Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Till We Have Faces

“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean… ‘to say the very thing you really mean…that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years…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?”

That passage is part of the climax in C.S. Lewis’ retelling, in novel form, of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, entitled Till We Have Faces. I’d like to reflect on that for a moment. The speaker in that passage was the old Queen Orual, who finally discovered, after making her complaint to the gods (read: God), that she really had no grounds for complaint because her life was a lie and she never really even knew herself, so her perception of gods and other people was skewed as well. She lost everyone she ever loved, especially her younger sister Psyche (which is Greek for "soul"; reflect on that), but she discovered in the end that her “love” was selfish, possessive, bitter, and unforgiving.

When she became queen because of her harsh father’s death, she constantly wore a veil over her face, because she was quite unattractive, and the veil served to enhance her mystery and power. But as she hid her lack of physical beauty from the world, she also hid her true self from her own awareness. Others could see how she used rather than loved people, but this inner truth was veiled for her. Finally, in a vision in which she stood before the gods to be judged, the veil was taken off her face, and her clothes were removed as well. Standing naked before the multitude, she was required to speak, and was convicted by her own words, hearing them almost as if another were speaking. Her inner self was exposed along with the outer.

People tend to wear masks or veils of one sort or another, personas or postures they adopt in order to hide what they don’t want to be seen or known, giving the illusion that they are wiser, more powerful, or simply more “together” than they really are. But they end up deceiving themselves as well as others (and perhaps they aren’t really even deceiving the others).

We may say what we think we mean, but until we discover and begin to live the profound meaning of our life, our indignant complaints and self-justifications are so much babble that isn’t worth listening to. We might as well be wearing a veil, for our true face is not being shown. Until we arrive at genuine self-knowledge (which is nothing like self-absorbed introspection or other forms of narcissism), we cannot have a genuine dialog with God: how can we meet him face to face if we don’t yet have a face? God sees through all veils, all defenses and self-deceptions, but He cannot do a whole lot for us until we are ready to be unmasked.

Repentance and honest examination of conscience are the beginnings of self-knowledge, of finding our true face, finding the “word” within us that goes deeper than the daily babble and expresses the truth of who we are, i.e., who God has made us to be, and what we have done with his gift.

We had better learn now how to stand naked (figuratively) before God on a daily basis, because we will have to stand naked (literally) before his awesome judgment seat. We also have to learn how to remove the veils with which we cover our faces before other people, because the same veil hides our true self from ourselves. Allow yourself to be unmasked; get more comfortable with being “uncovered.” The truth will always come out in the end, so why not begin to live it now? You may discover that you don’t want to veil the real you after all. You may discover within you the face of Christ, who alone can refashion all your pain and shame and can speak that defining word of grace and love within you—and thus make you able to live a life of integrity and truth in this world.

God is waiting till we have faces, till we stop hiding behind masks and veils, till it’s OK to be naked before Him. Then judgment day will not be the painful stripping of the self-deceived, but rather the homecoming of the free.