Although I was raised on The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Greek legend of Cupid and Psyche, will always be my favorite of his fiction writings. As I have re-read this book year after year, I’m struck by the theme of redemptive confession mirroring the sacrament of Reconciliation. In a sense, the entire novel is the confession of the protagonist Orual, older sister to Psyche. Through her confession, she journeys from self-deceit to true contrition, does penance, and is absolved. But to reach redemption, she must own her failures, and she will need supernatural grace to do so.
An unattractive, motherless daughter with a cruel father, the young Princess Orual loves her beautiful younger sister Psyche. When famine strikes the kingdom of Glome, the priest of Ungit (the Glomish Aphrodite) calls for Psyche to be sacrificed to the god of the Grey Mountain, Ungit’s son. When Orual makes a journey to the mountain, intending to bury Psyche’s bones, she discovers Psyche herself, healthier and more beautiful than ever. Psyche claims that the god is her bridegroom, and they live in a sumptuous palace that Orual cannot see. Orual, partly motivated by disbelief and partly by a desire to draw Psyche away from her lover, manipulates Psyche into disobeying her husband. Psyche is exiled and heartbroken, and Orual must return to Glome alone with the knowledge that she has destroyed her sister’s happiness. Convinced she is a victim that the gods have unjustly robbed of all joy, it takes Orual the journey of her whole life to gain the self-knowledge to see her own culpability in her fate and Psyche’s.
In the ancient Greek legend that Till We Have Faces is drawn from, Psyche’s older sisters are jealous that she has the good fortune to wed a god. But in Lewis’s retelling, Orual is not jealous of Psyche; she is jealous of the god of the Grey Mountain. She is jealous for Psyche’s love. But she lacks the self-awareness to understand the selfishness fueling her actions. Orual’s concealment of her true self is symbolized by the veil she begins wearing after Psyche’s exile. Mocked and insulted as ugly by her father since her birth, covering her face is not merely about self-consciousness over her physical appearance. The veil represents the barrier between Orual and the rest of the world. Even her closest confidants, the Fox, her former tutor, and Bardia, the leader of her military when she succeeds her father as ruler, do not see her face and her persona, as the Veiled Queen even hides Orual from herself. Believing herself to be a blameless victim cursed with loneliness and ugliness by the gods, she fails to see the disfigurement of her soul.
In her old age, Orual writes an account of her complaint against the cruelty of the gods when they took Psyche from her. “I could set down the truth,” she muses. “What had never perhaps been done in the world before should be done now. The case against [the gods] should be written.” After her last pen stroke, she receives no answer from the gods. During this silence, her military counselor, Bardia, dies, made weak by decades of overwork. It is Bardia’s wife, Ansit, who first shows Orual her own selfishness, placing the culpability for Bardia’s death in the queen’s hands. Orual is shocked at what she hears but realizes that Ansit speaks the truth when she says, “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.” This conversation begins a transformation. After Ansit’s painful words, Orual explains, in a line reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Those divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work. . . . Anger wearies itself out and truth comes in. For it was all true—truer than Ansit could know.” This painful truth is salvific.
In Orual’s encounter with Ansit, the queen rips off her veil and shows Ansit her face—something she has not done before another human being for decades. But it is Ansit who removes the true veil covering Orual by confronting Orual with her crimes. When the queen was young, her father dragged her by the hair to show her the ugliness of her reflection in a prized mirror. Ansit’s honest truth once again forces Orual to see clearly the ugliness of her sin. She is forced to overcome the blindness of self-deceit, to see herself undistorted.
The confessional requires our vulnerability. We can have no veils between ourselves and God, and he himself has torn the veil of the temple that might separate us. To examine our conscience with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we can see ourselves with the help of God’s divine mirror. Like every Christian’s journey, Orual’s journey to contrition requires assistance that transcends mortal means. She is given a vision in which her late father reveals her reflection in a mirror. When she looks into the glass, she sees the face of the greedy Glomish goddess Ungit. The vision reveals something true about her disfigured soul. “It is I who was Ungit,” she confesses. “That ruinous face was mine. I was that . . . all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web—I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men’s stolen lives.”
While this reflection revealing her sin orients Orual toward contrition, it takes an encounter with the gods themselves to help her truly confess. In another vision, Orual has the opportunity to address the gods in person to air her grievances against them. But she does not get to read the book against the gods that she composed. Instead, different words flow from her mouth, and the words she’s compelled to speak reveal the truth to her. Like a little girl being called before her parents to explain a childish misdeed, the truth about what she should have done becomes clear in the moment of this encounter. Instead of being tricked into betraying Psyche, Orual realizes for the first time that she hated Psyche for being happy without her and that she greedily desired all of Psyche’s love for herself alone. Orual confesses to the gods and to herself that she would rather have seen Psyche dead than happy with the god of the Grey Mountain.
This experience reveals to her that “the complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. . . . 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?” Her honest confession is the answer she craved. She misunderstood the gods because she did not know herself until they gave her the grace to see.
As a convert, I am often asked by non-Catholic friends what it’s like to go to Confession. I always emphasize the powerful experience of speaking my sins out loud. My excuses, rationalizations, and self-deception evaporate when I speak the words of what I am guilty of before God. While I may desire contrition before walking inside the confessional, sorrow and understanding of what I have done come to the surface as I physically speak the words. Before becoming Catholic, I might have felt guilty about things I had done, but that guilt never could be truly addressed and overcome. The sacrament of Reconciliation not only makes it possible to accept the reality of my sin; confession offers the gift of leaving the shame in the confessional. Sin has been spoken, it has been faced—and it has been met with mercy and washed away by the blood of Christ.
When Orual reflects on her vision, she muses, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” And how can we be cleansed of the sins we cannot acknowledge? We may try to uncover our “faces” inch by inch and day by day, but like Eustace Scrubb in one of C.S. Lewis’ other stories, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we cannot remove the scales of sin on our own but only through the mercy of God, in order that one day we can truly meet him “face to face.” No flimsy veil of self-deceit can protect us from the power of that mercy. The grace is there, waiting for us. Thanks be to God.
The next book choice for the Word on Fire book club (Club 451) is Till We Have Faces, and it will begin on Tuesday, June 15. Join in by joining the Word on Fire Institute!