Till We Have Faces (stays with me always)

01 June 2012


"I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once." CS Lewis

I've read Pride & Prejudice no fewer than five times, The Red Tent three or four times, and this week I finished Till We Have Faces for the third time.

I first read this book in college, passed down to me by husband who took a class called "Images of Christ in the Novel." When we first met, we bonded over our mutual love of Lewis and, as he was further ahead of me in school, he would slip me obscure(-to-me) titles on the side, books beyond Narnia and mostly nonfiction.

"Here, I think you'll like this," he would say.

The Great Divorce pricked my heart, and Screwtape Letters shown a light in the darkness, the first half of Surprised by Joy I've reread half a dozen times (for the life of me I cannot get to the end of it!), and Mere Christianity I was content in him having read it, so I didn't need to. But Till We Have Faces has stayed with me, on my nightstand always, with Matt's name on the inside and his post office box number written in pencil below. It is torn and taped and I won't part with it. Ever.

This book, I don't know how to describe it. It is otherwordly and dark. It is beautiful and aching. It is confusing and so hard to grasp, that when I read it I feel like I'm trying to catch up and get a glimpse of its truth. When I get to the end and the narrative stops so short I catch my breath, I want to cry because I know there must be more. Orual will tell me the secret. But she doesn't and I go back and reread, searching for the answer. 

I wish I could put my finger on it, but I think I'm actually afraid to. The truth is that I am Orual and her sin looks to me as natual as any other. Jealousy masquerading as love. Pride masquerading as sacrifice. Self-hate masquerading as humility. And the gods, she rakes questions and accusations at them, ones I know in my heart but dare not write down or utter in prayer.
“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what 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 centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words.” 
I, too, am jealous of Psyche, for she knows the secret and the answer. She is content with a god she cannot see, an otherworldly home she is destined for.
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” 
The men in Orual's life, within the Kingdom and the temple, trade theories and suggestions, and I am just as torn by them as Orual is. Who to believe, who has the answer? Why the riddle, and why can I not figure it? Why is there so much mystery, why all the mysticism, where can I find the cut and dry truth?

We want black and white, when everything is shrouded in grey. And when we finally see the answer, it may be too late.
"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?"
Oh, this book. Nearly 15 years later and I'm still wrecked by it, learning from it, undone by its strange story. I'm sure I'll read it again, soon... closer to the truth, the dark beauty and mystery of love.


  1. Beautiful thoughts. I first read this Thanksgiving of my senior year in high school. I've read it once a year, since. That's about 14 times, and I never tire of it. Nice to find someone else who enjoys Jack's lesser known treasures.

  2. P.S. My original copy isn't taped yet. But, I bought a second copy to use now, so my first one will stay intact!

  3. The only copy I managed to read was a borrowed photocopy around 20 years ago. This book was rare in this country! (and then it got stolen when I left it for the owner to retrieve inside a desk). It's still not available in bookstores here but I suppose I should get a copy online.