We are apparently living in the age of the face, and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. I know all the complaints about our culture of “selfies,” and there are certainly many things in that to make us wonder, but our fascination with our faces long predates the technology of our phones. In the usage of the early Church, the word for face (prosopon) is also the word for person. It is the face that most truly reveals our identity, emotions, interests and a host of other things. Our ability to read the faces of others is sometimes highly developed. In the Scriptures, the most intimate possible union of man and God is contained in the phrase “face-to-face.” St. Paul equates beholding Christ face-to-face as the fulfillment of salvation itself.
I find our present fascination with the face (selfie’s) to be a symptom of our search for meaning, place, and identity. That search, of course, can be healthy and salvific just as it can be morbid and selfish. In a mass culture of consumption, those things that most properly pertain to the true self are constantly homogenized and blended into a sea of commonality.
This is a very strange thing to be happening in a civilization that celebrates, even exalts, individuality. The cult of the individual is contradicted by the culture of consumption. The very things we purchase in order to display our uniqueness often come off a rack of similar items. We have traded individuality for the group (tribe).
Individuality is extremely fragile. In that it is singular and unique, everything around it tends to want to absorb it. That absorption is its destruction and disappearance. Within the tribe, faces become interchangeable and lose their meaning. There is very little distance between the tribe and the mob.
Part of the emptiness of social media is its constant loss of the individual. Faces are replaced by names (or just “likes”). Who we are is quickly absorbed by the opinions we hold that take their place in a sea of other opinions. It is a formula that presses for the extreme, for only the extreme can be heard or seen.
Within the modern American tragedy of mass shootings, I wonder if there is not a perverse drive for individuality. Victims are often just that – victims – not individuals, persons, unique and unrepeatable. They become one of five, or twelve, or eight-six. The shooter can imagine that his name will be remembered and his face never forgotten. “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” Of course, this perverted tragedy is a failure. Within weeks, the name of the shooter is forgotten, as well as their face. They simply join the ranks of a new tribe: “shooters.”
Our face, our unique and true identity, can never exist in isolation: it must be seen by someone. Ironically, in our constant posting of our own image, our face becomes something mostly seen by ourselves. It is a solipsistic representation of self, truly ironic in that the image portrayed by the camera, like that in a mirror, is actually reversed when compared to what others see.
It is in this need to be rightly seen that the nature of our relationship with God becomes clear. Unlike the many things and people around us, God has no interest in absorbing us. Indeed, His relationship with us is utterly opposed to absorption. He means to establish us as His equals (yes, I know that sounds shocking).
“Face to face” is an impossible encounter between two non-equals. That one is greater than the other precludes the ability of the lesser to see them properly. The direction of the Incarnation is God’s own movement making possible our meeting with Him face-to-face. It is echoed in this remarkable verse:
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, (Heb. 2:11)
Christ elevates the disciples to this position when He says:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (Jn. 15:15)
We also hear it spoken eschatologically in the extreme saying from Revelation:
He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Rev. 3:21)
This is the condescension of God in His love for man!
This meeting as equals also means the respect of boundaries: there is communion but no absorption. The primary aspect of our personal boundary is freedom. There can be no coercion in the communion of persons, only love. What is given to us in beholding the face of God is purely the gift of God. What we return to Him can only be the same. A gift can only proceed from freedom.
Sadly, our fascination with our own face is not truly an act of love. We don’t actually like our face. Our many selfies represent just so many efforts “to pose.” Like the sound of our voice, we often wince at the first glimpse of ourselves. We never look quite like we imagine. Make-up and lighting help, but they represent our constant drive to change how we appear. Indeed, the discomfort we feel with details of our own face are symptoms of shame. The primary physical elements of shame are experienced in the face. Blood rushes to the face, our eyes look down, and, most often, we turn our faces away. Shame hides.
To behold God face-to-face necessarily means that we behold Him without shame. Thus, this experience holds within it the promise of complete forgiveness and healing from the damage of sin. The icons of saints are normatively painted full face (except when turned slightly towards the figure of Christ in prayer). Their faces, like that of Christ, bear witness to their glorification. They look towards us in the gift of pure freedom with friendship and love. It is an invitation to unite with them in their face-to-face encounter with Christ. It establishes and completes them as persons. It is for this same reason that they are not only depicted in full face but are always identified with their names written on the icon. It betokens that they have fully become who they were created to be.
Fascinating, Father! Thank you.
Just amazing Father. It reminds me of Dr. Edwards Tronick’s ‘still face’ experiment. The video on Youtube is riveting if you haven’t seen it. Dr. Tronick suggests that a child must experience the face and loving gaze of a parent to develop a healthy sense of self. Without that face or gaze the child being ‘unseen’ matures with a wound that can turn into various addictions or psychological disorders, including NPD.
The still face experiment is very illustrative of how essential the face is to our life.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, there is so much to ponder here.
A couple of questions for clarification:
Do icons of saints make them present because of their theosis, or would any image to some extent make the prototype present and we only honor those of saints because of their theosis?
Also, given the Orthodox understanding of time, is the second person of the Trinity considered eternally human (e.g., before the birth of Christ, and also now)? I recently saw a certain Protestant statement of beliefs that said Christ “was human, and is God” (notice this use of verb tenses, which I’m not sure I had seen before).
I ran across an interesting article this morning, which seems somehow apposite to the topic at hand:
‘Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study’
“Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.”
I am 66, and have met with much of my extended family on Zoom every Sunday evening since the pandemic began. I mean every Sunday – I think I missed 2 in 15 months. I have not met with any of them in person since Christmas 2019. I do somehow feel ‘in touch’ with my family, but I have to admit it’s strange and lacking in some weird, but deeply felt way. Those were the faces of my loved ones, but… something.
Have a look at the article if you have time – it’s a quick read. I have to think about this a lot more, in the light of your essay. I’d love to hear your comments.
As to Christ humanity – we confess that He remains fully God and fully man unto all eternity. “Was human, and is God” is Nestorianism.
According to St. Basil, “The honor given to the image is given to the prototype” and he uses the example of the image of the emperor, who was certainly not a saint. So, he would see the relationship between image and prototype to be a universal principle and not simple something that is true for saints.
I think all of us felt the “absence” (both visually in masking, as well as in person through our distancing), and that absence in all its forms cannot be made up by substitutes. In that sense, the pandemic has been a disease that affects more than just the virus’ effects on our bodies. There have been psychological wounds that may, over time, prove to have been more difficult.
However that may be, we pray God for relief, and give thanks that things are slowly (and a bit unevenly) returning to some version of normal. Of course, insanity and foolishness are harder to cure. We will feel those effects for quite some time to come (though they were already present).
I love your reflections, as always. I think this is a provocative thought: I find our present fascination with the face (selfie’s) to be a symptom of our search for meaning, place, and identity.” Also, the selfie culture as endless posing. In an age of camera phones, every young child is constantly urge to say ‘cheese’ and they frequently change expression when approached with a camera in hand. Babies and children seem to instinctively search for the face (without a camera interjected between yours and theirs). It makes me ponder the’ unposed life.’
Thanks for article link. I recall Marshall McLuhan’s, “The media is the message.” I watched liturgy online for about 4 months. To me it got harder and harder to watch. It only served to remind me of what I was missing.
In summer of last year, I really was missing spending time wth our grandchildren. I had seen them from only a distance since Covid began. And I wanted to hug them! So, silly grandfather that I was, I brought a sheet on the next visit. I had them turn their back to me and I threw the sheet over their head and hugged them from the back! This was outside their house. Neighbors must have thought I was nuts! But no virtual hug could be comparable!
Exactly what I needed to read and contemplate today. Thank you for your wisdom.
Well, Father, as big a topic as shame is and how it impacts our lives in so many ways, I hope your book is not 800 pages. God grant you the wisdom and strength to complete it
The topic has been so difficult for me. There are about 5 versions in the trashcan already. The present iteration has the title at the top of the page: “The Last Book on Shame.” I eventually decided that I cannot write the definitive book on shame – it’s not my task. Instead, I’m writing, in some chapters, an introduction to the topic which, following footnotes and bibliography, a reader could learn more with greater detail if they desire.
Instead, I am writing with shame re-integrated into the theology of the Church and the exploration of its use (and misuse). It is a path to theosis (a journey to the true face). It’s also a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.
All the chapters are outlined, and I’m making good progress. It will be way-way-way shy of 800 pages! I write thin books.
I went to a new doctor the other day wearing the mask In the exam room she asked if I minded taking it off. She wanted to see my face and get to know me. No fear. I went to see her for a skin condition which can cause embarrssiment. It was nasty. She saw why I was there immediately. Looked at closely and said: “We can’t cure this, but we can make it better. ” She was looking me right in my eyes as she said it I still had my mask on and had largely forgotten it because of her humanity. Best doc appointment I have ever had.
I recall working with young children and how important it is to “get down on their level”. They need to see the faces of adults near them so they can form strong friendships and bonds. I recall one girl who would reach out and touch adults’ faces, softly feeling their contours and shape, as she spoke with them. When I first met her I immediately loved to talk with her and smiled while she got to know my face. It is a warm, vivid memory that has stayed with me ever since.
Father, do you address the role of Confession in the healing of shame?
Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Very thought provoking. And helpful towards a better understanding of icons. I get a lot from reading your work.
“In an age of camera phones, every young child…frequently change expression when approached with a camera”
This made me sad, because most people do not realize how much this type of posing affects us, and how much effort is involved.
I once dated a successful model who had a serious aversion to amateurs with cameras. On those occasions
that she would reluctantly let a picture be taken, she would concentrate for some seconds, then position herself perfectly to the camera with a perfect expression (really, an amazing transformation), the picture would be taken, and then her personality would be somehow off for some hours after that.
The selfie culture is twisting us more than we realize.
Face has being going around in my head, since waking up this morning. There are many expressions in the English language that have, face, faced and facing; can’t face up to…, shame faced, hard faced, facing the facts, etc.
There are the faces we can wear (prosopon is also a word for the masks that actors wore in Ancient Greek theatre), if we’re good at that sort of thing, to hide who we really are.
It’s hard to accept who we really are and what we may have done and despite being shame faced, in its tue sense, to stand before the Lord. But this is what God wants, all our false faces and delusional thinking to be cast aside, so we can truly receive His loving mercy, forgiveness and healing. As the Psalmist exhorts us; ‘Let not your faces be abashed.’
Thank you Fr. Stephen, for yet another wonderful arcticle.
I was reminded by a good friend and fellow parishioner yesterday that I do not need to feel shame for anything of which I have sincerely repented. In the Orthodox Church that is a gift that one is able to partake of pretty much anytime. Certainly every week.
Freedom lies in the offering before another person. The priest reminds us that “I speak not to him but to God Himself.” When the absolution comes the freedom comes in proportion to one’s depth of contrition, plus a little grace to boot.
That is why I hope Father addresses Confession or confession as integral to the healing of shame. My friend, as is her way, forcefully reminded me if that. But that she even could do that was because I shared with her what was happening.
I will be addressing confession and the place that shame (both healthy and toxic) have in our inner lives. If humility is rightly understood, it is our willingness to bear healthy shame (appropriate shame). I do not imagine a state of the soul in which there is no humility – God clothes Himself in humility. It is understanding the true nature of these things and the path that we are called to walk that is at the heart of all of this.
Much that we think we know about shame is simply about its toxic form. It makes it difficult for us to acquire true humility. We are a deeply arrogant society and culture, which makes this a very difficult path to walk. As God gives grace, I hope I describe the path well in this coming work.
Thank you Father. Like all good answers, it leaves me with more to explore.
I like to go back to root words and meanings when exploring concepts. It is well known that the root of humble comes from a word meaning “on the ground”, “earth”. A meaning I had not really thought of much is “not self-asserting”. As I begin examining that it is, I suspect, much deeper than not being arrogant. As Father intimates, it is beyond anything I can easily relate to as a child of a culture that demands just the opposite. Those who do not assert themselves are weak failures. Indeed there are some kinds of non-self-assertion that are just the opposite of humility.
Has to relate to The Cross somehow.
The closest thing I can posit is that any sin I perceive, in myself or others is also mine to take to Jesus in repentance. Especially if I am hurt by the sin of another. Not seeking ‘justice’ for myself. That grates sooo much.
if humility is bearing healthy shame for us. What is humility for God? Does God bear healthy shame? Is it God bears our shame?
This is where the word “shame” becomes problematic for us. It requires understanding what it means when we say “healthy shame” and exactly how that is the content of “humility.”
Healthy shame is the ability to accept boundaries, the restraint that comes with relating to others. In our sinful, broken, condition, those boundaries are sometimes painful, or come as a result of something we’ve done wrong. But they also have a non-sin-related aspect. For example, when listening to someone else in a conversation, the ability to attend to what they are saying, and making a respectful place for that to happen in your heart, is an accepting of a boundary.
I use this example (there are so many others) because it’s so common. Often, we simply tolerate the other speaking while we’re already thinking of our response, etc. In the Church, there are “ranks” or “hierarchies.” These are boundaries that set certain persons in certain positions. The “order” of that ranking is acted out in the Divine Liturgy. In the Liturgy we are all “taking our places” – each fulfilling his/her own role while attending to the others.
In God, we see that His love is clothed in humility. It is a patient love that gives us space (even when we don’t deserve it, or are misbehaving). He regards us as “persons” and does not over-run our existence. The Persons of the Holy Trinity live this is sublime perfection that is the Oneness of the Trinity. But, we do not begin to know God until we see this humility extended towards everyone and everything.
I suspect that “healthy shame bearing” – which is very appropriate when speaking of our experience of humility, will be better expressed simply as “humility” when we speak of God. Too confusing otherwise.
I hope this answer is not too convoluted…it’s early morning here…
Father, might ‘humility’ also be the word for healthy shame bearing for we people as well? 2 Chronicles 2:14 comes to mind: “If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. ”
You say rightly that we humans are deeply arrogant. Mark 7:20-23 also lays out the facts and consequence of such pride. https://m.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Mark-Chapter-7/
During the flu pandemic of 1918 churches were filled with people praying for deliverance and in penance in the Spirit of 2 Chronicles 2:14.
Humility is an appropriate word for our healthy shame-bearing as well. I hope I will have done a clarifying work on all of this in my book. If someone wants to go deep, I recommend Fr. Zacharias’ book Christ, Our Way and Our Life – which was his dissertation on the teachings of St. Sophrony. I hope to have pulled from that St. Sophrony’s understanding and given it in an easily approachable form with attention to particular challenges in our life. But, as always, I’m just working from the tradition – as an interpreter.
Father, I am currently halfway through reading Christ our Way and our Life. So far for me it has been the most profound and touching theological (I am using the word theological in a specific sense as opposed to spirituality, but of course there is overlap), book I have read.
I think you are right when you say the book has a good deal to say about humility. I have always found the humility of Christ to be His most striking virtue in the gospels. In hindsight that could be because of the emphasis on God’s grandeur and separateness and our depravity and smallness emphasised in the tradition I was previously apart of. Thankfully I am not bothered and rarely remember my previous problems, and I think I have been catechised and grounded enough in the Orthodox faith to have steady footing.
Anonymo: A prayer for all of us, as a monk told me recently, may you continue to grow in humility. Stubborn and prideful as I am that often means difficulties but even those are sent by God. In His humility He went to the Cross. You are right. That humility is striking.
For me this article was one of your most essential and timely. I deeply resonate with your statement about how so much of the person is represented by the face – AND that our fascination with headshots seems to be something primal which is trying to put right the imbalance brought about by the separation caused by technology usage and other forces, like the national disease of individualism. I suspect there is much to unpack in this whole facial phenomenon.
I also looked up the referenced “still face” experiments and found them very striking. It said a lot to me about a) what my children probably need from me as a father and b) how much God really desires to simply spend time with us. Extremely profound.
Thanks for sharing these reflections.