Idolatry of the Heart: Till We Have Faces (pt 2)

The novel, “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis, has been an instrument of truth that God has used in my life over the last year. This powerful narrative story has taught my heart so much about possessive love, jealousy, and where our true identity is found. My hope through this post is that God would use my pain, His voice, and the words of a brilliant author to inspire and challenge each of you in this journey toward sanctification.
Thank you for your support. I could not do this without each of you in my life.

My own journey begins much like Orual’s.

I am the oldest child to my parents: driven, smart, resourceful, passionate. And as deeply flawed as the next. Before this August, when I finally grasped the concept of my identity in Christ (thank you, Elyse Fitzpatrick for your stunning work on union with Christ in the book Found in Him), I weighed my value on my skills. I was an avid reader by age four, an all-star softball player by age twelve, a talented musician by the time I auditioned for vocal performance in college, and a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard Master’s licensed captain (less than 1 percent of license holders are women) by the time I was twenty-five. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. BUT NONE OF THOSE THINGS DEFINED ME.

So, like any good twenty-something, I had a quarter-life crisis in an attempt to find my identity.

In Till We Have Faces, Orual has no identity either. In a patriarchal society where women are valued much like property, she is an inconvenience to the royal house. She is not beautiful, not a man, and not afraid to stand up to her tyrant of a father. After Psyche is born, Orual proves a loving caretaker. But soon Orual begins to think that her being needed by Psyche is the only thing that matters in her life. “I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I  could set her free and make her rich” (Lewis, Faces 23). It is this distorted view of love—idolatry, really—that begins Orual’s descent into darkness.

Growing up, I had always wanted a sister, a “bosom buddy,” as Anne of Green Gables calls her friend Diana. Someone to share secrets with, have tons of inside jokes, talk about crushes—typical girl shenanigans. Except I was never that girl. I was the tom-boy. I had a brother and we played “war,” and kickball, and Legos. My desire for a “best friend” constantly plagued my junior high and high school years as I gravitated toward one friend, then another, constantly cycling through them based on my needs and insecurities. With each of these cycles, I would lose myself; my interests and dreams would be put aside in favor of championing my friend’s dreams. I needed the emotional approval so much that I would become someone I thought they would favor, instead of being myself—a person I did not quite know yet.

Going to Bible college opened up a whole new side to this pattern. There was a new level of intimacy between friends: the Holy Spirit. None of my friends in high school had been strong believers, and here I was, surrounded by people who all loved God and loved me too. It was surreal. I remember one night, as a freshman, sitting on the roof of the dorm with a new friend and pouring my heart out over some grievance I had, and to my astonishment, she completely understood me. There was no judgement, only what seemed to be love and affirmation. She prayed for me, comforted me, and this natural high built up inside me. I could not get enough of these new friendships or experiences. A seed was rooting deep in my heart; a voice was beckoning me to seek after these spiritual highs.

It was the voice of longing.

C.S. Lewis defines longing as, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Momentary experiences of satisfaction, through sudden encounters with beauty in nature, literature, or music, more often through the memory of such encounters, only intensify the desire, and the pain always associated with it…unlike other desires, in which pain arises from the absence of satisfaction, pain is inherent in this desire. (Schakel 30)

Longing is the drive behind every poem, novel, symphony, painting, photograph, opera, relationship. Longing is the God-shaped hole in our hearts. And everyone has the hole, though what shape it distorts into over time is unique to each person. “Because we are made in God’s image, we are hardwired to love oneness and fear and despise isolation. It’s in our DNA, which is one of the reasons that we’re always hoping to find it in relationships or experiences” (Fitzpatrick 22). Our longing is the natural desire to look toward Heaven.

Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me to longing, always longing…it almost hurt me…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing––to reach the Mountain, to find the place where beauty came from” (Lewis, Faces 74-75)

Psyche understands the longing. Christ understood it too, when in anguish on the cross he pleaded, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Orual only understands the longing of her own selfishness, her possession over the love that she shares with Psyche. It is a twisted and dark love, full of manipulation, which only leads to pain. There is no outward growth in Orual’s version of love. She tries to fill her eternal longing with another mortal being and the consequences prove disastrous.

The grief that has beset me in my adult life, realizing this longing, and how poorly I have tried to satiate it with other people is not unlike Orual’s. Only I praise God that He has allowed me to see it while still in my youth. Orual is not so fortunate. Her revelation and repentance happen at the end of her long life. Like Orual, many people resign their lives to pain and idolatry, to satiating their deepest longing with people, or drugs, or any number of vices, because it seems easier than fighting back.

It is worth fighting back!

Friends, I cannot implore with you just how important it is to fight back. Satan does not own us. We do not owe him any part of us: our pain, our fear, our disappointment. He uses those things to get a foothold in our hearts and fill us with doubt and self-hatred. “My aim was to build up more and more strength, hard and joyless, which had come to me when I heard the god’s sentence; by learning, fighting, and laboring, to drive all the woman out of me” (Lewis, Faces 184). Orual resigned her life to pain. She let despair dictate her future. What a bleak way to live, and yet how true is it for so many of us?

Last January, I made the courageous decision to start seeing a counselor. It has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Asking someone to help me battle Satan and the demons of my past was like asking to be burned at the stake. I wanted to break the cycle of my dependency once and for all. I wanted God to completely blast through the darkness and pain with His love and truth. I was stripped, completely emptied of myself. All my shortcomings, accomplishments, identities, relationships; God took each one away so that I was left in a room with only Him. And it was terrifying. I no longer had anything to use as a defense to guard my pain.

This last week was absolutely heartbreaking. Almost unbearable. I am in a place of this healing process that hurts so much. I am so tired of being in so much agony over my shortcomings. I need to let You fill the hole in my heart that I have clung to with mighty control. The place I have not wanted anyone to know about. I am a scared, dependent, little girl shrouded in anger, envy, deceit, pain, false pride. I am ready for the shroud—almost burned onto my heart—to fall.     (West,  Journals)

To my astonishment, a short time after I wrote this journal entry, I read this in the New Testament:

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)

With unveiled face we behold the glory of God. That shroud, that brandishing mark that I let define me for so many years, removable? Wholeness and transformation are attainable, but not in our own strength, not without divine love.

There is a section in the story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (also written by C.S. Lewis from his “Chronicles of Narnia” series), where one of the characters goes through a drastic transformation from a hideous, scaly dragon back into a little boy. The imagery is powerful and heart-breaking. The dragon-boy tries to scrape the scales off by himself, layer after excruciating layer, but they keep growing back. Finally Aslan (the Christ-type) tells the dragon that only He can remove the scales. Aslan digs His lion claws into the dragon. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt” (Lewis, Voyage 89).

Orual has a similar experience at the final inquisition of her life. “Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade. I was no one” (Lewis, Faces 307). God must empty us in order to fill us with Himself. When we have spent the majority of our lives filling the hole in our hearts with idols, it takes immense suffering to purge the evil out. And this process happens over and over in this life. I am not disillusioned into thinking that I have “fixed” all my issues. But the gift of security that I have knowing that my identity is in Christ, and not another person, has greatly reduced the trauma that I inflict upon myself.

This healing journey has to begin with the knowledge that we will always be seeking to fill the holes in our hearts that have been left from the effects of the fall. We will be left empty. We will be left wanting. We will feel needy. But that’s okay. It is probably the most difficult part of this life, but we must remember that Christ intercedes for us. He fills the void. He sacrificed His life so that God’s wrath would not continuously obliterate us.

One of my favorite Christian writers, Luci Shaw, quotes Gerald May in her book, Breath for the Bones, saying, “Our lack of fulfillment is the most precious gift we have, It is the source of our passion, our creativity, our search for God. All the best life comes out of our human yearning—our not being satisfied…we are meant to go looking and seeking”  (Shaw 152). We are hard-wired for this longing, these mysterious experiences that we have in bright, screaming flashes. It is God reaching down to touch the finger of Adam, to illumine the human race.

He is there: comforting us, pursuing us, fighting for us, preparing for us, refining us.

I can tell you that my desire to fill my heart with another human will always be a temptation for me. I will always desire to share my life fully with another, to feel the seduction of being fully understood, fully known, fully loved. But the truth is, I will never receive that in this lifetime. Nor will any of us. Humanity does not have the capacity for this knowledge or love. Only God does.

That does not mean that we should abandon our relationships, however. There is a healing power and a genuine purpose for friendship in this life. God has gifted us immensely with the presence of each other:

We were all created with the ability, the need to reach out, to join ourselves with others, in love, to feel with and for others. The words “sympathy” (with-passion) and “empathy” (in-passion) both tell a story. We are to stand alongside our friends, entering into their passionate struggles and trials and triumphs, feeling their pangs of pain and the brimming over of their pleasure. Mirroring back to them, sometimes, their better selves, when they need our affirmation and encouragement. Giving them permission to mirror back to us our less attractive attributes, so that we can better “see ourselves as others see us” and work on personal transformation with God’s help. (L’Engle 50)

My friends have proven to be immensely supportive and loving through this last year of tumult. There were some days that I could not see past my grief, and my friends manifested Christ’s love by praying, giving hugs, laughing, sometimes just being present. I am sure there will be more of those days to come—for all of us—but what a relief to know that God is there, and that He has sent us friends to comfort us. We are to be as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), strengthening and challenging each other through this life. Where idolatry is the false filling of our hearts, love is the purity, the purpose that will see us through until Christ comes again.   Amen.

“I loved her as I would once have thought impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted…the earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming.”

Till We Have Faces, 307

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more.”

(Revelation 22:2-4)

Works Cited

Fitzpatrick, Elyse M. Found in Him. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine and Luci Shaw. Friends for the Journey. Anne Arbor: Servant Publications, 1997. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1960. Print.

——–. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1985. Print.

——–. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Macmillan, 1952. Print.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. New York: Grosset and Dunlop. 1989. Print.

Schakel, Peter J. Reason and Imagination in C.S. Lewis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,  1984. Print.

Shaw, Luci. Breath for the Bones. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. Print.

West, Chloe. Personal Journals. Chicago. 2013-2014. Manuscript.

Idolatry of the Heart: Till We Have Faces (pt. 1)

I am going to submit a synopsis of the book, “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis to give you a feel for the storyline if you have not read it prior. I would highly recommend you read this novel, however, if you want a more profound grasp at what I am going to talk about in Part Two of this post. This is a brief synopsis and some parts of the story are omitted for the sake of time and also for the relevance of the subject matter which I have chosen as the central theme for this post. 
When I first read this book as a freshman in undergrad I had no idea how deep Lewis was taking this “myth retold.” It was a fascinating story, a more intimate re-telling of the Greek myth, “Cupid and Psyche.”  I understood Lewis’ use of archetype and symbolism in his references to Heaven, the Christ-type, and our sin nature. What I did not realize–until re-reading it this last year–is just how depraved and selfish Orual’s sense of “love” truly is. Read the synopsis (read the book, better still), and then I will present in Part Two why this story was instrumental in helping me realize my own depraved sense of “love,” and the neediness that has consumed my heart for the majority of my life.

In the novel Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, the theme of idolatry is startlingly prominent. Not only does the author harken back to mythology, using gods and rituals to propel the story, but he also addresses most profoundly the sin of idolatry of the heart in the heroine Orual’s journey. Her obsession with her half-sister Psyche is not only unhealthy, but utterly destructive. Orual is so blinded by her need to be loved by Psyche–at all costs–that she creates a surreal world barred off from rationality and true love: the love of sacrifice, honor, and dignity. Psyche’s role as the antithesis to Orual is a startling reminder of purity and strength, not unlike the love of Christ.

In the story, Orual is the oldest of three sisters, all abhorred by their father. She is called “ugly” from a young age and is set aside as something not valuable, being born a woman in a patriarchal, mythic society. In late childhood, she begins her education with a Greek man named, “The Fox,” and begins to realize the value of her mind. Her baby sister, Psyche, is born, and something deep inside Orual begins to churn. Orual takes it upon herself to act as the baby’s mother, guardian, sister, friend. From a young age, this need to be “needed” plagues Orual and only grows increasingly worse as time passes. She feels justified in her possessiveness over Psyche, detailing the ways in which she has cared for her over the years, protected and loved her. “I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I  could set her free and make her rich” (Lewis 23).

Orual is clearly deceived about what true love is. Her tunnel vision for the absolute control of Psyche blinds her to all other types of love in her youth. Her mentor, the Fox, loves her dearly as a father figure; gentlemen suitors value her mind over her looks though she continually doubts this; Psyche loves her deeply as well, but not on the terms that Orual demands. It is not until much later, through a series of traumatic events, does Orual learn what sacrificial, untainted love truly is.

The city of Glome, where the tale takes place, is struck by a plague. The crops won’t grow, and the people are afflicted with disease. They believe they are cursed by the gods because there is no male heir to the throne, so they take their anger out on the royal family–Orual’s family. The people demand a sacrifice to Ungit, the goddess of the mountain who is their spiritual queen. They demand blood, a human sacrifice. They demand Psyche.

Orual is crushed to the core when she hears of the demand for Psyche’s blood. How could the people kill a girl who is so pure of heart? How could the gods demand to take away the person that Orual holds most dear? This further infuses Orual’s hatred for Ungit, a battle she will struggle to fight for the rest of her life. It is ironic, but well juxtaposed by Lewis, that the idolatry in the hearts of the people is the worship of the goddess Ungit, but the main character’s struggle with idolatry is solely reliant on another human being. Psyche is tangible, beautiful, full of goodness and grace; she is the embodiment of humanity before the fall. “she was ‘according to nature’ what every woman, or even every thing, ought to have been meant to be, but had missed by some trip of chance” (Lewis 22).

Orual’s longing for acceptance and love are sought in Psyche. There is a constant churning in her soul, a constant waiting for approval from her beloved, a constant seething of frustration and jealousy when those desires are not met. And Psyche tries to point Orual in the right direction time and again. Psyche herself understands that the longing that they both have will not be met in this world:

Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me to longing, always longing…it almost hurt me…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where beauty came from–” (Lewis 74-75)

Psyche is able to articulate her desire for something other than the hardship this life has to offer. And through this whole conversation before Psyche’s execution, all Orual can do is cling to the possession that has kept her afloat through most of her young life.

Psyche is taken up to the mountain to be consumed by “the Beast,” a sacrifice that requires consumption of the victim by the god of the mountain’s son. It is a violent and traumatic death, but one that provides the people of Glome atonement for the sins of the royal house. Orual is beside herself, becoming so ill that she can’t even leave the royal house. She is spared the ascent up the mountain, spared watching her beloved be consumed by an angry god. But she is not spared the emotional scarring of losing the only person whom she has lived her whole life for; this is what begins to destroy her internally.

After the sacrifice of Psyche has occurred, the people of Glome go back to their normal routines. They have accepted that the gods are back on their side and resume their daily trivialities. All except Orual. She is consumed with the mission of retrieving Psyche’s bones, consumed with having the last physical piece of Psyche in her possession. She journeys up the mountain with a trusted soldier from her father’s army and searches in vain for the bones. There are none to be found. Psyche has been entirely consumed by the beast–or has she?

Orual sees Psyche on the mountain, almost in a dream, and quickly reunites with her sister. They spend time talking; Psyche chronicles the night of her execution and Orual refuses to believe what she is hearing. It sounds too mystical to be true, too supernatural to a person who has no belief system involving a higher power. And yet here is Psyche, unharmed–even healthy–in front of Orual, and still her doubts consume her. Orual demands proof from Psyche of this “god” whom she speaks of, this “husband” of hers that has fulfilled such a special place in her heart. Orual manipulates Psyche into testing her love for this god. She demands and orders and begs, quite selfishly and foolishly. And Psyche cannot help but appease her.

Oh Orual–to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of mastery, an instrument of torture–I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here. (Lewis 165)

This is the moment that changes their relationship forever. This dependent, selfish love is finally severed. “I know that I am betraying the best of lovers and that perhaps, before sunrise, all my happiness may be destroyed forever. This is the price you have put upon your life. Well, I must pay it” (Lewis 166). Psyche, once again, is the sacrifice. She is the lamb to be slaughtered. And she goes willingly, knowing that it will destroy her. And Orual is still clinging to her jealousy and possession. So that same night, when Psyche acts out Orual’s request in order to “prove” to Orual that Psyche truly loves her, the inevitable tragedy erupts.

Orual demands that Psyche hold a lamp up to the face of her beloved husband while he is sleeping to see whether he is truly a god, or just some vagabond that has kidnapped her. The god awakens in a fury and consumes the palace and all the surrounding land in a flood, banishing Psyche and cursing Orual to the end of her days. Utter disparity befalls both women, Psyche weeping all the way down the mountain, lost forever; and Orual, trudging back to a soul-less life leading the people of Glome for the term of her natural life. Both are condemned and love-less. Both are punished equally for their act against the gods.

For the next few decades, Orual rules the kingdom with authority and wisdom, bringing Glome back to its status as a prosperous city. She has chosen the life of celibacy, never marrying despite offers, because she believes that she deserves the punishment that the god of the mountain cast upon her. She frequently remembers and dreams of Psyche, longing to have her back, wishing she had done things differently, reeling from the loss of her beloved. She never fully learns how dependent and caustic her love for Psyche is, until the very end of her life.

She is put on trial by the gods, summoned by them for an explanation of her actions. In this last stunning chapter, Lewis recounts the whole story from Psyche’s perspective for Orual, allowing her to experience the pain and sacrifice that she went through for the love of all the people that demanded it of her. It is heart-wrenching. It is visceral. It is necessary for Orual to finally understand just how selfish and evil her heart really is. Her possession of Psyche is utterly destructive. “Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours. Alas, you know now what it’s worth. I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver” (Lewis 305). In this last inquisition, where her sins are laid before her and judged, Orual finally understands what it means to love selflessly, fully. It is never too late for repentance. “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer” (Lewis 308). You are yourself the answer. 

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1985. Print.