Divine Silence in the Face of Human Questioning

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“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer.  Before your face questions die away.”[1]

In considering the reason for man’s existence, the great mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”[2]  Divine silence or hiddenness was something that fascinated C.S. Lewis and it is one of the primary themes of his work, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.  Its main character, Orual, makes her case against the pagan gods of her culture, bringing a similar charge against this divine silence as that of the 20th century logician Bertrand Russell.[3]  “They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it,” she says.[4]  She experienced the same silence that terrified Pascal and confirmed Russell in his atheism.  Yet, Lewis would write in his poem, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”, “From all my thoughts, even my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.”[5]  Surely, this Silence cannot be desirable for a Christian apologist?  Yet, for Lewis there was a silence that was neither terrifying nor challenging to his faith.  In fact, it was confirmation that God was far more personal and concrete than what can be expressed in words.  For Lewis, even Christian doctrines were a lesser speech, these being mere translations from a “language more adequate:  namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection”[6] of Jesus Christ. Till We Have Faces offers an imaginative exploration of this divine quietude in the face of human questioning.

Lewis believed that there were two kinds of silence, one good and the other bad.[7]  The negative form is a function of the fallen spiritual state of mankind, our inability to hear being a result of sin.  According to Paul, this is the veil of sin that God removes when we turn to Him.[8]  Quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus spoke of those that are “ever hearing but never understanding” otherwise they would turn to God for forgiveness.[9]  Silence in its positive form is exemplified by the silent voice of the heavenlies that “goes out into all the earth”[10] from Psalm 19.  There is also a silence that is “not the same as wordlessness, for there is a kind of thinking which occurs without language” and Lewis believed that this formed the best kind of prayer.[11]  Arguably, God also speaks to us inaudibly through His love.  Lewis called this love Charity in The Four Loves, a book that is the propositional counterpart to Till We Have Faces.  This Charity, or agape love, is what God showers down on the garden of our natural loves enabling them to grow and flourish into perfection as we conform our will to His.[12]  Both forms of silence, the negative and the positive, are beautifully portrayed in Orual’s struggle against the god of the Grey Mountain who appears to remain silent in the face of her questions.  At the heart of her deafness is her distorted love and inability to see herself clearly.

In Till We Have Faces, Lewis recasts the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Orual, one of Psyche’s two older sisters.  He sets the tale in a semi-barbaric kingdom called Glome that is centered on the worship of a primitive goddess named Ungit and her son, the god of the Grey Mountain. These are the equivalents of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her son Cupid.  Psyche is the youngest of the three daughters of Glome’s king and is so beautiful in both body and soul that she is worshipped by some of the kingdom’s inhabitants.  Psyche is eventually forced to become a sacrifice to Ungit’s son, the Shadowbrute, as a propitiation for Ungit’s wrath.

Her oldest sister, Orual, has a deep affection for Psyche, raising her like her own child from birth.  When she goes to retrieve Psyche’s remains after the sacrifice, she is shocked to find her alive, thriving, and abounding in happiness in a verdant valley high in the mountains.  Instead of being devoured by the Shadowbrute, Psyche has been taken as his wife and claims to be living in a palace of which Orual catches only a fleeting glimpse before it disappears.  This god visits Psyche under the veil of night, forbidding her to see his face.  Orual, moved by a mixture of love, concern, and jealousy, cruelly manipulates Psyche into disobeying her husband’s orders.  She compels her to light a lamp while he sleeps as a means to prove that he is not a monster.  When this is carried out, Psyche is banished from the valley and the god appears to Orual in a flash of light with the words, “You also shall be Psyche.”[13]  In the silence that followed, she could hear the grief-stricken Psyche weeping in the distance, but is unable to go to her.

Orual is therefore separated from the one person she had described as the source of “all her joys.”[14]  All that remains is anger against the god for not making it clear to her that Psyche was indeed his wife and the palace was real.  Soon after these events, she becomes the Queen of Glome, upon the death of father.  She buries this quarrel against the god, donning a veil, and suppressing the memory for years.  At the end of her days, she takes a journey and happens upon a temple to the young goddess Psyche.  The simple myth surrounding her worship tells the story as if Orual’s motive for forcing her sister to disobey her husband was jealousy.  This enrages the queen, opening wounds deep within her soul. To her, this myth was a lie dropped into men’s minds by the gods to plague her.  She accuses them of drawing a false picture of a “world where [the gods] show themselves clearly and don’t torment men with glimpses, nor unveil to one what they hide from another.”[15]  She sets out to tell the true tale, writing in the Greek she learned from her childhood tutor and father figure named the Fox.  She hoped that her story would find its way to Greece, “where there [was] great freedom of speech even about the gods” so that the wisest among them can determine “whether [her] complaint [was] right or whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer.”[16]  She writes, “[The gods] set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can’t be tested and can only thicken and quicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess-work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain?”  For Orual, only cruelty could explain their silence.

Before examining Lewis’s depiction of this negative silence in Till We Have Faces, it is important to consider Lewis’s views on our ability to examine the Divine, as Orual seeks to do in the first part of the book.  Lewis believed that human conscious thought should be divided into two modes:  Contemplation and Enjoyment.  In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed” he develops this idea with the analogy of standing in a dark toolshed with a beam of light streaming in from a small crack above the door.  In the Contemplation mode of conscious thought, the observer was “looking at the beam” with the knowledge he gained being “abstract, external, impersonal, [and] uninvolved.”[17]­ He was “seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.”[18]  As the observer steps into the light, “looking along the beam” this represents the Enjoyment mode of conscious thought which is “participant, inhabited, personal, [and] committed.”  Lewis would take this idea and apply it to many departments of life, insisting that all questions be considered from both perspectives.[19]  In applying it to the spiritual life, Lewis came to believe that our experience is “either to taste and not know or to know and not taste.”[20] In The Four Loves, he wrote the following,

“The humblest of us, in a state of Grace, can have some ‘knowledge by acquaintence’ (connaître), some ‘tasting,’ of Love Himself; but man even at his highest sanctity and intelligence has no direct ‘knowledge about’ (savoir) the ultimate Being – only analogies.  We cannot see light, though by light we can see things.  Statements about God are extrapolations from the knowledge of other things which only divine illumination enables us to know.”[21]

Recalling Lewis’s remarks about doctrine, one can see that it is looking at God from an “at the beam” perspective. Yet, because the Christian God is a Person, and indeed is tri-Personal, relationship with Him must ultimately occur “along the beam.” He is not an abstraction of our thoughts, but a concrete reality that Lewis believed is more real than what our five senses can perceive or our language can express.

Orual embodies this tension between the abstractions of human intellect taught to her from her beloved Stoic tutor and the more concrete, but mysterious and conflicting worship of Ungit in which her culture was steeped.  “I could not find out whether the doctrines of Glome or the wisdom of Greece were right. I was the child of Glome and the pupil of the Fox; I saw that for years my life had been lived in two halves, never fitted together.”[22]  She was unable to believe, as her sister Psyche believed, that the philosophy of the tutor was not the entire story and that his dismissal of their religious practices as unenlightened barbarism was wrong.  She resented Psyche’s child-like faith in the Shadowbrute, and her belief that all her life “the god of the Mountain” had been “wooing” her. She was threatened by the “unspeakable joy” that silently poured forth from Psyche’s eyes as she spoke of the god.[23]  Orual honestly admitted that this caused a bitterness in her because it revealed an aspect of Psyche that she could not possess.  Orual selfishly wanted Psyche for herself alone, holding her up like the beam in the toolshed, to examine like an object.  To simply consider Psyche from “along the beam” would be to let her go free.  Orual wrote that she “learned how one can hate those one loves.”[24]  This is not the language of selfless love coming from the god of the Grey Mountain.  Orual did not have the ears to hear it at this point, so nothing the god could say would satisfy her. Lewis would write,

“Orual is a (not a symbol but) an instance, a ‘case’, of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run, tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.  What such love particularly cannot stand is to see the beloved passing into a sphere where it cannot follow …”[25]

“Why must holy places be dark places,” Orual asks in accusing tones.[26]  Why must the god of the Grey Mountain hide his face?  The sinner “is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”(1 John 2:11) [27]  The dark and earthy worship of Orual’s culture, though only dimly perceiving truth, was not completely wrong.  That Lewis would have Orual begin wearing a veil after her selfish treatment of Psyche is significant. It was this veil that kept her from perceiving the hypocrisy of her charges against the god, and from understanding his silence.  Who was hiding in darkness now?  Indeed, the silence can be even be seen as a kind of mercy, for nothing but her own humility would quell Orual’s jealousy.

By the grace of the gods, Orual’s Contemplation of her past finally began lifting this veil of sin that had obscured her self-awareness.  In the second part of the book, she admits that “the writing itself” of the accusation would bring about a change.  The “labour of sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext” would follow Orual into her dreams where she was set to sort a “huge, hopeless” pile of seeds, sometimes as herself and sometimes as an ant.[28]  This was a Herculean task, and Orual would soon learn that her ability to sort her own motives was not as infallible as she once thought.  Orual wrote that the gods “used [her] own pen to probe her wound” and expose her sins.  Circumstances would also cause her to see some of her relationships in a new light, learning that her loves were not entirely pure and unselfish.  The shadow of self-doubt this cast on her perception was a gift indeed.  She began to taste and see how others experienced her love and rejection, and she was humbled.

The Priest of Ungit would remark that philosophers like the Fox “demand to see such things [about the gods] clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book.”[29]  Orual would come to see the limits of her own ability to examine herself through language.  If we, as finite beings, cannot understand ourselves and others, how can we begin to understand the thoughts of the infinite?  The quarrel with the god of the mountain that had lain in the deepest part of her soul for years was founded on self-deception.  She would liken her complaint as “only words, words; to be led out to battle against words.”[30]  Orual would come to see that her charge against the gods was really a charge against herself.  In essence, she created the riddle and false questions, and thus caused the silence.  Until she had come to understand and accept this, “why should they hear the babble” of her accusations?  If we are not fit to judge ourselves, how can we sit in judgment of God?  “I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer,” she wrote.  “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”[31]

This is the negative silence, or veil of sin that obscures our vision and deafens our ears with false expectations.  The positive aspect of silence lies outside our attempts to contemplate God and ourselves.  It can only be experienced from “along the beam.”  The Divine presence is to be found in action, not merely words and in Till We Have Faces that action is rooted in Charity and grounded in a recognition of one’s limited understanding.  It is significant to point out these are two things that Psyche exhibited, explaining her ability to interact with the god of the mountain.  After visiting with the Priest before her death, Psyche was able to see that “the Fox hasn’t the whole truth.”  Her selfless love for Orual is beautifully depicted the night before her sacrifice.  In the face of death, Psyche expresses more concern for her sister than herself.  Orual would write, “I realized somewhat slowly that all this time she had been petting and comforting me as if it were I who was the child and the victim.”[32]  As the conversation proceeded, it became clear to Orual that Psyche’s love was of a different sort than hers and this realization, “even in the midst of the great anguish, made its own little eddy of pain” for her.[33]  This is the gulf that began to separate the two sisters and ignite Orual’s jealousy.  Later, Orual wrote that her “world had broken into pieces” and she and her sister “were not in the same piece.”[34]  Psyche’s natural loves were being “taken up into [and] made the tuned and obedient instrument of” this god of love.[35]

It is no surprise that Lewis would create a character that struggled to reconcile two very different views of the Divine – the detached, philosopher god of the tutor and the dark, earthy gods of the Priest.  Orual’s dilemma sounds like something Lewis himself wrote in his autobiography Surprised By Joy: “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’”  Lewis was very much a product of our age where modernism has all but killed our confidence in the supernatural.  As with Orual, it could be said that Lewis’s life was spent reconciling the two parts of his experience.  Lewis would take this sensitivity towards “glib and shallow rationalism” into his Christianity and resists its encroachment upon his own work as an apologist.

Lewis did not dismiss, but understood the importance of doctrine. Yet, he was also sensitive to the fact that Christianity is more than doctrines.  In Mere Christianity, he would write that “theology is like a map … based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God.”[36]  We will not get the eternal life that He offers us from “flowers or music.”  But, “neither will [we] get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea.”[37]  Doctrines and theology provide a guide for us, as a map does for the sailor.  Life is a stormy sea, indeed, so this map is necessary.  But, we must never forget that it is only a map.  When we examine it, we are like Lewis’s toolshed observer looking “at the beam” and Orual writing her book.  We must take with us the knowledge we learn from the map as we look “along the beam” of our faith.  We take the words of our doctrine as only a dim reflection of the Living Word, Who is Himself the answer to our questions.

Lewis wrote that “the human intellect is incurably abstract.”[38] In his “Apologist’s Evening Prayer”, Lewis prays for “fair Silence” to rescue him from this tendency to think of God in terms of abstract arguments.[39]   Our culture is either highly suspicious of the kind of experiential knowledge one gains from “looking along the beam” or is so accepting of all views that they dissolve into the obscurity of subjective experience. It is hard not to reflect these tendencies as apologists when we present our arguments.  But this we must resist.  The language of God is a lived language proceeding forth from the living, dying, and rising Word made flesh.  And that language is best expressed when our arguments are accompanied by genuine Charity.  Like Psyche, we must allow our natural loves to be “taken up into [and] made the tuned and obedient instrument[s] of, Love Himself.”[40]  Lewis notes that this “total and secure transformation of [our] natural love into a mode of Charity is a work so difficult that perhaps no fallen man has ever come within sight of doing it perfectly.”[41]  Let us remember, though, the clanging cymbals of Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians.  He writes that prophecies, wisdom, and tongues, as important as they are, will be all silenced one day.  What remains will be inaudible, but more tangible and concrete: “faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is Love.”[42]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985), 308.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, (London:  Penguin books, 1995), 66.

[3] Bertrand Russell is said to have responded with the following when asked what he would say to God if it turned out that He existed: “God, you gave us insufficient evidence.”  R. Perkins, “Was Bertrand Russell An Atheist or Was He Really an Agnostic?”, Bertrand Russell Society Archives, 2012, accessed April 30, 2016, http://bertrandrussell.org/archives/BRSpapers/2012/agnostic.php.

[4] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

[5] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 222.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters, ed. Walter Hooper, (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000), 975.

[7] Ward, Planet Narnia, 21.

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV, “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

[9] Mathew 13:14, NIV, “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’”

[10] Psalm 19:4, NIV.

[11] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, 160.

[12] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991), 117.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 174.

[14] Ibid., 20.

[15] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 244.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] Ward, Planet Narnia, 17.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact”, (New York: Inspirational Press), 342.

[21] Lewis, The Four Loves, 126.

[22] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 151.

[23] Ibid., 123.

[24] Ibid., 127.

[25] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1996), 249.

[26] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

[27] 1 John 2:11, ESV.

[28] Ibid., 256.

[29] Ibid., 50.

[30] Ibid., 308.

[31] Ibid., 294.

[32] Ibid., 67.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 120.

[35] Lewis, The Four Loves, 134.

[36] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York:  Touchstone, 1996), 156.

[37] Ibid., 137.

[38] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 342.

[39] Ward, Planet Narnia, 222.

[40] Lewis, The Four Loves, 134.

[41] Ibid.

[42] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.

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