The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ

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.(2 Corinthians 4:6)

I have been laboring (with some success) on a promised book regarding the nature and place of shame in the spiritual life. Central to the work is a contemplation of the face – both ours and the face of God. Human emotions are primarily expressed through our faces – we “read” one another. If I want to get to know you, I need to encounter you face-to-face. The Scriptures use the language of the face of God to describe the most intimate possible encounter with Him. In the Old Testament, there are two strands. One stresses that “no man can see God and live,” while another says that Moses and Jacob spoke to God face-to-face. I have no suggestion of how to reconcile those strands. They are both there.

More than ever, it has become clear to me that our healing (and thus our salvation on the most practical level) flows from our face-to-face encounter with Christ. This is primarily something that happens within the heart, within the deepest levels of the soul. At the same time, it has been ever more clear to me that the deepest levels of the soul are frequently clouded and distorted. As St. Paul notes, “we see as through a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). “Cleaning the mirror” is an image used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in a description of the spiritual life. It is the fruit of repentance.

Bearing all of this in mind, it seems deeply important that we be cognizant of the distortions within the soul. Most of those distortions are the product of our own sins, or the sins of others whose damage has become part of our own burden. Moving through those distortions requires patience, the willingness to “bear a little shame,” and the long wisdom of the Church.

This, above all, is the great struggle of our time. In the course of my lifetime, nothing has ever compared to the heightened sensitivites and passions of the present. Everything I see tells me that this trial is only going to become more difficult. And, make no mistake, the trial is being waged in the heart rather than in the jostling debates and policies of the world outside. The noise outside of us serves primarily as a means for distorting the heart, for clouding the mirror. The world is seeking to hide from the face of Christ.

St. Silouan once said, “My brother is my life.” I suspect that it was the case that he had learned to see the face of Christ in the face of his brothers. I suspect that it is possible to see the face of Christ even in our enemies. I can only suspect this because it makes sense theologically. My heart is far too clouded to know this by experience.

And yet, when I see the face of Christ, I see that He loves my enemies even as He loves me. Of course, it is also the case that I am my greatest enemy.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.(1 John 3:2)

25 comments:

  1. Hey Fr.Stephen ,

    Thanks for your thoughtful words . I recently read that during the pandemic , persons in nursing homes( and perhaps us all ?) often feel more lonely when visiting with family virtually than if they had not been visited at all . Something about manufactured “FaceTime” that makes the absence of the real all the more painful

    Kent

  2. “I am my greatest enemy.” Wow father way to knock it out of the park. I ever thought about it that way before but it’s so true. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  3. Seeing the face of Christ means we also come into contact with our own face. This is why we see the paradoxical responses regarding the human face. On one hand, the people of the world have used every sort of chemical goo to smear over and hide the beauty of the human face for millennia, for it reflects the image of Christ—and His Mother—whom they hate. On the other, the merest suggestion of very temporarily restraining or distancing ourselves—or our face—from public view in order to do good to our neighbor is met with histrionic outcry that we are “important” and this will cause us to “lose ourselves” (if only!), for Christ’s humility and death is abhorrent to our culture. Our relationship with our faces is thus almost entirely reversed, in every single way. So is our relationship to Christ’s face—and to Christ.

  4. JBT,
    It is, I think, God’s intention that we actually see our face in the face of the Other (God and neighbor). I can never really see who I am by looking at my own face (as in a mirror). Only in looking at the face of Christ within the heart can I see my own face (we will see who we are when we see Him as He is).

    A Lutheran theologian whose work is often quite good (and frequently dependent on Orthodox sources) once said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in the Son.” That I think is true.

  5. Fr Stephen, what practical advice do you offer people in order to help them cleanse their mirror? How do we patiently move through the distortions and bear the shame? Do you find that we need to acknowledge and work through the distortions (pain/trauma/sin/passions/etc.) that cloud our vision of God or is it simply a matter of finding and attending to the place of the heart? Your writings on this topic are very helpful. Thank you.

  6. Aaron,
    Good questions. I think that the life of the Church (its whole life) is the primary answer – indeed, it’s the answer Jesus gave us.

    First, in the life of the Church we are “bathed” in Scripture, in hymnody with its theology, with the beauty of heaven in the Liturgy.
    Second (and none of these are greater or lesser) we feed on the Body and Blood of Christ.
    Third, we should learn to “participate” in the offering within the Liturgy – by offering of “our selves, our souls, our bodies” (that’s an Anglican phrase), both what is good and what is bad. All of it.
    Fourth, particularly in the sacrament of Confession, we “bear a little shame,” and bit by bit, we clean a little here and a little there.
    Fifth, giving God thanks always and for all things.
    Sixth, looking for Christ in others by serving others.
    Seventh, in everything and everywhere, look for Christ.

    He is the soul’s mirror.

    From the Odes of Solomon:

    Ode 13

    Behold, the Lord is our mirror. Open your eyes and see them in Him.
    And learn the manner of your face, then declare praises to His Spirit.
    And wipe the paint from your face, and love His holiness and put it on.
    Then you will be unblemished at all times with Him.
    Hallelujah.

  7. Father, I am fascinated with the role of tears in all this. Years of contrition, tears of thanksgiving and joy, tears of rage etc. It seems they have a deeply cleansing function, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Often I am not sure what to do with them even in private.

  8. Aaron,
    If I was to be so bold as to add one more thing to Father’s most excellent advice… (In fact it is not ‘adding’ something, since “giving thanks always and for all things” and, “In everything and everywhere, look for Christ” contains what I am about to suggest.)
    This is the practice of the “Jesus prayer”.
    Certain saints, like Saint Joesph the Hesychast, would elevate this suggestion to a very central place in one’s life. They would suggest both and ‘everywhere and unceasingly’ (lighter) practice of it, as well as a more intense (like a nightime prayer rule) practice of it. As this practice really is like having access to a ‘spiritual fragrance decanter’ (Elder Aimilianos’ expression), “you tip it and you instantly have an effect of it upon you!”, its effects are invariably felt like Elijha’s experience of absolute Presence when “God wasneither in the windstorm, neither the earthquake, neither the fire but, in the sound of sheer silence.”

    The idea is that you place yourself, at an exclusive time, face-to-face before God alone. You and God. You don’t even pray for others, or rather at that time you are all others, a ‘face’ for all humanity facing its Creator. You might be repeating (to avoid the mind’s imaginings) a very ‘dry’ five or seven words, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me”, but you enter your heart of hearts as much as you can while doing this. Here lies the secret.
    The effort to do this might be simply a wilful concentration effort at times, but, especially when you are “giving thanks for all things”, it can become a leaping of the heart that is far more effective at swallowing the mind down there.
    Also “ feeding on the Body and Blood of Christ” will have the same effect on stimulating this invocation. It will enliven His presence within the heart He has just entered, so that the same ‘Jesus prayer’, acquires far more of a conscious ‘call’ (and often tearful gratitude) than it ever could without Holy Communion.
    Everything Father says is intimately connected and especially channelled with the use of this practice.
    And if we can help the entire world that is going astray in any way, this, despite it sounding so subtly transcendental, happens to be extremely practical!

  9. I may have this slightly wrong, but I think I heard that one of the Saints thought the worst Hell was that place where no one had a face. Imagine!!

  10. I read recently that shame and reverence are closely related. Shame is the sense of not being who I could be in the presence or face of someone (Christ or others) who show me a higher or more truly human way. We have all ‘slipped from above’ , our true nature. When I feel shame, I am judged by strength or virtue in another. Reverence is the other side of shame. Our shame in the face of a loving other, yet more truly human other, leads us to reverence and humility and reconciliation. Shame is different than guilt in that it is about our being. Guilt is about feeling bad for what we have done. It seems like shame experienced in a loving face to face encounter helps us come to terms with what we have done. I am coming to understand confession this way. Shame is what moves us to seek encounter and healing. I am grateful for it.

  11. Aaron, in addition, I ought to say that the ‘exclusive time’ (“tet-a-tet” /face-to-face) practice of the Jesus prayer (or even of praying the Psalter – another common quite similar ‘tradition’ when used in exactly the same manner, standing before the exclusive presence of “the One”), is somewhat opposed to the same ‘practice’ during all your other hours (the unceasing, “lighter” practice, where you might be doing two/three things at once, like walking, talking to someone, and also being aware of your heart’s prayerful attention being somewhat retained towards the One Everywhere present and filling all things.
    Both however would ideally require a guide, a good confessor, as they can lead through various adventures if consistently practised for a long time and the safety of someone like that is invaluable, especially in regards to staying humble.

    The more “exclusive” practise of the Jesus prayer, whether it’s some minutes or many hours, always has that sense of being in the “desert” that renews all, as was Noah (in the flood), Moses, Elijah, our very Lord and Paul… It is like a baptism where the ‘old self’ dies a bit more each time, “does not survive the desert”, and the ‘new self’ – In Christ –, like a Chalice able to contain Him, is shaped more and more. It is not really ‘observable’, it is slow, but like someone pouring out a sweet wine from a bottle unto the floor and yet you unexpectedly see an invisible chalice forming to contain the poured-out liquid, this chalice will one day become obvious to all who have eyes too see it as if out of nowhere.

    Of course, those who are like children have a massive head-start in this practice, far more than we would think is appropriate, but also, those who ‘dangerously’ go all in, who combine this with fasting, vigil, services, almsgiving and great ascesis in their eagerness to be as God wants them to be (not to acquire anything for themselves). Also, those who suffer, even a small intense, close to desperation, suffering of an illness, can quickly bestow an enlivened, purified and humbled heart, one that even many years of ascesis cannot achieve.

  12. Dino, what I have seen is that in any intense pain we have a choice: despair or contrition/hope and thanksgiving.
    Despair is easy. Initially the path of contrition and hope can seem difficult, even illogical.
    The Jesus Prayer encompasses everything but having a trusted spiritual advisor or priest (as difficult as that can be to find sometimes) is essential. Embracing the fullness of one’s humanity can be a challenge.
    The practice of self-flagelating, physically or spiritually must be avoided entirely. A good and compassionate guide is often necessary. But that cannot be forced either.

    As my extraordinary wife just said: “We are all deeply damaged. We either let Him heal us or we don’t.”

    Our Lord has prepared a place for us. We need not fear. Even in parlous times such as these.
    Christ is Risen!

  13. A Face and a Name
    How prescient for today is your posting!
    I cannot disparage the use of the Lord’s title “Christ”, that is Messiah. But we have something more intimate, His name and what it means. Yet among believers nearly all I hear is His title. This is the name in which we have salvation, the name the demons know. This is the name to which we cry out in times of darkness and distress as well as in thanks.

    It has become clear that we do not see each other other with “unveiled faces”. Despite the clear evidence that masks are for the most part useless, we wear them, first metaphorically as well as practically. They suit our condition. Historically, those who wore masks want to hide their identity. Interestingly the word “countenance” means more than just “face” it has to do with expression. In the great blessing with which the priests of Israel were to bless the people (Num 6:24-26) both words are used in blessing. In the passage of 2Chron7, Israel is told, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways…” it’s interesting that seeking God’s face precedes turning from wicked ways. In intimacy we will know “wicked ways” as well as the reality of forgiveness.

    Scattered thoughts about a name and a face.

  14. Fr. Stephen,

    This article helps me clarify something I’ve been trying to put into words for awhile. Classic Christian thought (and yourself) says that the face represents the whole person, that we are known through our face. This helps explain why new relationships are so difficult to form right now and existing ones are becoming strained. Just like drawing all your breath through a straw, right now we are only able know the other person through half their face or by virtual reality.

    Lord have mercy.

    But there is always a silver lining and He always has ways of using these things for our salvation. I see false or casual connections getting weeded out and other more important relationships being strengthened due to the increased effort which much be expended from both sides. But still…

    Christ have mercy.

    That passage from Paul came to my mind as well: “For now we see as through a mask dimly, but one day face to face…” I seen everyone around me go into relationship survival mode, only keeping ties with those they deem essential. True colors are coming out and people are showing where they stand. And I admit I prefer this to duplicity and nominalism. But sometimes the end of all this nonsense can’t come soon enough.

    Lord have mercy.

    May the new dawn rise and Christ be resurrected in our hearts – and that right soon!

  15. I read the biography of Maximilian Kolbe in the past year and the opening words of his book seemed similar to what you have written. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

    The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

  16. Mark Pendleton
    I wonder if masks and veils are very different things. Veils both reveal and conceal and signify discernment and reverence. Both male and female monks are veiled, for example. Veils are a paradox.

    Masks imply falseness and trickery. We should maybe be more veiled and less masked?

    Fr. Stephen
    I am really looking forward to your new book!

  17. Discussions of God, Jesus Christ and our connections can quickly take on an ephemeral feel to them, despite them being the absolute core of real existence and real life.
    The temptation to allow the Holy Trinity, our Incarnate Lord, the Church herself to become mere ideas subject to personal opinion is, I think, a great source of heresy and apostasy.
    Modernity and its technology that seems to offer human beings control over all reality exacerbates the temptation–even embodies it in some ways.

    Yet, the actual Incarnation of our Lord, God and Savior is so much more real and solid.
    His Face is real, but is most easily seen in one’s heart Not the sentimental emotionalism of the World but that core of being and substance that is revealed as we practice our Orthodox faith.
    2 Chronicles 7:14 is succinct and clear: “If the people who are called by my name will 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. “(NKJV)
    Each of the actions are discreet, concrete and easy to repeat. The Jesus Prayer, said by Grace, embodies them all. As does participation in the Sacramental life of the Church. Attending on the Sacraments is always ” seeking His face”.

    Turning humbly from the world in fasting and repentance is also crucial.
    The Christian faith is not passive. I have to participate, indeed often initiate action to place myself, all of myself, on the right road. “Seeking” His face.
    Fortunately, in my experience Jesus is generous in His response, extraordinarily generous.
    My dear mother initiated me on the way when I was 17. She gifted me with a handmade silver and turquoise cross that had been given to her by a Native American holy man and a copy if Huston Smith’s “The Religions of Man” telling me that God is real, I need to find Him–He is described in the book somewhere.
    A mere 17 years later, I was received into the Orthodox Church naively thinking I had arrived. In the 28 years since I have begun to realize just how naive I was. But God’s Grace is never ending and ever expanding.
    Glory be to Him!

  18. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2021/02/08/the-essential-goodness-of-all-things/#comment-208265

    The link above to the February 8th post really seems to compliment the current post. I don’t know that it is possible to encounter the face of Jesus without recognizing the essential goodness of all things including oneself.

    Somehow that goodness is made present in the Sacraments of the Church. Each of them specifically and in the way they interrelate and connect the seen and unseen. God and man.
    The transcendent joy that comes even as one contemplates one’s own dins and failures while offering them up to God in the living presence of His Son
    The transformative joy of the Jesus Prayer.
    It is His Face that allows me to approach the Cup; ask for absolution; offer up the soul of a loved one as they repose; Baptism; Anointing and consecrating; Marriage: Setting apart men to lead, heal and preach. Each Sacrament a testimony to His goodness and mercy which sustains us even as I am largely ignorant of His labor for me–for each of us.
    Christ is in our midst!

  19. Dino,
    I have been trying to find a quote that you posted a long time ago by Elder Aimilianos, something like: “the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven are closed to someone who tries to change themselves or others. We need to accept ourselves as we are.” I was wondering if you could post that again or, even better, post a fuller version of it – I have been trying to read more on it and have not found much.
    In Christ,
    Porphyrios

  20. Also, are you aware of any monasteries in Elder Aimilianos’ monastic tradition that aren’t Simonas Petra or Ormylia? Preferably in America.
    In Christ,
    Porphyrios

  21. I have begun to wonder whether there is any place in which to see the face of Christ more clearly than in a marriage. If, indeed, the face of Christ is seen others, then no other has more clearly revealed the face of Christ to me than my wife, for no other has revealed their true face to me as completely and clearly as she has.

  22. David, it depends on the marriage. While I endorse your idea, the selfishness and lack of male virtue in so many makes iconographic marriages difficult. By God’s Grace I have one. It did not come easily. My first wife died. My living wife had been married 3x before so our bishop rightfully denied us a marriage in the Church. She was a catechumen at the time we married. She completed her catechumenate and I was put under penance that included no reception of the Holy Mysteries. I was restored to full communion on the day she was Chrismated and received Holy Communion for the first time. It was a bit like getting married all over again.

    Her first husband became an abusive alcoholic. Her second husband was a “good Christian” but in name only. Her third husband was an amazing man but he died 9 months into their marriage.

    My late wife had an abusive father and I was not very mature when we married. We struggled. But had she lived, we would still be married.

    So much of which to repent

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