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More than just a good idea

By Heather Oman

I have been recently called to serve as the Young Women’s president in our ward. I’ve never been a president of anything before, and the bishop took some time with me to talk about the calling, the ward, and some general ideas about the church.

We talked about inspiration, and how we know when inspiration comes. My husband and I have a catchphrase in our home: “The Church is inspired enough”, which is basically our way of saying, “People in the church screw up, don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world, they are not bad people, keep moving forward.” But the bishop pushed me a little bit on that, asking how I decide when something is inspired or not. I didn’t have a great answer for that, and told him so. I admitted that I am often left wrestling and reconciling and thinking and pondering and festering. (Oh the festering!)

And then he said, “The church has to be more than just a good idea. Otherwise it’s just too hard.”

So what is the church if it’s more than just a good idea, a good moral code, a good way to raise a family? And how do you know it’s more than just a good idea?

There are lots of easy answers to that question, I suppose. Simple ones: I believe it. It’s true. I have a testimony. My family has always been Mormon, and I want to follow the example of my fore bearers who sacrificed so much.

All of those things are good answers, but as I pondered this conversation, I thought of my favorite book, “Til We Have Faces”, by C.S. Lewis. And if I’ve blogged about this before, and you already know what I’m going to say, I apologize. There are only a handful of “aha!” moments in a person’s life, so forgive me if I am repeating one of mine. What can I say, “aha!” moments are the ones that we go back to, again and again.

“‘Til We Have Faces” is a retelling of the myth of Psyche from her sister’s perspective. The basic, traditional myth of Psyche is that she was so beautiful, Venus herself became jealous and ordered her son, Cupid, to kill Psyche. Cupid went to do his mother’s bidding, but instead became besotted with Psyche because of her great beauty, and decides he is going to be her husband. He puts Pysche up in a castle and comes to her only at night, and he gives her strict instructions never to light a candle when he comes so his identity can remain hidden. Her sisters come to visit and are jealous, and convince Psyche that she must expose her husband because he is probably a monster. She does expose him, only to discover that her husband is a God, and for her folly, she is condemned to serve Venus in a variety of daunting and dangerous tasks. Other nasty stuff happens because Venus is just not very nice, Cupid eventually pleads to Jupiter, Psyche is made immortal, and they live happily every after in eternal wedded bliss.

C.S. Lewis tells the story differently.

Orual, Pysche’s sister, believes Psyche to have been sacrificed to a monster, and goes to fetch her body. She finds, instead, Psyche living happily in a meadow, albeit dressed in rags and drinking from a stream and eating berries. She gets worried, however, when Psyche claims they are sitting in her castle and she is giving Orual great delicacies. Orual says that Psyche is misled by her husband, that it is surely not a God who is keeping her captive but rather the monster that was supposed to eat Psyche in the first place. Psyche is sad for her sister, because Orual can not see what is right in front of her. Through a variety of threats and ultimatums, Orual convinces Psyche to expose her husband in the night and try to kill him. Psyche, sad but successfully manipulated, agrees.

Orual watches in the night for Pysche, and then, for a brief shimmering instant, she sees the castle. She sees everything exactly as Psyche describes it, and when Psyche lights the candle to expose the monster, Orual sees the brightness of the God, again, for an instant. In that instant, she knows the truth. All of it. She knows she has to repent for what she has done to Psyche.

And then the instant is gone. And as she is left in the dark, she becomes less sure of what she saw.

And then she’s sort of ticked that the Gods are being so lame.

Honestly, if the Gods wanted her to believe, why didn’t they show her everything ALL THE TIME? She’s supposed to take that instant as proof against everything else she knows and sees?

Well, yes, actually. That’s exactly what she is supposed to do.

We’re not characters in a myth, and our lives don’t revolve around Gods and monsters, but haven’t most of us, at one time or another, seen a glimpse of the absolute, beautiful, shimmering truth? If we’ve seen it, even once, then we know it’s there, even when there are things that block our view. We know there is something good and beautiful and powerful, despite things like stupid talks from the pulpit, or painful jabs from a ward member, or questions and trials that bring us to our knees. It is these glimpses of beauty that can sustain us. I know that it is these glimpses that sustain me. And that’s why I keep going back. It’s what tells me that the church is more than just a good idea.

There’s also a beautiful line that Lewis writes that sums up a lot of what I’m trying to say:

“It may well be that by trickery of priests men have sometimes taken a mortal’s voice for a god’s. But it will not work the other way. No one who hears a god’s voice takes it for a man’s.”

I hope you’ve had some glimpses of the castle in your lives. I hope that things that erase those glimpses don’t get too hard. And I hope that at some point, you hear a voice, and know that it is God’s.

If you haven’t already, and if you get the chance, you should totally read “‘Til We Have Faces”. It’s kinda weird, and there are folks I know who don’t love it, so if you hate it, we can still be friends. But if you DO love it, then call me, and we’ll have a big giant book club and talk late into the night. I’ll bring the doughnuts and the Diet Coke.


About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

11 thoughts on “More than just a good idea”

  1. I read it a few years ago and was left more than a little … overwhelmed by the symbolism and the writing. I know that so much of it went over my head and I need to go back a reread it—probably repeatedly—but I haven't managed to yet. Someday! (I'd be glad to attend that book group; give me a good excuse to pull it out again.)

  2. You'll be a great young women's president! I love the challenges from the bishop. The bishop's challenge is a good point and one I've had cause to think about this last year because it's true: How could you possibly do the church if you only believed it was a good idea? It's got to be true or it's not worth the effort. I love the imagery of the castle. I agree — I have had the glimpses and that's what keeps me tied to it. A loved one of mine can't remember the glimpses right now and then what's the point? Then it kind of just seems like an empty meadow with people in shaggy rags who are delusional. Thank you for sharing this! I hope everyone gets a glimpse and then that they can REMEMBER it!

  3. Fantastic post, Heather, so helpful in this period of unrest and doubt. YW Pres was probably my favorite calling — lots of work, but so much love for the YW, which has extended years into the future. I still am friends with many of them. You will be great!
    I'm going to find this book right now.

  4. C.S. Lewis is much too cerebral for me. I can only read about three sentences before my head explodes. But I'll still show up if there are donuts involved!

    And you will such an amazing YW Pres. The girls in your ward are so lucky!

  5. Good reminder. I haven't read the book yet. I should. I totally connect with that image of profound light and clarity that shatter through all the rest.

  6. 'Till We Have Faces' is also MY favorite book, and I've never met anyone else who loves it like I do. (It is a very dense, rich read…) Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone!

  7. I finished Till We Have Faces last night–for the first time. I've read Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Screwtape Letters and some of his prose but I had forgotten his other works. I LOVED this book. Thanks so much for sharing about it. There were so many things about it that I enjoyed–the easy to follow narrative, the protagonist, the plot, the "classical" style that reminded me strongly of the Aeneid, the reminder that mere physical age is NOT a prognosis for the garbage can (a message I think our culture sends loud and clear) and especially the unfolding of her life–that what was hard and seemed like a tragedy ended up in something good. I think ALL of our lives are like that–whether we marry well, don't marry or marry to have it be a disaster. If we keep going like Orual, through the hard and disappointing times, there WILL be good things for us. AND we will have become something beautiful. Thanks for sharing your insights about it, especially about having glimpses of the good, true and inspired. This Church IS true and DOES lead us to a better place.


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