“Take the veil from our faces, Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.” Walter Smith
Orual has ascended the mountain and from the other side of a river sees her sister’s lamp lighting the face of her husband. It is then a great terror comes on her. It would have been better if her friend Bardia, with his frightened and superstitious religion, were right and she saw a monster of some sort who had made her sister Psyche a bride. It would have been better if her Greek advisor, with his learned and non-interfering religion, were right and Psyche were the plaything of a criminal. But Psyche’s lover is neither and now she faces exile from love and the unspeakable beauty whom she wed.
In CS Lewis’ retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche (Till We Have Faces) a Greek myth has been baptized into Christianity and we are challenged on one account to see our faith as neither superstition or scholarship, but we are challenged more to know we do not yet “see face to face” and amidst life’s mortal ills, it is hard to see God in a way that is not hidden.
Psyche faces her exile and departs from Cupid in tears and Cupid tells Orual she must be Psyche. Not yet understanding what this means, Orual assumes she too is to be punished by the gods.
It is a not a difficult task to take a pagan story and bend it to Christianity as the feeling of exile is not unique to any one philosophy or religion and neither is questioning the fairness of the divine. What Lewis does is different; he takes on that greater task of how exile is unique for the Christian and that an exile in this world is not where the greatest part of the story is found.
Psyche departs in tears knowing she is banished to the world, but her tears are not on account of her exile. Psyche knows Cupid’s heart and understands it is torn in half.
In a circle of true believers, those who know the holy can be present in this world and know some places have to be believed before they are seen, we listen to the words of one who shares Lewis’ Anglican faith. I hear with the ears of one who has spent most of his life in a tradition that makes much of God’s hiddenness even as I’ve spent most of those years surrounded by Catholic ideas of beauty and life.
Father holds up an image familiar to us in that circle and explains it in a way that I’ve only heard once before. I’m familiar with this symbol…..a heart that contains a cross….only it does not contain the cross. The cross has torn the heart in half. The symbol which has come to represent us is understood as the merciful heart, but it is also a broken one….broken on account of our exile.
Psyche cries out to Orual, “can you not see and taste it?’ Orual tells Psyche to stop being a child for there is no palace she dwells in and the wine and rich pastry she drinks and eats is water and wild berries. Orual continues to speak to us today. Stop this childishness she says….it is not the body and blood of the divine, but a stale wafer and sip of poorly fermented wine you consume. Our lives are only moments she tells us and if there is a God, he is either disinterested or to be feared. We do not inhabit palaces, there never was a Garden to which we will one day return, our bodies are broken, and our lives short and brutal. If she were in that circle yesterday, she would have asked “what is the point?” She is right of course. Our lives are small, but she misses the greater thing. Hidden in these small lives is that which is too radiant to fully know. When Orual does see this, she is terrified believing perhaps exile is better than such a great presence.
Who can stand in that holy presence? German theologian Rudolf Otto asked the same question. He called this the experience of the numinous. And he knew it is one thing to be briefly awed and another to always be there. Our exile does not allow for this. Otto knew this as did the thinkers he influenced including Lewis among others. The most we could hope for is a glimpse of that which is most holy and unchanging, that which we search for and see for only finite moments. Having seen it as Orual had, we then come to that place of knowing a beauty too great to behold for more than an instant and we come to an inconsolable longing. It is a glimpse of life had not only for brief moments, but also as it will be in the fullness of time. That we are given even momentary views of this is only because exile is not the place we are called to stay in. There is a home for us that pales our lives here. We see glimpses of it, but we do not own it fully. Yet it his will that we do and one day we will for his heart has been torn on our account that our exile should end. Until that day we will have our glimpses of that wonder which is too much for us to bear.
Though I’ve not finished the work by Lewis, I do know enough of the myth to know Orual is made right with the gods. It happened because Psyche lit her lamp and light was shone on the face of the divine. For this Psyche undergoes exile and trials no mortal could actually achieve. The theology that underlies this for Lewis is the belief in God’s beauty and goodness that is too great a thing for any of us to see for anything more than brief moments until the time comes when will see it always. Just as at the Eucharist when we encounter that which is very real yet is only a “foretaste,” so too are those moments we see face to face. Our exile is not over, but the way out is in sight. Our inconsolable longing for our home remains, but the victory that brings us there has been accomplished because of his broken heart and the spilling of his precious blood.
A lamp has been lit and we glimpse pass the glass dimly to see face to face. It shines as a light that darkness has sought to overcome, but cannot. It burns dimly now as a lamp that lights our way through exile where we view God too often hidden. But very soon it will burn more brightly still in the city of God where there is no darkness and where we will see him face to face gifted always to behold his splendor.
Image: Luca Giurdano’s Psyche Honored by the People.