Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Autumnal Face

NO spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one autumnal face.

—John Donne

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 face." Exactly! Faces are us.

Faces are unique in their function; there's more to them than meets the eye. Faces point beyond themselves. They are a visible reflection of the invisible soul. The face is the place "on the surface" where the self, the personality, the "I" becomes manifest.

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. 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," 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."[1]

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-despite the wrinkles, blemishes and other disfigurements that may mark our faces-are the ineradicable marks of inner goodness. In time, it appears, we get the faces we deserve. As philosopher Albertus Camus noted, "People over forty are responsible for their own faces."

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 pray for humility, patience, kindness, tolerance, mercy, gratefulness, and unconditional love. 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" (Psalm 34:5). Thus "age becomes loveliest at the latest day" (George MacDonald).

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" (The Seaboard Parish.).

So do I.


[1] Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.

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