Beholding God or How People Change

The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire. 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. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. 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. The pillars on the far side of the pool flushed with his approach. I cast down my eyes.” C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Looking back over my posts over the last couple of months, it’s clear to me that I’ve really spent the summer thinking about one question—What does it mean to encounter the divine?  Till We Have Faces is in many ways a book length answer to that question. And in reading the novel, I realized that encountering God can never be an end in itself. Rather, it is about transformation, or as we Christians call it, sanctification. In fact, as Christians, our own ongoing transformation actually depends on our beholding God.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

In Exodus when Moses asked to gaze on the glory of the Lord, simply seeing the passing glory of the Lord made his face shine with a resplendent glory so radiant that the people of Israel asked him to wear a veil. And in reflecting on that encounter in light of Christ, Paul makes an astonishing claim–our relation to God through Christ is even greater than Moses’ because we come to God with unveiled faces by the power of the Spirit, and in beholding him we become like him. In Christ we are able to gaze on God, a reality that sparkles and cuts like a diamond because to gaze on the divine is to encounter both terror and beauty, both dread and joy.

Terror and dread because who we are and what we desire is finally exposed. Just as Orual is finally able to see how sickly her love for Psyche is in the presence of the divine, we too are exposed, laid bare, disintegrated in God’s presence. One reason I believe people don’t really seek God, don’t really read their Bibles or pray with any real earnestness is because deep down they know to do so is to risk exposure, to have their desires revealed as petty, to have their loves exposed as anemic. The sound of the Lord comes to the garden like a storm, and we hide ourselves because we know that we are naked.

But it is not just terror and dread. It is beauty and joy too. God is not simply beautiful—he is the source of beauty. As Augustine says, God is, “The beauty of all things beautiful.” This means that the rush of joy we experience in the presence of earthly beauty, in faces and sunsets, in symphonies and meals, in laughter and mountains, finds its source and fullness in the face of God. To gaze on him is to experience the fullness of beauty which is itself the fullness of joy. But it is more than that. To gaze on God is to be realigned with and by the source of beauty itself, a beauty that actually changes us into the fullness of beauty itself-the face of Christ.

Love and Beauty in Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s imaginative reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is a meditation on the nature of beauty and ugliness and of love and hate, and because gods and goddesses encounter men and women throughout, it is also a novel about the nature of the divine, of revelation and epiphany. Told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister, Orual, as she wrestles with the loss of Psyche, it is a beautifully complex and moving novel, and Lewis considered it his most accomplished work of fiction. I don’t want to give much of the plot away because I hope that you will read the novel for yourself. But I do want to reflect on some of the novel’s themes as a way of processing some of the thoughts from the previous posts on epiphany and the nature of revelation. In this post I want to look at the intertwined themes of beauty and love in the novel.

Orual is the first-born daughter of the King of Glome, a violent madman who desires nothing more than to sire a son. But his second marriage only produces a third daughter, Psyche, an exceptionally beautiful child, whom Orual takes under her care. But Orual’s love for Psyche is a devouring sort of love, an all-consuming obsession, even from the beginning. She alone wants to possess Psyche and her affections.  And this devotion is perhaps primarily motivated by Psyche’s beauty, which Orual describes as one might describe a god’s, saying, “Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work.” Indeed, the subjects of Glome are convinced that Psyche must be a goddess. Because she is ugly herself, Orual, it seems, wants to become beautiful by being in Psyche’s presence. As Orual says, “She made beauty all around her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When picked up a toad—she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes—the toad became beautiful.” Orual is the toad in a certain sense. She desires to become beautiful, to have a face, by possessing Psyche for herself, and as the novel progresses this hunger only makes her more ugly.

Later in the novel, Psyche is offered as an appeasing sacrifice to the Mountain Brute.  After the sacrifice Orual decides to go and gather the remains of her sister, only to find that Psyche is still alive. As she relates what has happened to her, Psyche believes she has married the god of the Mountain, who she believes is no brute at all, while Orual believes that this so-called husband who refuses to show his face is either the mountain-brute or an opportunistic mountain dweller who has tricked her. Because Orual cannot believe Psyche’s happiness is real, she demands that Psyche expose the face of her husband. And as Orual makes these demands, Psyche realizes that Orual’s consuming, possessive love is a kind of hate, saying, “You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred.”

In other words, Orual’s ugliness is not primarily physical. Rather her devouring love for Psyche makes her ugly. Psyche by contrast is not just physically beautiful—her love is beautiful as well. She doesn’t wish to go against her husband’s wishes because she trusts him. Earlier in the novel she goes among the plagued people because they believe her touch can heal. She is willing to give of herself in hopes of helping others. Love and beauty are contrasted with hate and ugliness, and so the novel, read a certain way, is a study in sanctification, in Orual’s love becoming more beautiful, of her gaining a face. So in the next post, we will turn to the themes of faces and epiphany.

Jonathan Franzen and the Danger of Seeing Through Everything

Since my last post, I’ve still been reflecting on the nature of epiphany in contemporary literature, particularly in the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Despite my reservations about the real possibility of actual epiphanies in novels like Franzen’s, I haven’t read a recent novel that better captured the world as it is right now. Franzen’s stated purpose as a writer is too write novels that are accessible to as many people as possible but that still grapple with big ideas (see his essay “Mr. Difficult” in How to Be Alone).

One way he accomplishes this is with a liquid and inviting prose style that shows you his literary world without drawing much attention to itself. His prose is transparent. But transparency characterizes more than his prose style—it also describes how he views the world. He wants to see to the heart of things, and as a very good novelist, his gift as a cultural observer is in making things transparent. Much of the novel occurs post 9/11, so thematically the novel grapples with rise and fall of the political topography resulting from that tragedy. But in his quest for  transparency, he has just as much venom for environmentally motivated liberalism as he does for war profiteering neo-cons. No one, it seems, is immune from his critical eye.

For example, Franzen uses the occasion of a Bright Eyes concert, an event he describes as being “almost religious in its collective seriousness,” to explore generational attitudes toward music. And with nothing more than a couple of lines he is able to conclude some fundamental things about my generation:  “They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming.” In a flash all my earnest allegiance to indie music was exposed for what it often is—a highly selective and somewhat pretentious kind of consumption. And the novel is full of these barbs. But the prose is so crisp and the characters so compelling, that you are willing to risk his unrelenting gaze.

The benefit, of course, of seeing through everything is that not much is lost on you, and Franzen has an amazing ability to skewer hypocrisy and to layer everything in irony. In reading the novel though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of C. S. Lewis’s observation that to see through everything is to ultimately see nothing:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles…If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

So after reading a book that saw through everything, and after thinking about epiphanies, I wanted to read a book that was undergirded with a sense of the divine. It is the divine that not only makes real epiphany possible, but that also ensures there is something more than total transparency. With that in mind, I decided to reread Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, which retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche through the eyes if Psyche’s sister. It is a novel about encountering the divine, about epiphanies in the original sense of the word. And in reading it I realized the main character and narrator, Orual, is a lot like Franzen. She can often see through things and describe things as they are, but in the end, her willful blindness to see what is actually there leads to her undoing. Over the next few posts, I want to explore the nature of epiphany in Till We Have Faces.