Review: C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, 1956 (Part 4)

Conclusion: The Beatific Vision

This story, much like the story of every man, does not end with Orual’s confrontation with the divine as a judge—reciting her case as a wannabe plaintiff and being given (supposedly) no answer, or worse, divine judgment—as the only possible outcome of her meeting with God. While Orual was waiting for a response from the gods, she was surprised to see her sister Psyche greet her. Psyche announced that she had not only survived her trials but had attained the box of Beauty, which she presented to her speechless sister. Additionally, Psyche announced that her Lord was forgiving, that all had been made right, and that he himself was coming to her. In fact, Orual should no longer be called “Ungit,” but the Divine christened her with a new name: Psyche. When she awoke, the aged queen scribbled down these final chapters declaring her change of heart, and the book ends with prayer:

I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might—

and for the last time the queen is mercifully silenced and laid to rest.

While the theme of sight is prevalent throughout the book, the theme of being hidden is likewise key to understanding the story and also instructive for the Christian life. Orual’s face was hidden and thus her subjects feared her. The gods seemed to hide their faces and intentions from Orual, and she accused them for it. The two instances when she lifted her eyes from a posture of prayer (at the river after meeting Psyche and in the vision at the end of her life), she did not see what she thought she would see (Psyche’s castle and the divine Cupid, respectively). Like Orual, we also do not now see our risen Lord (1 John 3:2), we walk by faith and not by sight (Heb 11; 2 Cor 5), and yet believers are assured in no uncertain terms that we will be given that glorious vision of perfect reconciliation with our loving Lord: “When he [God] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), and “After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).

And this is the great desire of both Psyche and Orual, to see the face of God. They both, like the believer (moreover, like every person), earnestly desire to see God and behold the face of Beauty and Love incarnate. Augustine put it this way in Book I of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Psyche yearned from her youth for the God of the Grey Mountain. The believer can especially trace in this longing the same cry of his or her own heart with such words as those from the 27th Psalm: “One thing have I asked of Yahweh, that will I seek after . . . to gaze upon the beauty of Yahweh and to inquire in his temple,” (Ps 27:4). Orual desired a day in court before God, and her desperation to this end demonstrates that she was grasping for a love that would never give her up or let her down or desert her. Till We Have Faces is thus reflective not only of the Christian life (of awaiting that beatific vision of glory when we will behold our risen King Jesus) but also of the unbeliever’s careening path of being frustrated by lovers and beloveds alike.

Our God is not unfamiliar with fallen peoples’ essential desire to lay hold of that beatific vision for which he made us. At one time he denied Moses’ request to see his face, and for us God’s word was recorded: “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:19). When the prophet Isaiah received his prophetic call, he reiterated this word: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts!” (Isa 6:5) Thus, it is apparent that the problem frustrating the image of God from beholding its Beloved is nothing other than defiling sin, sin that defaces the children of God. While sin brought shame and the need to hide oneself from God and for God to cover over us lest we perish (cf. Gen 3:7; Ex 33:19–23; Ex 12:1–51; Isa 26:20–21), Yahweh is a merciful and gracious God who seeks and saves the lost, willingly sending his own Son to remove our sin, shame, and all our attempts to hide behind the grotesque masks of our own making. Not only that, but he also clothes us with the beauty of righteousness and holiness (cf. Gen 3:21; Isa 61:1–3; Zech 3: 1–5; Rev 3:18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:14; 19:7–8, 13–14; 22:14). Regarding this salvation and reconciliation, God promised that there would be a day when “the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa 40:5ff).

In the greatest of twists, God, by his prophet Isaiah, elaborates on this revealed glory: “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:14). Not only does God know our deepest desire for glory and to be satisfied in him because he is a loving and all-knowing Father, and not only does the Son of God come to us to take away our sin and shame and cover us with beauty, but God also knows our deepest pangs on a personal, experiential level. For when the Son of God took unto himself our nature and lived among us, he also suffered the very broken-heartedness and longing we suffer, especially in his suffering unto death on the cross. When Jesus was hanged on our cross for the treason of our souls, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 14:34, cf. Ps 22). As much as we earnestly desire to see the face of God, Christ on the cross experienced the fullest eclipse of the face of God. Because of what he accomplished for us, all people are welcomed to come in faith to be fully restored to the living hope of seeing the face of God when we will behold Christ in glory.

That cry of our hearts to see and be reunited with our Lord (“My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Yahweh, do I seek,’” Ps 27:8) is cleverly and satisfyingly told in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, and our greatest desire is answered in Christ. Because there is some strong language and weighty issues, parental discretion is advised. Adult believers of all levels of maturity in their Christian walk would benefit from reading this book and appreciating the themes and symbols and story told by C. S. Lewis in this retelling of a pagan Greek myth, which has worked itself into our day and age in such stories as Cinderella, Hercules, Beauty and the Beast, and the like. I would definitely recommend this book to of-age unbelievers as well as believers, and I am even of the opinion that this story is an excellent book to recommend to unbelievers who enjoy good books but are not yet willing to take up God’s Word, because this story has an effect similar to that of a parable, of forcing “souls to speak, and knees to bow, and tongues to plead the blood that no one bleeds—the kind of blood that opens gates to welcome home the lowest thieves, the kind that gives us faces so we see what holy means.”1

They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:4)

Yahweh bless you and keep you;
Yahweh make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Num 6:24–26)

Notes

  1. Heath McNease, “‘Till We Have Faces,” 2012.

©Joseph Pollard. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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