll be here having read chapters 16-18.

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Till We Have Faces (5): Why Should Our Hearts Not Dance?

Welcome to Week 5 of our discussion group around C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.  I haven’t taken time to figure out how many of us are reading through the book together, but I have become aware that as many of us are reading and sharing our insights, there are also many who are following along with the discussion with the plan of reading the book in the future.  Having said that, thank you for your great thoughts, and let’s get started with the . . . 

. . . Plot Summary (Chapters 10-12)

It truly was Psyche, standing alive and in good health on the far side of the river!

Leaving Bardia behind, Orual forded the river with plans of rescue and reunion, but was confronted instead with a riddle to be solved:  Should she trust her eyes — which showed her nothing but rags and wilderness — or should she believe Psyche’s account of an invisible palace and an unseen god who is now her husband?  Unable to sway Psyche from her resolve, Orual re-crosses the river for the night, but,  in the early twilight wanders back to the river and glimpses Psyche’s palace through the mist — but only for a moment.  Was this a lifting of the cloud from her mortal eyes — or a trick of the gods?  Bardia reluctantly weighs in with with a truth statement that Orual  was unwilling to reach on her own, but which strengthens her resolve that the time has come to confront the gods.

Reflection

If ever we doubted that these two sisters see the world through differing lenses, Orual and Psyche’s meeting Beyond the Tree draws the difference large!  Big-Sister remains in her adversarial position against the gods and has framed her account of all the happenings as a “charge against the gods” (117).  With multiple metaphors (“two bits of a broken bone”; “a rasping together of two worlds”) (120) Orual makes it clear that she feels that the gods have stolen her sister away from her and her world, and that the land beyond The Tree is a dreadful place.  In the midst of their stand off, she admits that she hates “all these cruel, dark things,” (124) that she wants no part of it, and she begs Psyche to come back to “the real world” (125) with her.

Bearing witness to Psyche’s tale of life among the gods brought to mind C.S. Lewis’s real-life indicator for one’s having been in the presence of God:

“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

According to Psyche’s experience, what Orual insisted on calling the “real world” grew pale beside her sighting of the West-wind.  Humans appear as pale as lepers beside deity, and her only awareness of her self (as a mortal) was that we are  “small” and “dirty” by comparison (111).   Psyche described her husband coming to her in “holy darkness” (137), which amounted to an appalling condition of secrecy and horror to Orual.

Once again, Lewis puts words in Bardia’s mouth that are truer than Bardia knows.  Did anyone else catch his shadowy allusion to the Professor’s assessment of Lucy’s sanity in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? As it was with young Lucy, so it is with Psyche:

“One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”  (LWW 48)

Some Issues to Ponder

Orual saw no palace, tasted no wine, witnessed no banquet, and ultimately dismissed the only vision she was granted of her sister’s new world.  Looking back to Chapter 9 and Orual’s journey on horseback up The Mountain where “the whole colored world with all its hills was heaped up and up to the sky,” I’m wondering about the glimpse of happiness she had then and the voice that came to her “like frolic” saying “Why should your heart not dance?” Was this another invitation — rejected out of pride and self pity?  Psyche repeats the invitation almost verbatim a few pages later, including herself in the merriment:  “Why should our hearts not dance?”

A glimmer of a New Testament story popped into my head as Orual was trying to decide if her vision of the palace was “real” or merely the mockery of the gods.  For a few blissful minutes (or seconds?) Peter discovered that he could walk with Jesus on water, and he found that his feet were dancing on the swells of that stormy sea — until doubt put an end to the dance.  Years later, near the end of his life, I wonder if Peter was thinking of that evening as he wrote words of encouragement about believing without seeing to scattered believers being tested by fire.  Was he recalling the momentary, inexpressible, and glorious joy of walking on waves, of joining Jesus in a watery dance of faith?

Orual is willing to “dance” only on her own terms.
She has defined happiness as a return to the way things were.
She has seen that Psyche is happy in her new life, but this new happiness is unacceptable to her.
Orual has given a name to her resolve to end this happiness . . . and she is calling it “love.”

Your Turn

Orual could not sleep during her night on The Mountain.  She listed physical discomfort (the cold and the lay of the land), “the Riddle” that was plaguing her mind,  and then she mentioned “Another Thing” that kept her awake.  Any thoughts on what that other thing was?

Psyche’s face was painted on her journey up The Mountain:  “It made my face stiff till it didn’t seem to be my own face.”  The god who comes to Psyche under the cover of darkness refuses to let his face be seen.  Orual has been limited and defined for her entire life by the appearance of her face.  C.S. Lewis is dropping hints about the odd title for this story, but we don’t have all the pieces yet.  Any thoughts on this puzzle?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of Orual’s brand of love?  Do you ever find yourself re-defining love to justify something you think needs to be done?

Next Time

Since there are only two chairs in every room — the chair of faith and the chair of unbelief — I am challenged by this tale of two sisters to be very careful before making the decision to sit anywhere else but in the chair of faith.

Next Thursday (February 9th), I’ll be here having read Chapters 13-15 and will look forward to meeting with you again.

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.