Day 100. Facie ad Faciem

JMJ

QUARANTINE’S FIRST TERRIFIED PANIC led to a tedium where days blent together in disordered shades of fog. This, in turn, parted like a curtain on a sort of political theater which allows us to pass the time with a modicum of excitement unrelated to our sickness or death. In my fear at the beginning of this excitement, I did not realize but I was watching political theater. Only as things settled into a new normal did I begin to realize that some of this was merely drama and entirely unnecessary. The Theatre has been (for me) most prevalent in the Church. My friends were not fighting for toilet paper or hand sanitizer, but they were arguing over how “The Rules” (health orders, etc) are “oppressing” the Church. There were some who felt otherwise, and so they fought online. I’ve learned that many who are Catholics and proud of our intellectual tradition become just as keen to deny science when it serves their political (theatrical) ends. Also, as wealthy, mostly-white Americans we have a very distorted view of what “oppression” actually is. This is playing out in our reactions to other cultural moments right now. While oppressed people are actually demanding justice, some – politicians, clergy, and laity – are simply reacting to the demand in a theatrical manner. This political theatre even though it’s inside the church had to be ignored as the worldly distraction it really is. Even the debate about socialism was only more political theatre.

One hundred days into this new cultural pattern things are more than beginning to fray around the edges. First, when I and almost all of my friends who lived through the 80s noticed the parallel with AIDS, it seemed sort of OK but even so, every reaction was fear-driven. Then, for a while, there was a depression that wasn’t letting go. One day I realized I could offer this cross to God – that I should offer it to him – and then things got markedly better. Then I learned that I have one extroverted quality above all others: processing things externally with the help of others. It’s not just being around others that’s important, but rather processing around others. Going to the park is not just fun, but the maddening crowd forms a meditative space where thoughts, feelings, and process all happen.

Additionally, my extroverted self is not just struggling to process things in public, but struggling to be seen from an external point of view: when you see me, I can be. Somehow this seems to be part of my struggles around intimacy, sex, friendship, and love. Being alone means for me non-being: how can there be any being if there is no validation, no interaction? This struggle arises at work as well as when a whole day goes by without any Slack interactions. How can today have gone well? No one spoke to me. In these mental habits living alone means never having time to think. Destructive, sinful patterns that come and go in my life are resurfacing and – like depression – it took forever to realize these are crosses that need to be offered up.

Writing to the Corinthians, in the concluding passages of “The Love Chapter” St Paul turns a curious phrase:

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away… For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 (AV)

We only know in part, he says, starting out, seemingly, with something theological, mystical, but then it suddenly jumps to first-person intimacy: Face to face, I shall know even as I am known.

The Greek here for face-to-face is πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον and yes, it means “Face to Face” but it also means so very much more. Πρόσωπον prosopon is the mask an actor wears in Greek theatre – which theatre was often a religious act. It means not just “face” (as in I put on a mask to look like someone else) but rather it means the entire persona that the actor became when wearing the mask. Prosopon means the intimate personhood of a being. Paul means here, person to person, divine to mortal, God to Man. What that would be like, Paul does not say here, although it is related to love, to charity, to agape. Yet in his next letter he has cause to use prosopon one more time. Saying that God has given us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face (prosopon) of Jesus Christ. In the very person of Jesus the Messiah, we have the very knowledge of the glory of God. In looking into the face of Jesus – the full prosopon of God – we are each revealed as prosopon. We have become ourselves, knowing as we are known. God sees us as subject of his gaze and offers himself as subject for ours as well.

The desire to be known which pretends to offer validation to me is but a corruption of this revelation that each of us – in his fullness – is known (and validated) exactly in this way by God. Not only that, but God does not seek just to see us in an omnidirectional panopticon. He’s not watching: he’s relating. He seeks to reveal himself to us, person to person. God reveals himself in the personhood, the prosopon of Jesus.

That this should be done in the context of an offered cross should come as no surprise since that’s the way God revealed himself to us, stretched out on the beams of a cross, pierced in hands and feet and side. That this should come a personal cost should be no surprise either, vide supra. That this should come as a gift of a very personal weakness, a very personal failing: that’s what we call grace.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.