Beholding God Face to Face

During this season of mask-wearing, we have become weary of a “faceless” existence. I can think of nothing that is more de-personalizing that the hiding of our face. I respect the science (and certainly would not want a surgeon operating on me without a mask). But I lament our common experience even as I pray for this time to pass. I also think, however, of how many masks we have all worn in our lives. We find many ways to hide our face – our true face. These are some thoughts from some years back. They seem appropriate during these days.

Nothing about the human body is as intimate as the face. We generally think of other aspects of our bodies when we say “intimate,” but it is our face that reveals the most about us. It is the face we seek to watch in order to see what others are thinking, or even who they are. The importance of the face is emphasized repeatedly in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, it is the common expression for how we rightly meet one another – and rarely – God Himself – “face to face.”

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the language of the face to describe our transformation into the image of Christ.

The holy icons are doubtless the most abundant expression of the “theology of the face,” and perhaps among the most profound contributions of Orthodoxy to the world and the proclamation of what it truly means to be human. Every saint, from the least to the greatest, shares the same attribute as Christ in their icons. We see all of them, face to face. In the icons, no person is ever depicted in profile – with two exceptions – Judas Iscariot and the demons. For it is in the vision of the face that we encounter someone as person. It is our sin that turns us away from the face of another – our effort to make ourselves somehow other than or less than personal. It is a manifestation of our turning away from God.

In human behavior, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. The feeling of shame brings an immediate and deep instinct to hide or cover the face. Even infants, confronted by embarrassment or mild shame, will cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of the one holding them. It is part of the unbearable quality of shame.

Hiding is the instinctive response of Adam and Eve. “We were naked and we hid…” is their explanation. Readers have always assumed that it is the nakedness of their intimate parts that drive the first couple to hide. I think it more likely that it was their faces they most wanted to cover.

In an extended use of the story of Moses’ encounter with God after which he veiled his face, St. Paul presents the gospel of Christ as a transforming, face-to-face relationship with Christ.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)

The veil of Moses is an image of the blindness of the heart and spiritual bondage. Turning to Christ removes this blindness and hardness of heart. With unveiled faces we behold the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed into the very same image which is Christ.

In Russian, the word lik (лик) can mean face and person. Sergius Bulgakov plays with various forms of the word in his book Icons and the Name of God. It is an essential Orthodox insight. The Greek word for person (πρόσωπον) also carries this double meaning. The unveiled or unhidden face is a face without shame – or a face that no longer hides from its shame. This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our transformation in Christ. The self in whom shame has been healed is the self that is able to live as person.

We are restored to our essential and authentic humanity – our personhood. We behold Christ face to face, as a person would who looks into a mirror. And, as St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ).

The sacrament of penance boldly walks directly into the world of shame. Archimandrite Zacharias says:

… if we know to whom we present ourselves, we shall have the courage to take some shame upon ourselves. I remember that when I became a spiritual father at the monastery, Fr. Sophrony said to me, “Encourage the young people that come to you to confess just those things about which they are ashamed, because that shame will be converted into spiritual energy that can overcome the passions and sin.” In confession, the energy of shame becomes energy against the passions. As for a definition of shame, I would say it is the lack of courage to see ourselves as God sees us. (from The Enlargement of the Heart).

This is not an invitation to toxic shame – nor an invitation to take on yet more shame – it is a description of the healing from shame that is given in Christ. That healing is “the courage to see ourselves as God sees us.” It is the courage to answer like the prophet Samuel, “Here I am!” when God calls. God called to Adam who spoke from his shameful and faceless hiding.

Some of the mystical sermons of the fathers speak of Christ seeking Adam out a second time – but this time, in Hades, when Christ descended to the dead. There, Adam, hid no longer, turned to face the risen Lord. And so the traditional icon of the resurrection shows Christ taking Adam and Eve out of the smashed gates of Hades.

The gates of Hades are written in our faces – as are the gates of paradise. It is the mystery of our true self – the one that is being re-created in the image of Christ – precisely as we behold Him face to face and discover that no shame need remain. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Sweet liberty!

 

29 comments:

  1. Please tell me that you are at work on a book about shame, Father. I have been gathering up all your posts about it. It is a topic that needs light to be shown upon it now more than ever.

  2. Father,

    A profound article. Thank you for reposting it.

    As you probably know, I have been going on about questions for a bit now, particularly after your article that highlighted them.

    One thing that has only just recently occurred to me is that following the Fall (or the fracturing as I prefer to call it), God’s words to Adam are in fact three questions. (Presumably he asks them for Adam’s benefit and ours, as presumably He already knew the answers …)

    The very first one is to ask Adam “where are you?”. Maybe that is one of the effects of shame combined with early self knowledge – it has a dislocating effect.
    “Where are you?” – you are no longer centered, no longer where you should be, as a divided self out of communion. No longer able easily to engage face to face. A question that gets him to interrogate his sense of self.

    God’s second question “who told you you were naked?” while less generically profound does highlight that Adam’s rush to cover is sort of instinctive – he does not know quite why he is doing this …

    The third question “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” immediately brings out the unattractive blame response, which is the companion of shame (ah, English and its helpful rhymes …).

    In the context of your article it’s interesting to ponder that phrase we have about “facing up” to what we have done, and who we are – and maybe even where (and what) we are …

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this reposting. In this time of mask wearing, it is very welcome.
    Thinking about the face and masks. I think a person can gather more from a person’s eyes while wearing a mask than someone can from a person with no mask but has eyes covered with reflective sunglasses. I can read softness in another’s eyes, sadness, delight,
    anger, etc. This comes as no surprise since the eyes are the light of the body. So, for now I’ll take the mask over the inscrutable face wearing dark glasses. However, the unveiled face is so much more glorious!

  4. In these unusual times, we do gain new perspectives. As a psychologist, I have often thought of seeing a patient “face-to-face” as meaning to see them in person (vs. over the phone or through technology). However, this view has now been changed. I would rather see someone by video than to see them in the office with a mask on. I both want to see their face and want them to see mine. A different nuance on “face-to-face”…

    The eyes communicate a lot but, without the rest of facial expression, they can be hard to read unless the person is known well. How do I enter into the anguish of another if I cannot truly SEE it? How else can I convey the Lord’s compassion with my face (His tool) if it is hidden? Words have value but they can be easily misunderstood – as we find happens so readily with text messaging. It is the seeing of the face that creates the sense of presence more so that actually being in the same room.

    And, as you pointed out, Fr. Stephen, the face in the icon is where we find the presence of the one
    represented. As I paint more icons, I discover that I am much more likely to feel the presence of the holy one represented when the face is prominent (vs. when there is a larger scene and faces are smaller and less distinct).

    It seems to be that true “seeing” is more an experience of the heart than a merely visual one but the face is what awakens the heart. (I am reminded of how blind people often want to feel a person’s face to experience it when relating to someone intimately. Even without physical vision, the experience of the face is what awakens the heart.)

  5. Mary, to your comment about the blind feeling someone’s face, I have often had young children feel my face while they talk to me. It’s a way for them to get to know and trust me.

  6. I struggle too with the lost of seeing faces except through technology. One of favorite interactions before COVID would be when a very small child would be in front of me in a grocery cart. As the child would intensely look at my face, I would stand as still as possible, smile, and just be in awe as they looked into my eyes.

    I struggle with faces through technology. I have a sense of shame that I cannot exactly describe. I have also noticed my co-workers have gotten to the point where we all refuse to turn our cameras on during meetings. I haven’t seen some of co-workers faces in months.

    Another weird side effect of masks I hesitate to describe, also because of shame. With a mask covering everything but my eyes, I get this sense that I am a spectator at a theater. I found myself staring at others, assuming I am almost hidden from their view. Like the child playing “peek a boo”, I get a fleeting feeling that others can’t really see me. In a sense, I guess that is true.

  7. Allen,
    Hiding our faces is normally a natural form of expressing shame (it’s instinctive – not just cultural – it’s universal). That said, I think we see masked faces as somewhat ashamed – and it “triggers” this for us. I also think it is part of the reason that some people rebel so strongly (on a gut level) to the request to put on a mask. I don’t mean to analyze everybody – but it also explains why the request is met with anger (usually a shame symptom).

    Again, we do not think about these things much, but they are emotionally unavoidable. Americans have almost zero shame vocabulary. I suspect, though I don’t know, that Japanese culture probably has a large vocabulary for describing shame. I know that it’s more culturally articulated than here. Perhaps we have a reader who could say something on this.

    The icons at Church are not masked. They remind me that, in time, I will see them all face-to-face – without shame or fear.

  8. Alan,
    Thank you for your comment here and in the previous post on beer. Your descriptions offer humor and, it seems to me, honest and courageously open reflections.

    Father, one of my sisters-in-law is Japanese-Canadian married into my husband’s family of Norwegian ancestry. We have had over the years the occasional heart to heart talk. Our respective experiences involving the home we grew up in vs societal culture have a lot In common. Shame and how that shame is processed within the family culture is an interesting topic of contrast between cultures.

    Since we’re talking about faces, my niece (this sister-in-law’s daughter) was given an Asian looking baby doll when she was two years old. The little girl took a black marking pen and did all that she could to obliterate the eyes, essentially making them look like two black holes. Her mother was quite distressed about it. Due to my own circumstances I understood the emotions in the child that would prompt this behavior. She was so young that it seemed nearly impossible for her to articulate what was happening. So I asked the child to show me. She took me by the hand, led me to the bathroom. Under the sink was a stool. She pulled it out and stood on it. Our reflections were visible to both of us in the mirror over the sink. With her right hand she pointed to her eyes in the reflection and with her left she pointed to my grey eyes. Of course I knew what this meant. I’m a Native American with grey eyes. I’ve been asked if my eyes are ‘real‘ (colored contact lenses have been popular)..

    I turned to face her little beautiful face and told her she has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. And I told her that I had always wished my eyes looked like hers.

    Did she understand? I don’t know. She was only two years old. But perhaps she heard the tone of love in my voice.

  9. I had an interesting experience recently. We live in a low infection area. However when my wife had to have major shoulder surgery last week, masks were required. The scan our temperature and that was it. BUT, the hospital staff was amazing. Everyone was smiling some even laughing. The surgeon when he gave me the after operation report did it with his mask off.
    It is a new hospital in a suburban area and not a trauma center. But the joy with which everyone went about their work was delightful. Their was precaution but no fear.
    My wife came through the surgery well but has six weeks before she can move her dominate arm.
    The surgeon in the pre-op exam did not wear a mask either. He sat right next to my wife on the exam table explaining the x-rays to her.

  10. Michael,
    I had a medical procedure on Thursday (colonoscopy). Everyone was masked. However, just before they knocked me out, the doctor came over with his iPhone. He said, “What kind of music do you want?” Considering the news of the week, I asked for Van Halen. They put me to sleep and rocked their way through the procedure. I can only imagine what happens at, “Jump!”

  11. You likely got propofol, which killed Michael Jackson. Now there was a guy with shame. He could never please his father and was prosecuted for indecency. He hated his own face so much he had others cut it.

    Even with more fame and money than one man could use, he just wanted to be unconscious in a void beyond judgment.

  12. Scott,
    What you said about Michael Jackson going under the knife to change his face, is not that far from what some women do as they grow older. I’m hearing that this is becoming more common among men as well.

    Again I believe this is related to shame, especially in regard to our disintegrating flesh. Our flesh reveals our temporality. And as we grow old, the future becomes a mere sliver of time.

    I’ve taken up the habit of keeping my mother’s photo out with the icons in my prayer corner. She passed away roughly 50 years ago. And I tell myself and her that we might be together soon.

    The Lord is with us and lives in us, now and forevermore. May God grant that we hear His voice and see and look upon His face.

  13. Father,
    “Americans have almost zero shame vocabulary. I suspect, though I don’t know, that Japanese culture probably has a large vocabulary for describing shame.”

    I read an article recently (in Japanese) where they were talking about the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who wrote that the American “culture of sin” (my translation: they used the phrase 罪の文化) emphasizes the inner conscience and the Japanese culture of shame (恥の文化) cares about the eyes of others.
    I’ve not read Benedict, but from this article I get the impression that she thought shame in American culture is crowded out by a Christian concept of sin.

    By the way, the article was on a business-related website that was sponsored by recruiting/headhunter companies.

  14. Dee,
    Interesting on your mother’s photo. I have a photo of my mother in my study, which is also our family icon corner. It’s of her during WWII, I think, which is the decade before I was born, so it is not a photo of how I remember her. It is, however, a photo of how I suspect she might have pictured herself – simply a guess on my part in that it is quite lovely. Time took a heavy toll on her.

    It is interesting, on our aging, that I feel a disconnect with pictures of myself as a younger man. I’ll have to ponder why that might be so. May God grant us to see His face, indeed!

  15. Our values determine our shames. Hence shame can often highlight our mistaken values. It is important to distinguish shame in general from ‘toxic shame’. Here is a masterful poem about toxic shame for those interested.

    Toxic Shame
    by
    Leo Booth/John Bradshaw

    My Name Is Toxic Shame

    I was there at your conception
    In the epinephrine of your mother’s shame
    You felt me in the fluid of your mother’s womb
    I came upon you before you could speak
    Before you understood
    Before you had any way of knowing
    I came upon you when you were learning to walk
    When you were unprotected and exposed
    When you were vulnerable and needy
    Before you had any boundaries
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I came upon you when you were magical
    Before you could know I was there
    I severed your soul
    I pierced you to the core
    I brought you feelings of being flawed and defective
    I brought you feelings of distrust, ugliness, stupidity, doubt
    worthlessness, inferiority, and unworthiness
    I made you feel different
    I told you there was something wrong with you
    I soiled your Godlikeness
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I existed before conscience
    Before guilt
    Before morality
    I am the master emotion
    I am the internal voice that whispers words of condemnation
    I am the internal shudder that courses through you without any mental preparation
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I live in secrecy
    In the deep moist banks of darkness depression and despair
    Always I sneak up on you I catch you off guard I come through the back door
    Uninvited unwanted
    The first to arrive
    I was there at the beginning of time
    With Father Adam, Mother Eve
    Brother Cain
    I was at the Tower of Babel the Slaughter of the Innocents
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I come from “shameless” caretakers, abandonment, ridicule, abuse, neglect – perfectionistic systems
    I am empowered by the shocking intensity of a parent’s rage
    The cruel remarks of siblings
    The jeering humiliation of other children
    The awkward reflection in the mirrors
    The touch that feels icky and frightening
    The slap, the pinch, the jerk that ruptures trust
    I am intensified by
    A racist, sexist culture
    The righteous condemnation of religious bigots
    The fears and pressures of schooling
    The hypocrisy of politicians
    The multigenerational shame of dysfunctional family systems
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I can transform a woman person, a Jewish person, a black person, a gay person, an oriental person, a precious child into
    A bitch, a kike, a nigger, a bull dyke, a faggot, a chink, a selfish little bastard
    I bring pain that is chronic
    A pain that will not go away
    I am the hunter that stalks you night and day
    Every day everywhere
    I have no boundaries
    You try to hide from me
    But you cannot
    Because I live inside of you
    I make you feel hopeless
    Like there is no way out
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    My pain is so unbearable that you must pass me on to others through control, perfectionism, contempt, criticism, blame,
    envy, judgment, power, and rage
    My pain is so intense
    You must cover me up with addictions, rigid roles, reenactment, and unconscious ego defenses.
    My pain is so intense
    That you must numb out and no longer feel me.
    I convinced you that I am gone – that I do not exist – you experience absence and emptiness.
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

    I am the core of co-dependency
    I am spiritual bankruptcy
    The logic of absurdity
    The repetition compulsion
    I am crime, violence, incest, rape
    I am the voracious hole that fuels all addictions
    I am instability and lust
    I am Ahaverus the Wandering Jew, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Dostoyevski’s underground man, Kierkegaard’s seducer,
    Goethe’s Faust
    I twist who you are into what you do and have
    I murder your soul and you pass me on for generations
    MY NAME IS TOXIC SHAME

  16. Father, photographs and how we react to them is an idea worth exploring. A couple of examples: I have few pictures of anybody but some I do have. My Dad, my brother and I took a trip back to the place my Dad grew up, the high plains of Eastern New Mexico which is very dry with no trees for many, many miles. Scrub mesquite and hardy grasses abound. My brother, an excellent photographer, took the picture. My Dad in his cowboy hat, supporting himself on his cane, looking off into the distance in a reverie. It is stark and beautiful with him framed against a wide open sky and land. He was in his 80’s at the time and had not been there in 70 years but some how he fit even though he had gone on to get an advanced degree from Harvard and become a nationally known and respected public health officer. The favorite pictures of my mother are from she was a contemporary dancer with Martha Graham’s company in the 1930s. Just as the high plains marked my Dad’s person indelibly, my mother was a DANCER.
    Then there is the picture of St. Sphrony taken not long before is repose. He is sitting, smiling and literally beaming, not just a deep wonderful smile, but emanating light. I like that picture better than any icon of him I have yet seen.
    A head shot of my late wife dancing with me on our wedding day-gloriously happy; a picture I took of my living wife, Merry, at a restaurant early in our marriage. A pic of my son and me together on the day he first met Merry. My brother serving communion with Met Joseph of Bulgaria that is on the dioscesan web site. I have a picture of you in my mind from the other day during the Fellowship of St Moses the Black seminar during the discussion after your presentation.
    Interestingly there are no pictures of my self that I like. Hmmmm.
    It is, perhaps, a topic that deserves a full length commentary.

  17. >It is interesting, on our aging, that I feel a disconnect with pictures of myself as a younger man. I’ll have to ponder why that might be so.

    Father, I’ve been wondering about this as well. I think the energies of our youth tend to be directed so differently than now. The things on which I was so focused at that time have very little meaning now, for the most part. So the pictures that still resonate strongly with me are the ones where I was living life in the spirit where God has brought me. They reflect me, not something I just tried to do at one time. Those are my thoughts, anyway.

  18. It’s rather interesting what pictures we treasure. My husband has a relatively recent picture of me that he had blown up. It was taken by a professional photographer who on passing by me in a public space asked to take my picture. He was well known in these parts. I said yes but asked him why. He said he was trying to capture ‘local color’.

    My husband asked for a copy. Words fail me to describe my appearance in this picture. It comes close to comical. When I asked my husband what he liked most about it, he said it was my hands. They are probably the most rugged feature. But the surprise to me is the peace in my eyes. This picture was taken, if my recollection is accurate, in the summer just after my baptism on Holy Saturday.

  19. Dee, I am sure you are beautiful and I can well understand your husband wanting such a picture. What I love most about my wife is her face. Full of joy, wisdom, sorrow and hope all at the same time. It does not hurt that when she smiles at me…. All 1000 watt love. It knocks my socks off even as I question her otherwise fine intelligence.

  20. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for your kindness. My husband loves me, which probably helps him to overlook my oddities.

  21. Dee, it is not how God formed your body that makes beauty, it is how He formed your heart and how you respond to Him. My wife does not conform to the worldly standards of physical beauty but she is one of God’s beloved. She has raised three fine children even though their father did not help. She loves my son as if he was her own. She loves me despite my many short comings. She makes me a better man. Yet she8s also a conundrum to me at times.
    I suspect from what you say, your husband feels similarly about you. Perhaps all of the little things you feel self conscious about are precious to him in ways you cannot imagine. He does not overlook oddities but treasures the unique qualities that are yours alone — the special things that set you apart and make you, you.
    A loving spouse, at our best, sees their beloved a bit as God does. It is a great mystery and a great gift to have that.
    So my wife is gorgeous even when she thinks herself the most unattractive. As I am to her somehow. It is a bit of alchemy that God works turning base metal into gold — giving each a treasure that is mostly theirs alone. But it does bubble over and I see that froth in you in the way you describe things and how you express what you care about.
    God is good.
    BTW my wife and I met through Match.com through the intercessions of Blessed Mary. My wife wrote a profile she thought noman would like. I loved every bit of it, particularly the part where she described shooting a rabid skunk off her porch.

  22. Dee,
    Love “covers a multitude of sins.” It also is the only thing that actually lets us “see” another person. Without love, we see the projections of our own darker wounds. Love clears them up. Some years ago I had a very, very clear dream in which I saw my wife in what I can describe only as transcendent beauty. I stayed with me when I awoke. It also changed some thing in my heart such that I have ever since seen beauty – not imperfections. We met when we were about 18-19 years old. Now we’re in our mid 60’s. I see her as more beautiful by far than the day we met – that is a wonderful grace and the gift that love gives us. I am grateful.

  23. I wanted to go back and drag out an earlier conversation about video chats. Someone was saying they would prefer spending time with someone over a video conference unmasked rather than in person when masked. Neither are great in my book, but it relates to something I’m struggling with at work and in general.

    With the in-person scenario, you run into people by chance – masks or no. This doesn’t happen when connecting with technology. I had a hallway conversation about 2 months ago, something very rare because most people are now working from home. The irony was that their opinion was that it wasn’t nearly as important now that we were all working remotely – but of course they would never had the opportunity to share this opinion if we hadn’t been in the office by chance.

    I think something is lost when we do everything over tele-chat and for lack of a better word I’m going to call it “presence”. There are realities which exist when people are sharing a physical space, and those realities disappear when we all go home and turn on the video software. Maybe there’s a shared aura or vibe. Maybe the spirits commune. Or perhaps there is even a common chemistry during that time. I don’t know.

    But these realities, this presence is intangible and therefore most people aren’t complaining about the lack of it. However the presence is still missing and I sense that over time this will have very bad effects. I know God wouldn’t put up with video chats instead of going to sit with Him.

    My brother-in-law’s company started doing video conferences instead of in-person meetings about 5 years ago. He said the effect was that relationships forged previous to that time continue to be intact, while contacts and clients acquired since then are very transactional. No relationship is formed with these people. They could be replaced with someone else next week and it would simply be business as usual.

    I don’t know what to do with all this, but I’m starting to believe that I would rather die with people than live without them. Jesus preferring the company of tax collectors and harlots comes to mind, but perhaps that’s not an apt metaphor. I’m not sure. But I have a very strong sense that living at a remove from everyone is harmful and will ultimately be fatal if it ends up becoming the norm. If we all find bubbles in which we can physically commune as God intended, then we’ll survive. Otherwise not.

    I welcome anyone who has some insight on this topic.

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