“The self resides in the face.” – Psychological Theorist, Sylvan Tompkins
There is a thread running throughout the Scriptures that can be described as a “theology of the face.” In the Old Testament we hear a frequent refrain of “before Thy face,” and similar expressions. There are prayers beseeching God not to “hide His face.” Very clearly in Exodus, God tells Moses that “no one may see my face and live.” In the New Testament, there is a clear shift. The accounts of Christ’s transfiguration describe His face as shining. St. Paul speaks of seeing God “in the face of Jesus Christ.” He also speaks of us gazing steadily on Christ “with unveiled faces.” Orthodox Christianity has a very particular understanding of the face, modeled in the holy icons. It is worth some thought and reflection.
In both Latin and Greek, the word translated as “person,” actually refers to the face, or a mask (as a depiction of the face). The face is not only our primary presentation to the world, and our primary means of relationship, it is also, somehow, that which is most definitively identified with our existence as persons. Developmental psychologists say that the face-to-face gazing of mother and child in the act of nursing is an essential building block in the development of personality and the ability to relate to others.
It should be of note that the Holy Icons are always depicted facing us, with some few, turned ever so slightly. Those “turned” faces are found on icons whose placement would have originally been on an iconostasis and are slightly turned so as to be acknowledging the Christ icon. The only figures portrayed in profile are Judas Iscariot and the demons (or those who are fulfilling those roles). In the art of the Renaissance, and subsequent, this treatment of the face disappears. The human figure is simply studied for itself, as art, the relational function of the icon having been forgotten.
The Orthodox understanding of salvation is reflected in its treatment of icons. St. Paul’s description of being transformed as we behold the face of Christ is an expression of true personhood. Our “face” becomes more properly what it should be as we behold the face of Christ. This “looking” is, to a degree, what we today would call a “relationship,” though, I think, it has more insight and import. “Relationship” has become a word that is almost completely vacuous, lacking in substance.
With the face, and its implications for personhood, much more can be said. I cannot see the face of another without looking at them. To see your face, I must reveal my face. That face-to-face encounter is pretty much the deepest and oldest experience we have as human beings (first experienced with our mother in nursing). For the whole of our lives, our faces are the primary points of experience and reaction. We cannot truly know the other without encountering them face-to-face.
It is probably significant that art turned away from the face and toward the figure. The language of salvation as “not going to hell” or “going to heaven,” is, strangely, impersonal. The same is true of justification and the like. It easily sounds like a medical procedure, a treatment of the body (or worse).
Similar to the face is the treatment of names. In Revelation, the image of salvation is the giving of a new name. In the Old Testament, this same thing happens to Abram (Abraham) and Jacob (Israel). In their cases, a new name signals a change in them and a change in their status before God. By the same token, it has always struck me as deeply personal and touching that Christ sometimes had nicknames for his disciples: “Peter” (“Rock”) and “Boanerges” for James and John (the “Sons of Thunder”). I suspect there were others. In the Orthodox tradition, a child is named on the eighth day after birth, or, if later, at Baptism. The giving of a name at Baptism is also a very ancient part of Baptism in the West.
In these things, we must understand that we are “known.” We are known uniquely and not by reputation or reference. We are not in a category, nor are we the “objects” of God’s love. That we are being changed by beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ suggests that we have to look at him – directly. This is very much part of the meaning of true communion.
Psychologists describe the bonding between mother and child in nursing (and face-to-face) as communion:
Identification begins as a visual process, but quickly becomes an internal imagery process, encompassing visual, auditory, and kinesthetic scenes. It is that universal scene of communion between mother and infant, accomplished through facial gazing in the midst of holding and rocking during breast or bottle feedings, that creates the infant’s sense of oceanic oneness or union. (Psychology of Shame, Kaufman, pg 31)
I was somewhat staggered to find such a theologically compatible statement in a work of technical psychology. Sometimes scientific observation is simply spot-on.
As we grow older, we never again gaze into the eyes of a person as we once did with our mothers. Lovers are often drawn to the eyes of the beloved, and find a measure of communion, but wounds and injuries eventually interrupt the initial innocence of such eyes. The same is at least as true with regard to God.
Regarding the face of God, there is this very telling passage in Revelation:
And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev. 6:16)
It is of note that Revelation does not simply speak of the wrath of the Lamb, nor merely of His presence. It is specifically a fear of His face. Our experience of the face is an experience of nakedness and vulnerability. On the positive side, the result is identification, communion and oneness. On the negative side, it is the pain of shame and the felt need to hide. I can think of nothing else in nature that so closely parallels and reveals the fundamental character of our relationship with God. Salvation is communion. Sin is an enduring shame.
It is into this existential/ontological reality of sin/shame that Christ enters in His Incarnation, suffering and death. The depths of hell are everlasting shame and yet, He doesn’t hesitate to enter there in order to rescue us. Christ’s rescue of Adam and Eve in Hades are a final echo of the encounter in the Garden. They hid in shame, but He came looking for them. Then, He covered them with the skins of animals, but now He covers them in the righteousness of the Lamb who was slain. Then they were expelled from Paradise; now they are restored. Then, they fled from before His face; now they behold Him face to face – and rejoice.
When I pray before the icon of Christ, I notice that His gaze never changes. He does not hide Himself from my shame – but He bids me return my gaze to His. Unashamed, painless. You can find paradise in those eyes!
I really appreciate your analogy re: face-to-face connection and nursing (Kaufman). Interestingly (sadly) the inverse of this is exhibited in the “still face” experiment, developed by psychologist Ed Tronick.
” after three minutes of “interaction” with a non-responsive expressionless mother, (the child) “rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”
Some of the newer research focuses on face-to-face connection and vagal entrainment (heart synchrony) between mother and child. I feel like there is a powerful lesson in this.
Thank you Father Stephen
As dogs are the most domesticated animals–in the sense that we have most conditioned their species’ development to make them more companionable–I don’t know whether they qualify as “nature,” but perhaps unsurprisingly they, too, seem capable of shame and the desire to hide one’s face.
Their faces have muscles that allow their mimicking of some of the expressions we have. To be sure, we may only interpret what their showing us as shame whereas internally what they experience is something different, but I think it still reinforces the point of your article. Given time, we make our pets more like ourselves (at least those animals we want to have something of a relationship with). What could be more human than to feel shame?
YouTube has a cottage industry of videos with dogs evidencing shame for doing things of which their owners disapprove. Unsurprisingly, this is often most evident in face avoidance.
“wounds and injuries eventually interrupt the initial innocence of such eyes” Such a poignant phrase….
My wife and I got married because when we looked at each other the Light of Christ shone through our eyes for each other. To this day, I am stunned by her beauty, in awe of Our Lord at the same time.
In the book I’ve just published on shame and the spiritual life (Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame), I cite the still face experiment. It is very much to the point…
I’m very strong on this. Dogs have been with us for perhaps as long as 60,000 years. They have been shown to be able to read the complex emotions of the human face, and do, indeed, seem to share many of them with us. FWIW, I think a proper role of human beings, outside of the Fall, was to raise creation to a higher level, elevating to the level that we ourselves were intended for. This, I think, can be seen in Romans 8.
Father, you may appreciate the work of phenomenologist and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas. He bases his metaphysics in the ethic that erupts from the face-to-face encounter with the Other (other people and, through their face, God). His book “Totality and Infinity” is splendid.
I’ll note that. The Old Testament has an instinct that seeing God “face to face” is the proper end of our existence – to goal towards which we move. It is fulfilled, truly, only in Christ. The New Testament is what the Old Testament longs for.
My dog, Dax, says prayers with us every morning. He even reminds us going in front of our prayer table at the appointed and assuming his prayer position.
During the day, we seek each other’s faces frequently..
My wife bought him for me when I retired as a companion.
When I need to ‘have a talk’ with my son I tell him “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” We can only be corrected/healed by bearing a little shame face-to-face with Christ. To hide only makes the wound more disfiguring.
With the talk of dogs, I am reminded now of the poem The Hound of Heaven.
This article is heartbreaking. All I’ve truly wanted my whole life was to be face to face with God. He is of course all around us and sometimes I glimpse Him in the eyes of my neighbor. But the process is so slow. The years, even with all God’s grace, seem torturous and long. It is almost too hard to look at Him in this life because I know He won’t let me stay there right now. Even so, Lord Jesus Christ, come quickly.
“The snow here is soft and deep
But I have promises to keep
And hours to go before I sleep
Hours to go before I sleep”
Thank you Father Stephen
A beautiful post, but how could it be otherwise given its subject!
These things are deeply on my mind at present. We live it seems in an age where our faces are more hidden than ever, buried in our phones. Little children are starved of the loving gaze which anchors them in time and space. Add to that the contemporary idea that we can choose our own names. The mirror of Narcissus comes to mind in both cases.
Lord have mercy!
Drewster, be heartened brother! He is in your heart. The more I repent of my sins, the more His face shines in many other people I see.
Rest in the Joy of the Lord.
I love the talk of dogs. If I would simply have a certain tone of voice with her name, my sweet little dog Suzie would certainly avoid eye contact.
By coincidence, came across this on FB today
I don’t think my friend would mind his public post link above, but in case you want a different link, Father, here is one. Feel free to edit either way. Sorry to trouble
Dear Fr Stephen,
I just picked up your new book, can’t wait to start. My wife and I are expecting our first child this fall. I’ve been blown away several times by the reality of a new human life developing inside my wife’s body. I just simply can’t wrap my head around it. I understand the biology of it (sort of), but when we heard the heartbeat, and I remember the presence of a third person when her and I are alone together, words and biology fall away.
At our parish, we have a very nice hand painted icon of Christ (the image not made by hands). Several people have noted that the icon does seem to change sometimes. Although His gaze does not change, something feels different at different times. Maybe it has to do with our internal state? Whatever is going on, I think it comes back to relationship. My wife looks different to me when we’ve had an argument and when we’re getting along. Thanks for your helpful writing here.
I think some of the most wonderful mysteries in my life have come from pondering my wife as she carried our children, and the relationship of mother and child when they were born. All four (the youngest of whom is over 30) were nursed. I often pondered that experience – and wondered at Mary as she would have nursed Jesus – in that intimate communion – who many times a day? – for what – 2 1/2 years? Those who ignore Mary, or make light of her, seem to me to have ignored simple reality. She literally(!) beheld God face-to-face for hours (hours!) a day – at His beck and call.
To this day, I not only strive to behold Christ face-to-face, but I delight in seeing Him reflected in His mother’s eyes.
What wonder! God give you and your wife – and the child she bears within her – much grace and fill you with all good things!
Where we encounter our Lord Face to Face so far: the living face of our dog; the face of our spouse; the faces of a mother and her nursing child, icons. All true and wonderful examples.
I wonder if two other places: my own heart; the face of my enemy.
Michael, those last 2 places are our challenge and our salvation I believe
There is one person I experienced years ago who expressed the Joy of seeing God in a beautiful, unique and compelling way: Geoffrey Holder. He was an artist, a dancer, an actor. He was a large man with a compelling and charming bass voice accented beautifully by a Trinidadian accent…(known nationally here as the “Uncola Man” of 7Up years ago)
When I saw him , he strod onto the stage*, got everyone’s attention with the power of his presence, raised his right index finger as a teacher in front of a class and proclaimed loudly: “I have seen God Baby! And He is right here(pointing to his physical/spiritual center)!
…and everytime He wants to talk to me, He starts my body moving!”
And then he moved… beauty and Grace shone forth. He also physically expressed many of the people in Trinidad he knew including an old, small, Trinidadian female shaman. Remember he was a large(6’6″), man, in his prime in the late 1960’s..
These people became alive and present through him.
After seeing that and the sheer beauty of the rest of his demonstration, I had no doubt of the veracity of what he said.
He reposed in 2014, Memory Eternal.
*A note: having acted on that stage I can say that it was a really difficult place to communicate with an audience from. One had to be really good to connect with an audience let alone command them.
What is more divinely human than the face? Your blog answers that question, Father Stephen. What would life be like if faces are hidden? The last few years have answered that question.
I cherish the icon you depict in this post. It is the icon in my prayer corner.
Nursing my children taught me to love. They taught me to love in their innocence, needfulness and wonder.
You reference St Paul’s words in your article, and by coincidence, I read them today in my daily scripture reading:
2 Corinthians 3:16-18
Dee, thank you
Hi Fr. Stephen (& friends).
I’m excited about the new book and especially look forward to the audio version being available. May your voice be healed.
This is a lovely post. What came to mind for me is the recent passings of two people important in my life. My mother fell asleep in the Lord on January 7th at the age of 96. A patient who was like a spiritual sister to me fell asleep in our Savior on March 16.
There is something about death that is so hard for me to wrap my head around. To see a well-known and beloved face deteriorate as the spirit pulls away from the dying body, as though struggling, even screaming, against its journey, but then so peaceful in repose, once that final battle is won.
And, if this were not enough, I am stunned to realize that the departed one is now face-to-face with God. The notion both frightens me and evokes a bit of envy. With all of my struggles in faith, I think to myself, “They know. Now they truly know.” Not that I have any reason beyond my human weakness to doubt what comes next, but there is a fright in having all that I have sought and believed in my life put to the test. Will it really be so?
But the envy, a sweet and innocent envy, because I rejoice for the other that they have received what I so long for: to see Him face to face. To know as I am known. To know true communion with nothing to hold me back.
All glory and praise to Him.
mary, so good to hear your voice again. May the Lord continue to be with you and His angels guardians and guides.
Not long ago you wrote that an abbess once told you that you would become Orthodox when you stop thinking with your mind and begin “thinking” with your heart. I’m not sure I’m remembering this correctly. I want to share it with someone. Thanks.
Thank you Abouna!
Truth is always self evident in Faith. God is Truth and Love and is always there to receive us in open arms as you can see it in the icon of Christ, as you mentioned . He is our loving Father that created us from the beginning. Our Lord and Saviour taught us to say the Lord’s Prayer (Abana (in Arabic is “our father”) is plural as you know. We all are his children. Amen 🙏
Pray for us Abouna, (which basically has the same meaning as “Abana).
Thanks 🙏 again. Al