Till We Have Faces takes up with shocking clarity a grim problem as old as Job:
man’s complaint against a seemingly inscrutable God.
Oft forgotten amid the fanfare for The Chronicles of Narnia and his sci-fi trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces was the last novel he wrote; and it is an unforgettable fiction that feels, in some ways, a little too real. Much as The Screwtape Letters dissects the shameful foibles of the human soul with insight sharper than a surgeon’s knife, Till We Have Faces takes up with shocking clarity a grim problem as old as Job: man’s complaint against a seemingly inscrutable God.
The result is not easy reading. Although the plot races through a powerful drama based on the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche, readers must keep pace with difficult spiritual questions as the narrator navigates painful memories and grave soul-searching. Lewis thus takes a bold and unfiltered look at some of humanity’s darkest struggles: pride; doubt; anger against God; the problem of suffering; and the mysterious battle between love and selfishness in the human heart.
A line popularly attributed elsewhere to Lewis provides an insight to understanding the novel: “Prayer doesn’t change God, but it changes me.” The main character Orual’s lifelong contention against the gods is in a way a sort of bitter prayer—an address to the gods, a challenge that must be answered. In examining her life to give a just account of cruelties and injustices she believes she has suffered at the hands of the gods, Orual begins to change. She sees her own love for the first time as the selfishness it really was; she sees in what she thought was only deprivation and pain both the mercy and the justice of the gods.
There is a question implicit in Orual’s reckoning: why? Why do the gods’ actions in men’s lives seem so incomprehensible to us—and, therefore, so unjust? If the gods are real and are really good, why don’t they tell us so plainly? Why can’t they simply reveal things to us face to face, without the hidden clues and mysteries of providence and faith that require us to believe rather than to simply see?
Identity is both the answer and the riddle round which Orual’s story revolves. Who are these gods, really, who seem to play with human lives? And who are we human beings—and who do we become through our choices? Can we demand that the gods reveal themselves fully to us, when we are so unwilling to expose our true character to them, or even to our fellow human beings?
At first with resentment, Orual begins to understand that she is not God. She is not perfect goodness, or truth, or beauty, but she acted as if she could be exemplify these things. In her choices, she wanted to be God—to be the most important thing in someone else’s life. And when she could not have that, she exacted from the persons she loved everything she could—time, energy, devotion, even taking their other happiness—until she was “glutted with the lives of men.” Doing this all in the name of love, she called the gods cruel when she lost the very people to whom she had turned her attentions.
In a way, selfish love, in attempting to circumscribe the object of love, is really more akin to envy, jealously, or even hatred than to love. Real love wants only the best for the beloved, while selfish love wants only the beloved for ourselves, to hoard rather than to diffuse. Selfish love refuses to admit that we imperfect creatures cannot be the center of someone else’s universe. Orual sought, all her life, only to say “This is all mine, and the gods cannot touch it!”
Disfigured, she hides her face, just as she hides her true identity, her true motives and emotions, from everyone, including her conscious self. Her hidden hatreds and ambitions and jealousies—these fester inside her and prevent her from seeing reality as it really is. Until she admits this—until she comes clean and lays bare her true identity, faults and all, before the gods—they cannot speak to her face to face.
She realizes that the gods could not reveal themselves fully to her, could not share with her the goodness they had stored for those hearts pure enough to handle it, because she would not reveal her true self to them. She gave them only her complaints, accusations, and excuses; her empty facades of noble victimhood and offended love. As she poignantly confesses:
When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
To see the face of God, we must be free of duplicities, freed of our pride, freed of the gnawing flaws and poisonous self-centeredness that prevent us from seeing ourselves—and Him—as we truly are. In the end, Till We Have Faces simply reveals the real challenge of the Beatitudes: We must be pure of heart before we can see God.