A Veiled Life in the Sandy Waste: Till We Have Faces (7)

Welcome to Week 7 of our discussion of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces!  As we consider the events of Chapters 16-18, I’m looking forward to another opportunity to hear your insights into this unfolding drama.

Plot Summary

Once again, Orual creeps back into the palace unseen, but after this catastrophic encounter with Psyche, it is The Fox she is avoiding, as well as her father the King, for she is ashamed of her dealings with her sister.  When questioned by the Fox, she tries to reframe the wrath of the god of Grey Mountain as a natural disaster — rather than the supernatural disaster that it actually was.

Orual’s life begins to be lived on two levels:  on the one, a dogged determination to anesthetize all thoughts and reminders of her lost sister; and on the other, a realization that she has been “doomed to live,” but has the displeasure of the gods hanging over her along with her grief and loss.

When the King is fatally injured in a fall, Orual suddenly becomes Queen, mostly out of political expediency and practical collusion between the palace and the House of Ungit to keep the peace, but she finds that she can “queen it with the best of them.”  To establish her position on the throne and in the hearts of her people — and to fix a very tangled foreign policy issue — Orual challenges Argan, the sitting ruler of Glome’s long-time enemy nation of Phars, to a duel of swords.

Reflection

As I read Orual’s progressive absorption (and disappearance) into the role of The Queen, two major themes kept surfacing:

The Nature of Love

We’ve already begun to get a glimpse of Orual’s definition of love in her dealings with Psyche on the bank of the River.  Coercion, emotional blackmail, and insistence on complete agreement are all part of the sick package, and upon her return to the palace, Orual learns that The Fox, with all his rational talk, is more equipped to demonstrate true love than she.  When it becomes apparent that she is withholding information about her dealings with Psyche, he refuses to jeopardize their relationship by forcing her to divulge her secret.  Later, he apologizes for his own emotional outburst that accompanied his efforts to convince her not to challenge Argan, and, then, ironically, succumbs to Orual’s pressure to remain in Glome even after she has freed him from slavery.  It appears that C.S. Lewis is holding The Fox up as a mirror to Orual in order to put her true self on display — but she is blind to it.  She demonstrates her complete inability to comprehend The Fox’s capacity for love when she sees him seated by her father’s death bed:

“It was not possible he should love his old master.”

She’s forgetting, or course, that her hatred for The King is not necessarily universal, and that her own relationship with The Fox may feel very different from his perspective.  This complete inability to enter into the emotions of another person is clear again when she feels only her own joy (and none of his sorrow or ambivalence) when The Fox agrees to stay in Glome rather than returning, free, to his homeland.

Lewis scholar Gilbert Meilaender cites one of Lewis’s poems to demonstrate Lewis’s scorn for those who make others miserable in the guise of “loving” them:

“Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay:
Here lies one who lived for others;
Now she has peace. And so have they.”

In a 1957 letter to Clyde Kilby (another Lewis scholar and professor of English at Wheaton), Lewis said that Orual is an example of “human affection in its natural condition, true, tender, suffering, but in the long run tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.”

The Purpose of the Veil

It is not until page 180 that Orual confesses her resolve to go through life wearing a veil, but, to the reader, it is apparent that Orual has been in hiding for some time.  There is evidence for this in her actions and reactions:

  1. Her attempt to avoid contact with The Fox (177) and the fact that she never does actually disclose the entire story to him (and even less to Bardia).  Her barriers of secrecy and silence cost her the comfort she had formerly found in the relationship with her old tutor.
  2. Her literal closing of the door to Psyche’s room and the figurative closing of her mind behind an equally well-sealed door that refused to think of Psyche or to hear her name.
  3. All the grief of her loss of Psyche is barricaded behind a dam, a barrier that serves her well as long as nothing triggers the anguish, but which has to be carefully maintained by the distraction of work and then meticulously rebuilt after every episode of “weeping and writhing.” (184, 189)  Joe R. Christopher writes about a difference in tone in this section of the story.  Orual has “no religious visions” and she “works without hope . . . so that she may forget what she has done to Psyche and may forget the god which appeared to her then.”

Orual first wears the veil when she traveled to the Holy Tree so that she would not be recognized.  Her decision to be perpetually veiled is symbolic of her desire to be continually hidden, to be swallowed up in the duties and the identity of The Queen, presenting an outward appearance of decisive composure while grieving and bitter behind the mask.

Without pressing the point or making more of it than Lewis intended or the text supports, I think of Orual whenever I read  Paul’s discourse on Moses’ veil in II Corinthians 3.  Moses’ understanding of the ultimate significance of the Old Covenant was, at best, veiled and shadowy (I Peter 1:10, 11), and the Israelites’ veiled hearts were a symbol of unbelief.  The believer, on the other hand, is privileged with unimpaired spiritual perception: the ability to see the glory of God revealed in Christ, an unobstructed view.  Eugene Peterson masterfully describes this in the Message:

“With that kind of hope to excite us, nothing holds us back. Unlike Moses, we have nothing to hide. Everything is out in the open with us.”

. . . or, at least it can be if we are willing to take the risk.

Whether or not Moses’ veil proves to be a helpful metaphor, Orual reminds me that the believer comes before God unveiled, and she warns me of the dangers of damming up emotions, slamming the door on things I’d rather not deal with, and working hard to project an image that does not line up the the “me” that lives and breathes (and fails and falters) on this broken ground.

Some Issues to Ponder

If the lover is not healthy, neither is the love.
Orual’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us, but particularly, I think, for those of us who are mothers.  Open-handed love is so hard to practice when those precious people begin to make decisions on their own.

 Your Turn

When Bardia describes Orual’s decision to challenge Argan as “something out of an old song,” did anyone else think of Peter’s challenge of Miraz in Prince Caspian?  I love the “old songs” that I remember from the land of Narnia.

How are you feeling about Orual these days?  She is such a bundle of strengths and weakness, leveraging the psychological value of her veil to appear powerful, and yet reduced to a puddle of grief at the mere sound of the chains on a well blowing in the wind — because they sound like Psyche’s wails.

Be sure to share your insights on these and ANY topics that have come to mind in your reading so far.  Again, I’ll remind you that you are welcome to share links to entire blog posts if you have the time and inclination to write them — we’d all love to know what you’re thinking, and I know that my understanding and appreciation for the text is enhanced each week when I read the thoughts of other readers.

Next Time

Next Thursday (February 23rd), I’ll be here having read Chapters 19-21.  That will take us to the end of Section I!

Thank you for making this experience so fruitful and fun!

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Resources:

Bright Shadow of Reality:  C.S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect. Corbin Scott

The Longing for a Form.  Essays on the Fiction of C.S. Lewis.  Peter J. Schakel, editor.

The Taste for the Other. The Social and Ethical Thoughts of C.S. Lewis.  Gilbert Meilaender.

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In case you missed last week’s post, click here to catch up!

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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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January Musings — 2017

Having never chosen a #OneWord365, I was surprised when Standing chose me!  What a delight to be reminded of God’s wide open door, and of the truth that an ongoing relationship with God is more than enough reason to rejoice!

By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.    ~Romans 5:1,2 MSG

Here at Home

hat-guys-1

It has occurred to me that I’ve never shared much in these recap posts about what’s going on around the dining room table here on this country hill in Maine.  With two high school boys still homeschooling, we get up from the breakfast table five days a week and dive into all kinds of learning.  My senior and I are squinching up our faces with the effort of unraveling all the formulas needed for two-dimensional vectors, and my freshman and I have regular arguments about the relevance of all the grammar lessons I inflict  assign.  Having said that, I’m thankful for those hours around the table, and very aware that next year I’ll be down to only one student!

That youngest son and I share an obsession with recorded books, and right now, we’re listening our way through anything we can find by Gary Schmidt, a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author whose delightful protagonists seem to hover around the age of fourteen and who “think out loud” in ways that make Gary’s writing both entertaining and instructive — especially for those who are interested in the business of living amidst all the tangled angst of those early teen years.  I can recommend Trouble, O.K. for Now,  First Boy, and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.  We’re hoping to listen to more soon!

On the Nightstand

capture

Choosing my first “before I go to sleep” book of 2017 was, of course, nearly a ceremonial affair in which I looked at everything that I have by Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and a few others and then tried to decide.  Since I’m still finishing up Luci Shaw’s Breath for the Bones (thoughts on creativity and faith), I went with Be Still My Soul for a blast of Elisabeth Elliot’s no nonsense commentary on various Scriptures.

On the Blog

I’m finally past the white knuckle stage of leading a book discussion group focusing on Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  We’ve “met” four times so far, and the comments have been as diverse as the participants:

“Well, I had to sit down and read the book cover to cover (couldn’t put it down!) first. Now as I am reading it again I see things I didn’t see the first time.”
“I am not a great fan of mythology but I did love the Narnia stories and their powerful analogies so I am hanging in here to try to understand how such a ghastly fearful character as Ungit can have about her the smell of holiness! I’ll admit to being repelled and very unsure where this analogy is heading”
“Even though I feel that I may be “out of my element” by joining in with an Online Book Discussion Group while being such a Newbie to this world of Blogging, my Stilling Heart is longing to hear the poetic sharing about such a great storyteller as C.S. Lewis.”

If you haven’t joined us yet, you can grab the reading schedule here, and our most installment in the discussion is here.

The most widely read post for January was my review of Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren.  The folks over at The Englewood Review of Books were kind enough to share my review on their site, and I heartily recommend their weekly publication which presents and analyzes books that “point toward a new world that is characterized by the justice and shalom of God.”

Just for Joy

Having made peace with the demise of the cassette tape, I am thrilled to have discovered podcasts in the past few months.  You may already have an overwhelming list of regular “shows” that you listen to, but just in case you’re interested in hearing about some new ones that challenge your thinking, here are my five favorites:

  1.  All the CT Podcasts:  I always look forward to Quick to Listen, Theology for Life, and The Calling for their interesting interviews and sharp thinking and reporting on issues that affect the church.
  2. Listening In is an interview podcast produced by World News Group.  They interviewed author Les Sillars about his book Intended for Evil at the exact time in which I was in the process of reading and reviewing it!  What great insight that provided!  They have also introduced me to a new (to me) musician:  Chad Lawson‘s piano work is a glorious melding of jazz/classical that is perfect — just perfect.
  3. Nancy Guthrie hosts Help Me Teach the Bible, and she and her guests have fascinating and helpful discussions about faithfully presenting Truth in a teaching ministry.  This month, I reviewed her bookWhat Grieving People Wish You Knew, and her story gives weight and depth to her astute grasp of theological truth.
  4. I think I’m all caught up on the programs of The Road Back to You.  Authors Suzanne Stabile and Ian Morgan Cron talk about life through the lens of the Enneagram by talking to people who represent various types on the Enneagram.  I started listening to the podcast as preparation for my review of their book, but  I keep listening because it’s so fascinating!
  5. Living a Redeemed Life by Holly S. Barrett is another of my favorites because Holly interviews writers, bloggers, and friends, chatting in a casual way about their lives and where they see redemption at work in their every day living.  She invited me to chat with her back in December, and after I got over my initial horror at the thought of branching into another post-cassette tape medium, it was a wonderful experience. The visit is scheduled to air on Friday, February 3.

Thank you, friends, for your warm encouragement during these cold January days.  The wind is howling outside my window right now, but the sun is pouring through the windows, and I’m thankful for the gift of a wood stove and a well-stocked wood pile, hot tea in my favorite mug, and the love of family and friends.

capture

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As usual, I’m sharing this post with the What I’m In To community over at Leigh Kramer’s place.  Be sure to swing by for great recommendations of books, podcasts, and, well . . . see for yourself!

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 box 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.

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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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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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box 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.

Till We Have Faces (2): Longing for the Grey Mountain

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.  

Approaches to C.S. Lewis’s brand of fiction vary widely, ranging from “This is a great story, and I love it.  Please leave me alone and let me enjoy it,” to those who seek a point-by-point application for every possible allegory.  Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it’s clear that Chapters 1-3 set the stage for many of the major themes that permeate the book.  Even if you have not yet started to read with us, this short summary of the first three chapters may serve as a teaser to get you started!

Plot Summary

In the semi-barbaric kingdom of Glome, in a time before the fall of the Greek empire, there lived a homely princess named Orual.  Her mother has died, and the king remarries and fathers, to his dismay, yet another daughter, making three in all.  Transfixed by the baby’s beauty and good nature, Orual raises and dotes on the child who grows in beauty and goodnessand is beloved by the people.  The young Princess Psyche is rumored to have healing in her hands, and chapter three ends with an ominous sense that the jealousy of the middle daughter (Redival), two years of poor harvest, and the onset of an epidemic of fever may, together, signal the end of happy times for Orual and Psyche.

standing

Reflection

The word “standing” reached out from Romans 5:1,2 and chose me for its own this year,

 By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

and it leaves me wishing that Orual (and her present day sisters) could see and know this God who “has always wanted to do” good for us, to be “all together” with us so that we would see the wide-open door which He has already flung aside in welcome.

With her opening paragraph, Orual makes it evident that she is (and has long been) at enmity with the gods.  She has concluded that the gods hate her, but clearly, she is not in a position of unbelief:

  • She recognizes but disregards their power to do her harm, and describes Ungit as a “very strong goddess,” (pg. 4).  Dressing traditional Christian concepts in pagan clothing, C.S. Lewis portrays Ungit as a nature goddess and Ungit’s son is the “god who lives on the Grey Mountain.”
  • She acknowledges that the gods have knowledge that is unavailable to humans, “and gods do not tell,” (p. 33).
  • As a child, even the smell of Ungit’s temple was frightening to her, and she continues to refer to it as a smell of holiness, “the Ungit smell,” (p. 11).

By contrast, Psyche seems to have been drawn since childhood toward the Grey Mountain:  “When I’m big,” she said, “I will be a great, great queen, married to the greatest king of all, and he will build me a castle of gold and amber up there on the very top,” (p. 23).  Even when she succumbs to the fever, her delirious ravings are all about the Grey Mountain.

In the midst of these two polar opposites stands The Fox, a Greek slave who has been assigned to tutor the girls.  Spouting rational explanations for all the mysterious actions of “the gods,” and insisting that all the murky evidence for the numinous all around them is “just lovely poetry,” he still trembles before the mystery of death, and fails to convince anyone with his reason-based protests. Throughout the book, we will see that Orual continually struggles to reconcile the teachings of The Fox with the teachings of Ungit’s priests.

C.S. Lewis, in his writing, frequently ties the distant hills to the sense of longing that formed the backdrop to his formative years — “sehnsucht” he called it, a German term that manages to convey deep yearning and nostalgic longing.  The theme permeates much of what Lewis wrote, and at this point in the novel, the longing is tied to the distant hills and their “otherworldliness” that draws Psyche. Of course, C.S. Lewis was famous for having said,

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Some Issues to Ponder

  1. Do you see any similarities between Orual’s devotion to Psyche and the people of Glome’s failure to look beyond Psyche to the god of Grey Mountain?
  2. Lewis used the term “myth” not as an opposite to the word “fact,” but instead to label a device of meaning-making. For instance, he referred to “the myths of the Bible,” referring to the stories and themes we all know.  Converting to Christianity at the age of 31, Lewis found that Christ “is the reality which all myths are suggesting.”  In Miracles he refers to “a long preparation [of all previous myths which] culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so . . . the truth first appears in Mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History.”  He believed most myths were initially theological; for instance, that all nations’ myths of blood and sacrifice arose from “initial revelation,” all pointing toward the same truth of Christ crucified.   Do you find Lewis’s portrayal of Christian concepts in a strange context to be helpful — or distracting?
  3.   Lewis scholars claim that his wife, Joy Davidman, was quite influential in the development of Orual’s character.  This does give insight to the amazing ability of a nearly lifelong bachelor to develop the interior landscape of a strong female character.  But . . . then there is Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew. And Mrs. Beaver.  And Lucy Pevensie is no slouch either!  Any thoughts on this?
  4. How are you pronouncing Orual’s name as you read?  I’ve always said “Or-oo-all” which is a bit awkward.  Anyone saying “you” for the middle syllable?

Your Turn

I hope that you will share your thoughts on the first three chapters in the comments below.  I will be thrilled if you choose to link up your own blog posts for all of our benefit and enjoyment!

Next Time

On Thursday, January 19th, I’ll be here having read chapters 4-6.

I hope you are enjoying the experience of exploring this beautiful, complex, and compassionate story.

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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 box 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.