A friend of mine recently sent me a digital liturgy she had made for her church’s Zoom Vespers. As I typically haunt churches that look and feel more like small British rock revival concert, I am a bit of a liturgy clod. I have come, though, to appreciate the delicate beauty of the ancient art of liturgy writing. So I was very curious to see what traditional, liturgical churches were doing digitally during COVID-19.
As I expected, my friend did a lovely job, bringing together poetic prayer, classical music, and her own nature photography. I have as little to add about liturgy as I do about winetasting or water buffalo husbandry, but I did have one thought. She included lines from the instrumental music in her prayer, like a liturgical leitmotif. One of the lines was “Why should our hearts be sad?”, offering an exuberant invitation to live and love. Tentatively, I offered her what for me is one of the most gorgeous lines in C.S. Lewis’ literary fiction, Till We Have Faces:
“Why should your heart not dance?” (I.9).
Yes, why not?
The line didn’t fit this liturgical moment, but it keeps calling me back to new discoveries in Till We Have Faces–a text I teach almost every year, and yet never seem to find the bottom of.
This heart-dance lure occurs after Orual’s sister-daughter has been sacrificed to the god of the mountain. Disbelieving that Psyche has experienced anything more complicated than exposure following mob violence, Orual is determined to attend to her sister’s remains. Grief is a curious thing, and even in our deepest grief, we find laughter or hope springing into our hearts. Often enough, we feel that invitation out of the darkness as a kind of betrayal to the one we have lost, to their memory, to the grief we are carefully cultivating in our hearts.
This is what Orual feels as she climbs the dew-laden mountain into the warm sunlight. Orual allows her face to feel the sun, to sense both the natural beauty and “the huge and ancient stillness” that means she is on the doorstep of the divine. And though she had set out on a sad errand with all due gravity, her heart began to betray her:
Now, flung at me like frolic or insolence, there came as if it were a voice—no words—but if you made it into words it would be, “Why should your heart not dance?” It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, “Why not?”
I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love, the drudge of the King, the jailer of hateful Redival, perhaps to be murdered or turned out as a beggar when my father died—for who knew what Glome would do then?
There is for Orual a litany of reasons why her heart should not dance, and yet….
And yet, it was a lesson I could hardly keep in my mind. The sight of the huge world put mad ideas into me, as if I could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world’s end. The freshness and wetness all about me (I had seen nothing but drought and withered things for many months before my sickness) made me feel that I had misjudged the world; it seemed kind, and laughing, as if its heart also danced. Even my ugliness I could not quite believe in. Who can feel ugly when the heart meets delight? It is as if, somewhere inside, within the hideous face and bony limbs, one is soft, fresh, lissom and desirable.
Orual rules her heart, and the loss wins out, though the heart-struggle continues for hours. “Was I not right to struggle against this fool-happy mood?” Orual asks. Could “a mere burst of fair weather, and fresh grass after a long drought, and health after sickness” make her “friends again with this god-haunted, plague-breeding, decaying, tyrannous world”? Orual is determined that they will not. And as they come to the place of sacrifice, Orual sees she has had reason not to give in to the joy.
Here the gods ceased trying to make me glad. There was nothing here that even the merriest heart could dance for.
The reality is, though, that Orual’s heart and will have betrayed her and will soon cause her to betray her greatest love.
Psyche lives–and lives well, if Orual could but let her heart be opened to the possibility of it. Rather than remains or a robber’s den, Orual finds Psyche glowing with health in a divine palace upon the mountains. As it turns out, Orual’s walk of misery and grief has all along been an invitation to Psyche’s palace. When the “first wildness of my joy” passes from Orual, she turns her mind to plans to get Psyche back home. For Psyche, happy as a queen and wife to the god of the mountain, there is nothing to do but share joy together:
Do? Why, be merry, what else? Why should our hearts not dance? (I.10).
It is an invitation that Orual cannot receive. This is often the case with love, that because of how we see the world and because of the wounds we have received, we cannot receive the love of God, a parent, a mentor, or a child. We may not even be fully deceived in that resistance, but our lack of trust often creates its own wounds, doesn’t it?
It does for Orual, who stands against Psyche’s invitation to joy:
“my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss—not to be endured. And to keep it shut” (I.11).
Her will and heart then conspire against Psyche’s joy:
Now again I made a deep resolve. I was half frightened when I perceived what I was resolving. “So it might come even to that,” my heart said; even to killing her (I.12).
Orual then goes to “the heart of the Moutain” (I.11) to compel Psyche with violence–homicide and suicide both, though only suicide is needed as a threat–to betray her love and to set aside her joy for Orual’s own alienated happiness.
I know, it isn’t exactly this way for Orual. She is for the most part unable to see Psyche’s palace and thus unable truly to believe that Psyche is happy and well. But her self-deception is deeper than she can know. For a moment, unveiled and kneeling beside the river that separates the holy part of the mountain from the natural part, Orual is able to see the palace: “saw that which brought my heart into my throat.” She almost even relents:
“She is happy,” said my heart.
My heart did not conquer me (I.12).
Orual was able to rule her heart as she ruled her kingdom, and she lost Psyche forever.
I am not certain why I had not seen before what you, dear reader, by now have seen: “Heart” is a critical theme in Till We Have Faces. Besides a handful of uses of “heartily,” the word “heart” occurs 72 times. People are constantly considering something in their hearts, and Orual’s heart bodes ruin–though she resists this intuitive warning. Psyche causes people to have a “pang” in their hearts, to be “cut to the heart,” to have one’s heart torn out, and when there is hope, to have hearts “crack for joy.” Though she threatens violence, Orual believes that she is “heart-shattered for Psyche’s sake.” Orual determines to harden her heart and accuses Pysche of having a “heart of iron” and stone–a theme I will return to in the next part of the Till We Have Faces series. Of course, hearts are broken all over the place.
Time and again–at critical points on almost every page–Lewis draws us to the heart. As the journal of Till We Have Faces is was originally written in Greek, I think of καρδία, the Greek word that is the organ of physical life that is also the seat of emotion, spiritual life, will, and mental clarity. Though it is attested from Homer and etymologically connected to our Old English heorte, it was taken up in Greco-Roman Jewish and Christian writings to especially capitalize on the central unity of volition, feeling, perception, and thought.
Applied to Till We Have Faces, we see that elastic, fulsome word usage at play. I will finish with three short examples that capture the breadth of Lewis’ use of the term.
Firstly, I spoke at the beginning of this series about a heart-felt peasant Pagan prayer in the story–unique, I thought. There is another such prayer, but with a much different energy. Orual at one point “took back every word I had said against” and made promises to the gods. The context is worth reading:
Then I did a thing which I think few have done. I spoke to the gods myself, alone, in such words as came to me, not in a temple, and without a sacrifice. I stretched myself face downward on the floor and called upon them with my whole heart. I took back every word I had said against them. I promised anything they might ask of me, if only they would send me a sign. They gave me none. When I began there was red firelight in the room and rain on the roof; when I rose up again the fire had sunk a little lower, and the rain drummed on as before (I.13).
Secondly, Orual’s choice to harden her own heart leads to a heart that is completely protected from love:
I could have loved him [her nephew and heir] if I had let myself and if Redival had been out of the way. But I would never give my heart again to any young creature (I.21).
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one and nothing, not even an animal. You must carefully wrap it round with hobbies and little luxuries and routine and avoidances of entanglement, and then lock it up in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. And this means that in the long run, the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the threat of tragedy, is damnation, for in that casket – safe, still, and unventilated in the darkness – it will go bad; not broken, but finally unbreakable, impenetrable, resistant to all good and joy… (The Four Loves lecture).
Finally, when Orual resolves to compel Psyche–to make her act without free consent, to “overrule” her–all things break and the true heart of Orual is revealed. “I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred” Psyche cries to her sister (I.14).
The lesson of love that is not love works its way through Orual’s story. Orual comes to realize that “love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love” (II.1). Psyche, “the very heart of my heart,” was actually the one whom Orual hardened her heart against. We see the moment of resolve in Orual:
“My heart was still as ice, heavy as lead, cold as earth, but I was free now from all doubting and deliberating” (I.14).
Yet, this heart-stillness is a complete delusion. It is actually the breaking of the unity of the heart. By setting her will against her reason–and both against her love–Orual shatters the integrated reality that is the human heart. In the space of “two heartbeats,” Orual writes, “my heart broke then.” I know what she means, and she both causes and experiences terrible sadness. But the reality is that Orual’s heart was already broken.