Friday, November 14, 2008

Elegy IX: An Autumnal Face[1]
by John Donne

No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one autumnal face;
Young beauties force our love, and that's a rape;
This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If 'twere a shame to love, here 'twere no shame;
Affections here take reverence's name.
Were her first years the Golden Age? that's true,
But now they're gold oft tried, and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time;
This is her tolerable tropic clime.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
Age must be loveliest at the latest day.

Sarah, our granddaughter, when she was very small, explained to me what happens when you die: "Only your face goes to heaven, not your body. You get a new body, but keep the same old face." Exactly! Faces are us.[2]

Faces are unique in their function for, unlike our other parts, there is more to them than meets the eye. Faces point beyond themselves. They are a visible reflection of the invisible soul-the place "on the surface" where the self, the personality, the "I" becomes evident.

The biblical Hebrew word for "face" may suggest that idea. It always occurs in the plural, a nicety some grammarians explain by pointing out that we do, in fact, have two faces: a left and right side. But that's only conjecture. I prefer to think that we have two faces, outer and inner, visible and invisible--a surface face that mirrors the "face" of the soul.

The Greek language enshrines the same thought: The Greek word for "face," prosopon, means "person," [3] suggesting that one's face identifies and reflects the individual. "As such, it can be a substitute for the self, or for the feelings and attitudes of the self."[4]

My mother had the same insight. She used to tell me that a mad look might someday freeze on my face--an attitude fixed for all time and for all to see.

A worried brow, an angry set to our mouths, a sly look in our eyes reveal a wretched and miserable soul. On the other hand, kind eyes, a gentle "look," a warm and welcoming smile (and the beautiful wrinkles that smiles leave behind) are the ineradicable marks of inner goodness. In time, it appears, we get the faces we deserve. [5]

We can't do much about the faces we were born with, but we can do something about the faces we're growing into. We can do "soul work" as the old Puritans used to say: We can pray for humility, patience, kindness, tolerance, mercy, and unconditional love, and by God's grace and in his time you and I may grow toward an inner resemblance to our Lord, a likeness reflected in a fine old face. "Those who look to Him are radiant," Israel's poet wrote. "Their faces are never covered with shame."[6] Thus age becomes "loveliest at the latest day."

George MacDonald insists that good old faces are like an old church: "It has got stained, and weather-beaten, and worn; but if the organ of truth has been playing on inside the temple of the Lord, which St Paul says our bodies are, there is in the old face, though both form and complexion are gone, just the beauty of the music inside. The wrinkles and the brownness can't spoil it. A light shines through it all-that of the indwelling spirit. I wish we all grew old like old churches."[7]

So do I.


[1] Extracted from a much longer poem. Written of George Herbert's mother, Lady Magdalen Herbert.
[2] I'm reminded here of Garrison Keillor's comment: "All our grandchildren are above average."
[3] Paul, for example, writes, "that ... thanksgiving for us may be expressed ... by many people (faces)" 2 Corinthians 1:11.
[4] Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.
[5] Philosopher Albertus Camus noted that, "People over forty are responsible for their own faces."
[6] Psalm 34:5
[7] The Seaboard Parish

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