Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis (fantasy)

“Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C.S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.”


After Psyche is banished, Orual returns to her people and determines to “go always veiled.” She does this to hide her face from her people, herself, and from the gods. She also veils herself—although it’s not clear she realizes it—to mimic what she sees as the silent and inapproachable nature of the gods. As time passes, she realizes the power that the veil gives her:

Veiled Lady

Veiled Lady

From the very first . . . as soon as my face was invisible, people began to discover all manner of beauties in my voice. At first it was “deep as a man’s, but nothing in the world less mannish;” later, and until it grew cracked with age, it was the voice of a spirit, a Siren, Orpheus, what you will. And as years passed and there were fewer in the city (and none beyond it) who remembered my face, the wildest stories got about as to what that veil hid. No one believed it was anything so common as the face of an ugly woman. Some said (nearly all the younger women said) that it was frightful beyond endurance; a pig’s, bear’s, cat’s or elephant’s face. The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness. But another sort (there were more of the men among these) said that I wore a veil because I was of a beauty so dazzling that if I let it be seen all men in the world would ran mad; or else that Ungit was jealous of my beauty and had promised to blast me if I went bareface. The upshot of all this nonsense was that I became something very mysterious and awful. I have seen ambassadors who were brave men in battle turn white like scared children in my Pillar Room when I turned and looked at them (and they couldn’t see whether I was looking or not) and was silent. I have made the most seasoned liars turn red and blurt out the truth with the same weapon. (Part 1, Chapter 20)

This description of the people’s reaction to the veiled Orual becomes a symbol for humanity’s relationship to God, who really does veil Himself to us. When all is said and done, however, Orual is a real woman under the veil—not “a spirit, a Siren, Orpheus, or what you will.” By the same token, God is a real personage under a veil, and it doesn’t really matter what we think He is, He is what He is.

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. (Part 2, Chapter 2)

We need to discern God as He really is, because attaining Zion, both as individuals and as a community, requires us to come into His presence. Fortunately for us, however, He gives us time—a grace period, so to speak—to accomplish this goal. As we turn toward Him, He will unveil Himself to us little by little, because to do so all at once would bring us to judgment too soon, before we have the chance to choose Him of our own volition and become the person we are meant to become. I love the way this process plays out in Orual’s life. I also love the way the Bible describes the transformation that each one of us can undergo as we approach God and ultimately come into His presence. Note how in this process, God unveils particular parts of Himself—hand, ear, arm, countenance—until we come face to face with Him:

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear:

But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. . . .

We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. . . .

And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 59:1-2, 10, 20)

*   *   *

For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.

In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.  (Isaiah 54:7-8)

*   *   *

Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.

When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. (Psalm 27:7-9)

 *   *   *

Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand.

Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.

Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance. (Psalm 89:13-15)

 *   *   *

Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion. . . .

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52: 8, 10)

 *   *   *

Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. (Isaiah 58:1-2)

*   *   *

Mary and the Resurrected Lord

Mary and the Resurrected Lord

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.

And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:6-9)

*   *   *

Seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore. (Psalm 105:4)


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This work by Katherine Padilla is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.