The Redemptive Work of Silence (Till We Have Faces)

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3

(Contains sixty-year-old spoilers)

One does not have to read very far in C.S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces to discover that it is a book about silence. The narrator, a queen called Orual, states as much on the first page:

“I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me.”

Lewis leads us to believe from the outset that Orual is a character like Job, someone who has suffered by the permission of the Divine and whose pleadings and demands for explanation have thus far been met with cold indifference. So, having felt the sting of the gods’ callous nature, Orual sets out to list her grievances, hoping that someone in a distant land, “will know whether [her] complaint is right or whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer.”

The story Orual recounts is one she believes will justify her anger with the gods, but the reader can surmise that her story is like many people’s: she has had hardships but also privileges, she has been abused but also sacrificially loved, she lacks physical beauty but possesses immense mental fortitude. Yet for all of the blessings she has received in life, her heart is occupied with a single affliction. All of the other difficulties of her life she could endure through patience, through cleverness, through courage, but the one thing happened that she could not overcome.

That is, the gods took away the person she loved most, her sister Psyche. Her relationship with Psyche was unlike any other she had or would experience – Psyche looked beyond her ugly face, Psyche was affectionate with her, Psyche listened to her and admired her, and most importantly to Orual, Psyche needed her. Or, at least, Orual thought that Psyche needed her. 

So when the god of the mountain demanded that Psyche be sacrificed to him, Orual, understandably, loses her crap.

Despite Orual’s striving to stop this from happening, Psyche is offered on the mountain, chained up and abandoned for the god to devour. Hoping to either find Psyche alive or bring her remains home, Orual journeys to the mountain. And there she finds something she was not expecting: not only is Psyche alive and well, but the god has taken her to be his wife. The pretty, meek, little girl that Orual once knew has since become a determined and feisty young bride, one who no longer must depend on Orual for anything. And this breaks Orual’s heart. 

This begins a war within Orual’s mind. She had only ever known the gods to be distant, beastly things. How could Psyche now claim a god to be her husband? Either she or her sister must be deceived, and she would rather Psyche suffer and return to her than believe Psyche is right and let her go. Yes, she quite convinces herself that the gods must not exist, and if they do, they must be monstrous brutes.

But then, as she stands on the mountain that night, Orual begins to see something. Amid the swirling mist of the mountain, the figure of a great and beautiful castle comes into focus, one she had not seen by the light of the sun. And in that moment Orual approaches a question of belief: Could the gods be real, and even beautiful and good? But as quickly and mysteriously as the castle came into view, the mist changes and everything in her sight becomes plain once again.

Reflecting on this incident, Orual says:

“And now, you who read, give judgment. That moment when I saw or thought I saw the House – does it tell against the gods or against me?… Either way, there’s divine mockery in it. They set a riddle and then allow a seeming that can’t be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain?”

Orual now struggles with what she interprets to be a mercurial tendency among the gods – they would rather play tricks and confuse those subject to them than give clarity and comfort. Because Orual perceives the gods’ actions to be without sense and unfair, that must mean that they are altogether senseless and unjust. The pain the gods have caused Orual has made her incapable of seeing them for what they are, and their alternating silence and riddling only fuels her incension. 

So Orual devises a test for Psyche to prove that the gods are not what they claim to be. Orual convinces Psyche to take a lantern into her bedchamber, to look upon the face of her husband, which she was specifically forbidden from doing. By Orual’s reasoning, why would a god that is good and beautiful demand his face not be seen? Surely this was the cunning of a brute, an act of deception and control by a monstrous beast. Psyche does not believe Orual’s reasoning, but Orual herself is quite willing to be brutish and controlling, threatening her life if Psyche does not obey her. So Psyche reluctantly takes the lamp inside the palace, and Orual waits outside in the night to observe what may happen.

But while Orual waits, that question of belief returns to her:

“Try as I would, I could not quite put out of my head the fear that I had been wrong. A real god… was it impossible? But I could never dwell on that part of it. What came back and back to my mind was the thought of Psyche herself somehow… ruined, lost, robbed of all joy, a wailing, wandering shape, for whom I had wrecked everything.”

Despite her brush with belief, Orual silences these thoughts, willing again that she will be proven right, and Psyche will have to return to her. But then she sees the light of Psyche’s lantern, and then she hears the voice.

“The great voice, which rose up from somewhere close to the light… It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things.”

And then Orual hears Psyche’s weeping. The palace collapses before Orual, and for a moment she believes that she had been right all along. 

But then she is confronted by the god.

And where she expected a brute, she saw beauty; where she expected anger, she was shown passionless rejection; and where she thought her eyes were now being opened, she was confronted with the fact that she had known the truth concerning the god all along. The war within her mind was decisively and irrepressibly answered – the god existed, and he was more glorious, fearsome, and beautiful than Orual could have possibly conceived. And the god pronounces this judgment:

“Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche.”

In this moment, Orual sees herself clearly. She knows the mistake she has made and how irrevocably she has injured her beloved sister. But the clarity of her belief in that moment is soon clouded by her interpretation of the god’s judgment, “You also shall be Psyche.” She thinks that this means the gods will send a punishment on her, and she spends the rest of her life fearing that day.

As queen, Orual prospers and strengthens her kingdom, but as a person, Orual’s fear of punishment and her subsequent shutting out of the gods lead her to subtly misuse and devour those closest to her. It is this fear that eventually causes her to write this book, so that someone could eventually see that she was justified in her hatred against the gods, those gods that laid a snare for her and then let the promise of punishment haunt her for the remainder of her days.

But something happens at the end of Orual’s days that she had not expected: the gods summon her to present her case against them. She is stripped naked before the Divine counsel, and she is given her complaint to read before them. At first her desire is to hide herself, but her protests come out only as her complaint, and she gives full vent to her anger at how the gods have wronged her. But even the myriad of their offenses – disguising themselves and confusing her, demanding Psyche for themselves and seducing her loyalties, taking away the only thing which Orual had ever seen as her own – somehow become a single phrase which Orual repeats over and over. 

“The complaint was the answer… When the time comes to you at which you will be forced to utter the speech which has lain at the centre 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?”

Orual finds herself, once again, in the position of Job, only now God has appeared in the whirlwind. It is a position that every believer will recognize. It is easy to get mad at God when we do not understand what he is doing or why he is doing it, especially if what he’s doing in painful to us. God is not threatened or offended by this anger – he understands us better than we do, and he’s very patient – but he also will not enter into an argument with those who “darken counsel by words without understanding.” What would be the point? The substance of who he is alone is enough to annihilate any argument raised against him. What more answer can he give?

When we are angry with God, and he hasn’t given us much of a response to go off of, it is easy to imagine that he is acting as a judge over us, or even an accuser against us. But in fact, it is often we who are accusing and judging God. And God, being very patient, will let us rattle off our accusations till we’re blue in the face. Because it is only when we have shut up, when we have stopped judging God, that we can begin to see and believe who he truly is. 

So when Orual finally stops accusing the gods, she is then able to see them for who they truly are – the Divine and beautiful nature – and she is reconciled to those whom she misused and devoured in the past, including her beloved Psyche. But these reconciliations are only a periphery event to being reconciled with the gods. In this moment, Orual sees herself and realizes that her ugliness has been redeemed, and she is now as beautiful and perfected as Psyche. The gods had never threatened punishment against her, but had promised her reconciliation.

“I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”

Orual learns the same lesson that Job did, that the goodness and glory of God far surpasses the evil and suffering of this life. He cannot offer us a bullet-point list or flow-chart to explain his wise and kind reasons for what he does or allows to happen –  how would we be able to contain it? Rather, he simply gives us himself, because, beholding him, we cannot deny that he is good. And to know and believe his goodness is enough to satisfy all of the waste places of our lives. 

And if you’re wondering how can we know that God is good, so profoundly good, that knowing him is enough to swallow up forever any suffering that we certainly have endured, I’ll just refer you to points 19 and 20 of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Theses:

“The one who beholds what is invisible of God, through the perception of what is made, is not rightly called a theologian.

But rather the one who perceives what is visible of God, God’s ‘backside’, by beholding the sufferings of the cross.”

My pastor often phrases it this way: Look at the beaten, mangled body of God hanging on the cross, literally dying in order to be reconciled to you, and ask yourself, “Can I trust this God?”

Look on Jesus, and believe.

One thought on “The Redemptive Work of Silence (Till We Have Faces)

  1. I remember reading this book really a long time ago, so especially appreciated your summary as you went along. The end of your post was especially powerful, and speaks to the haunting question of evil–maybe not where it came from, but how, in the end, it will be addressed once and for all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: