In 1956 C. S. Lewis published a novel entitled ‘Till we have Faces’. Based on Greek mythology, the novel is a retelling of the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche. Although the book never gained the popularity of, say for example, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, Lewis believed that ‘Till we have Faces’ was his “greatest and most accomplished work”. This view was seconded by his close friend and fellow writer, J.R.R. Tolkien. There is one thing about the book that I really like, and that’s simply the title: ‘Till we have Faces’.
The face has always been understood to be that which reveals a person’s identity. It’s very hard to recognise someone when all you can see is the back of their head, but there’s no mistaking a friend when you see them face to face. What’s more, if you’re really attentive, you can tell a lot about someone’s personality by taking a close look at their face. Of course we’d all like to think that we would never judge a person simply by appearances, but that’s not true. We do this all the time, instinctively, perhaps without even knowing it.
So how did C. S. Lewis come up with the title ‘Till we have Faces’ ? It seems a strange name for a book, even for a book based on Greek mythology. It begs the question, could there be a time when we don’t have faces? In a way, Yes. Lewis, as a devout Christian, understood that it’s only ‘in Christ’ that we find our true identity. In coming to know Jesus, we not only enter into the mystery of God; we also come to understand the mystery of ourselves.
Our ‘true face’, as it were, will be revealed when we stand before the Lord face to face. In the meantime, all the choices we make in this life – all the moral decisions big and small – are a preparation for that day when Jesus returns. Will we be like the 5 bridesmaids in a recent Sunday’s Gospel who were ready? Or will we be like the 5 who were told, ‘Go away, I do not know you’?
These are harsh words we hear said by Jesus in the parable of the 10 bridesmaids. It’s frightening to think that we could stand before the God who created us and He would ‘not know’ us. What then could so distort our ‘face’ that on the day of judgement we would be unrecognisable even to our Heavenly Father? Well, the obvious answer is sin. Every sin we commit is not only an offense against God; sin also distorts our own identity. The more we allow ourselves to be deceived by sin, the harder it becomes to see our face reflected.
But as well as the obvious temptation to sin, there is another force lurking within the depths of every human soul: a force, if we’re not careful, can also deviate us from the right path. And that is Fear. First of all, let me clarify that fear in of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Life is good, and we have a natural instinct to preserve it. Fear is triggered whenever we’re confronted with a potential threat to our safety and wellbeing. But like all human emotions, fear can sometimes get the better of us. We need to keep it in check.
Take for example the current pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Now, I don’t for a second deny the reality of the coronavirus. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who have suffered or died as a result of the virus. Especially this month of November we remember to pray for those who have died, particularly within the past year. We certainly should do all within reason to curtail the spread of the virus. But that’s the problem: we no longer ask what’s within reason. Instead, we allow fear to dominate – if not fear of the virus itself, then fear of calling out the hypocrisy within the government lockdowns. We know that the virus is deadly, particularly for people over 70 with pre-existing conditions. But we’ve also learned over the months that this virus, thankfully, is not as dangerous to the general public as we initially believed. If you are under the age of 50 and in reasonably good health, you have little to fear. But instead of finding a solution in due proportion to the threat of the virus, we continue to live in an atmosphere of fear.
We were told back in March that we had to lockdown for just 15 days in order to flatten the curve. Eight months later we hear little about ‘the curve’ but have to wait indefinitely until….well, nobody seems to know. In the meantime, we accepted the governments interference with our right to worship God. People have lost their businesses, alcohol and drug addiction is on the rise, not to mention the tragic number of suicides. We are slowly becoming a lifeless society, a society quite literally without a face.
In this country we used to believe that the stranger was simply a friend you haven’t met yet. Now we see the stranger as a potential ‘bag of germs’ who could infect you if they come within 2 meters of your safe space. I haven’t lost hope for the soul of our country, but I think it’s time we start putting things back into proper perspective.
The people with power in this world know full well how to manipulate fear to their advantage. The Church, on the other hand, proclaims a message of hope. This is not a false hope that simply says “trust in God and everything will be fine”. No. Christianity recognises that there are many things in the world – including viruses – that we should rightly be concerned about. Christ doesn’t ask us to turn a blind eye to our fears, but to face them with courage. In an age gone wild with emotions, maybe it’s time we started to talk again about the virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that the essential virtue was that of prudence, i.e. the ability to make good judgements and act accordingly. The two cardinal virtues of prudence and fortitude always go hand in hand.
By all means wear a mask in public if you believe it is the wise thing to do. I’m not going to encourage anyone to go against government guidelines if they believe they are necessary. But don’t be afraid to think for yourself : make wise decisions and follow through with conviction. It’s in living our lives with truth and integrity that we come to know Christ, and in coming to know Christ we discover our true face. Keep your lamps lit like the sensible bridesmaids and be ready to for that day when we stand before the Lord and see Him face to face.