Tuesday, September 25, 2007

C.S. Lewis Book Club

Almost immediately after posting about C.S. Lewis' novel, Till We Have Faces, I learned of a new book club centered around the writings of Lewis.

The group, led by Erik and Selena Grendahl, will meet in the Library at Oak Hills Church at 11 AM every other Sunday, beginning Sept. 30. I'm quite certain attending Oak Hills is not a requisite for participating.

Although I can't attend the meetings, this sounds like a great opportunity for stimulating reading, thought and conversation of the best and most delightful variety.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Till We Have Faces

I recently reread C.S. Lewis' novel, Till We Have Faces. This has long been my favorite Lewis-work (and that is truly saying something). Every time I read it I'm struck by the incredible skill and insight he had to have to draw the main character of this novel and tell her story. This time, I was more aware than ever of how this story is the story of a spiritual formation.

I'm going to talk about the novel's plot and characters below... so, if you are the type who believes a story is spoiled if you know what happens, don't read on!

The novel is a retelling of the classic Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. (Which if I understand anything...is the story of the God of Love and the Human Soul.......)

In the myth, Psyche (one of three sisters) is a girl so beautiful and lovely that the goddess Venus is jealous of her. For this reason, her father is forced to sacrifice her on a mountain. There Venus' son, Cupid, takes her as his bride, and keeps her in a secret castle. They live in total bliss, with only one strange caveat--she is forbidden to look upon his face. In the myth, the two sisters come to visit Pscyhe, and they become so jealous of her castle and her life that they convince her she really must see her husband's face. So, foolishly, Psyche lights a lamp the next night. The ravishing beauty of her lover is revealed, but a drop of lamp oil awakes him, and Psyche is forced into a long and perilous exile.

C.S. Lewis retells this story from the point of view of the oldest sister, an ugly but earnest girl named Orual. His greatest departure from the original is to make Psyche's castle invisible to Orual, which changes the entire story. For now Orual's dilemma and the choices she makes become much more ambivalent and fraught, and much more like our own dilemmas and choices.
And her story sounds very much like our own stories.

The book is her telling of her own story. The first two thirds are her first version, and in it she rails against the misery and the lovelessness and loneliness she has felt after the loss of her beloved sister, Psyche. She shakes her fist at the gods and argues her case against them. But in the second version, her story changes. She says she must write this second book because "I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it."

Let this be a warning to anyone who sets to write honestly:

"What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down...passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering.".....

Throughout this second version, she comes to terms with who she really is and what has truly motivated her choices and created her life. The awareness, the consciousness is incredibly painful (especially for any honest reader). As I read it, I feel like I'm walking through the story of my own spiritual formation, although I haven't gotten that far in understanding and faith.

For one example, she comes to such a profound understanding about the demanding, soul-sucking possessivenes that she had called love... I can imagine this is what it would be like for me to truly lose some of my own strongest attachments. She says:

"when the craving went [for a certain man she had been obsessed with] nearly all that I called myself went with it. It was as if my whole soul had been one tooth and now that tooth was drawn. I was a gap."

There are many other incredible passages in the book. I was floored again and again, and my dream is to have a discussion group on this book someday. But the absolute best lines for me are the ones from which the title is taken.

All her adult life, the ugly Orual has been veiled. This has protected her and given her a kind of mysterious strength, for others' fear her and cannot know her. She also veils and walls off her true self. She veils herself in her work and busy-ness. But everything changes when she finally makes her complaint to the gods and actually hears what she's been saying all her life.

She says hearing her own complaint was all the answer she needed from the gods. "To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean."

"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center 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 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 we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"

This is an incredible question. One I could ponder and pray over for a long time. But the wonderful news is that Orual and Psyche's stories end (like our own stories shall) with something far better than sheer justice and truth.

I hope some of you will read it for yourselves. And I'd love to know if and how Orual's story resonates with you.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Fear and Wonder

This weekend Pastor David Holcomb preached about "Wonder." He made the marvelous point that the opposite of wonder is boredom. He said that our cultural norm is boredom and its offspring-- mindless entertainment. And he suggested these are symptoms of practical atheism and materialism, and a soul that is asleep.

To the extent that I have moved from boredom to wonder (and this movement has only been a tiny start, and some days far less of a start than others), I have recognized boredom being replaced by a new feeling I haven't made peace with--a feeling of near paralyzing fear.

I'm not the only one. Again and again, when I talk to people about making art, or writing, or just daring to really come alive (and thus live in wonder), they speak to me about fears. But this is not only in my little corner of the world; when I read about making art or about facing the soul, the same words also come up over and over: "anxiousness, fear, anxiety, dread."

I hear many explanations for this creeping anxiety and fear: our profound insecurities, a fear of being misunderstood, fear of judgements from ourselves and from others, fear of releasing emotions long buried, fear of not being "Christian enough," fear of wasting our time, even fear of our own pride if we acheive some status through our art.

I can relate to every one of these fears and more. They plague me. They oppress me. And I think they are each worth exploring--in conversations, in books, and on this blog. But as I listened to Dave's sermon, I had a different thought.

It was a little idea....and my fear is it's a crazy idea...completely off-base...but let me just explore it with you. My thought was, "Of course we're afraid. Fear is the most natural response for souls on the cusp of wonder."

Think about it. Every time someone in the Bible encounters a forceful taste of the wonder of God's Kingdom...a visit by angels, a miracle of Jesus, a vision of God's glory... the immediate, uncontrolled, unmeditated response is terror.

I think this is because in a moment of wonder comes the recognition that the universe is not what I thought it was. It's bigger---more beautiful, more terrible, more real, more alive, more wild than I will ever comprehend, and certainly beyond anything I can ever hope to control. And so my life is not what I thought. All that I based my life on, subconciously and consciously, has shifted. It's an earthquake, of sorts.

So, here's my little idea:

We all feel this profound insecurity about making art. But behind this insecurity, perhaps, is our very self's fear of loss of control. It's our fear of wonder. For to dare to make art is to dare to move into the world of wonder---to marvel at the largeness of our own souls, to marvel at the truth and beauty gleaming and flaming around us in every person and every blade of glass.

And if we move in that direction, we will have to give up all those ideas of security and insecurity completely. They will become meaningless and thus useless to us. Did we think we acheived our own security by hiding? By pretending we were in control? By imagining that we could manage others' feelings and thoughts and opinions about us?

The judgements we fear from others...their strongest praise, their greatest condemnation....these too will be just as meaningless. For what can we do but agree with Jesus' words to the rich, young ruler:"Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."

The fears of facing our shame or pride (which are two sides of the same fallacy--that our actions will guarantee we merit condemnation or praise) will also become irrelevant. This life, this world and our place in it is not our story--it is too wonderful for us.

The threat of our emotions overwhelming us is very real. But, isn't that a fear of facing the large, unknown reality of ourselves and God's wonderous work in creating us?

Isn't the world starting to quake under our feet? We won't have feelings or words or images or music strong enough to describe this terrifyingly beautiful and strong and alive universe we've been made a part of. How can we not fear this seismic disruption?

But then there's something more. Isn't there? This is what I have not yet been able to experience in any fullness that satisfies me. But again and again I think about those words, "Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. It is I."

Because if what our observations and feelings suggest is true... if what our art reveals is true... if what those moments of wonder demand is true... and we're not in control, and our attempts to acheive an externally judged "good" are meaningless, and if this universe is so much much more than the physical and the human systems set in place, then.... just beyond the fear is hope.

For I believe this is the longing and deepest desire of every artist (whether or not we are conscious of it)-- the hunger to BE in the presence of the One who is Wonderful beyond all our hungers, and all our fears.