On Having Faces
Recently, I received a letter, post-marked Lima, from a young Peruvian student who had attended Georgetown. She tells me that she has just finished reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a book that I recommend to anyone who will listen. She writes:
One of my favorite parts is when she [Orual, Psyche’s older sister and heroine of the novel] goes to visit Bardia’s wife after his death. She [Orual] accuses the Queen of working Bardia to death. The Queen asks: ‘Why then did you not say anything?’ She would not have worked Bardia so hard. But ‘what is a woman to a soldier at the end of the day?’ At that point Orual knew how much the Queen loved Bardia. Working for the Queen and being a soldier was what he really wanted.
As a philosopher and warrior herself, Orual had missed this notion that there were things beyond politics and public affairs that men really wanted and worked for.
The passage in Till We Have Faces that is most memorable to me comes near the end of the novel—a wrenching novel in many ways. The wise philosopher figure, the Fox, is asked by Orual: “Is not the world created in justice then?” He answers her, as I recall, “No, my dear, and thank God that it isn’t.” Though it is not without justice, the world, as Aquinas says, “is created in mercy.” Plato had worried about its being created in injustice. John Paul II said that the divine mercy would save and forgive all that could be saved and forgiven. What cannot be saved or forgiven, thus, is only a will that refuses be saved or forgiven.
Till We Have Faces—someone remarked, probably Lewis himself, that God is responsible for our faces till we are about forty, but after that we are responsible for our own faces. I think of the faces of the now-old men and women whom I also knew as children, as young adults, or in middle age. They are the same faces; yet, if we look carefully, the story of their lives is now etched on them.
It is through our eyes that our souls are said to be open to others. Not a few sentimental songs speak of looking lovingly into the eyes of the beloved. Yet, Walker Percy wondered, in Lost in the Cosmos: “Why is it that we cannot gaze into the eyes of another for more than a few seconds without looking away?” I have often thought some connection existed between this observation and the oft-mentioned hope in Scripture of seeing God “face-to-face.” Surely no “few second” rule exists here!
The human male and female are the only mortal beings who make love face to face. And here “face” does not mean just another face but a “this” face and no other. We do not exist first as abstractions then as Mary and Frank. We are first Susan and John, from whose individual reality we draw the abstraction “man.”
The human face has become a familiar topic in some corners of modern philosophy. Martin Buber spoke of it, as did Emmanuel Lévinas and Karol Wojtyla. Both the Old and New Testaments speak of seeking the face of God, of knowing God “face to face.” If God is pure Spirit, why would the Bible speak of seeking the face of God? Indeed, it speaks not only of seeking the face of God, but of God seeking our face, “face to face.”
Evidently, it is one thing for God to “know” us as creator, but another thing for God to know each of us as “friends.” In the logic of “face to face,” we already have intimations of incarnation. God does not want us to be gods or angels or other beings, but what we are.
Plato said that the universe was not complete unless, within it, existed a knowing creature that was not God. Why would this capacity exist? If God created a knowable universe in which no creature existed that could know it, it would be something of an exercise in futility. God can know the universe without going to the trouble to create it. God did not first learn of the universe by first consulting it. Why go to the trouble? So that there be put into the universe an adventure, the adventure of coming to know what is there, of knowing what is.
It also said of man and woman, lovers bound in marriage, that they quickly experience the fact that something exists in their love which, while including them, is beyond them. Children exist not as products of parents’ own creation but as gifts to be cherished. The innocent faces of children become in time the faces of old men and women on which the record of their choices is sketched. It is the face we take to death that first sees the Lord, from whose inner life we received, as a gift, our face in the first place.
Thus, the universe is complete not merely when some being within it knows it, but when that knower is also known face to face. Only when we know and are known in return will we finally “have faces,” have the faces that we are given and the faces, the same faces, that we have chosen for ourselves by the way we have lived. This is the face on which God’s gaze finally dwells.
Posted: January 26, 2014 in On Letters and Essays.
Volume 20, Number 2 (Winter 1980)