I’m growing a beard. Well, you have to keep yourself occupied somehow.
Since I’m going be isolated, I thought, why not follow Robinson Crusoe’s example and let nature take its course. (Mind you, I still have a way to go before I can give St Euthymius ↑ a run for his money.)
But then I questioned myself: doesn’t Crusoe shave? Decent British chap that he is, he probably fashions a razor from flint or some such, and dutifully shaves in a reflective rock pool or something?
Thinking about Crusoe and his clean shaven reflection reminded me I haven’t looked in a mirror for weeks. Or not properly. Now, it’s true, I don’t normally spend hours in front of a mirror, but it’s unusual, even for me, not to have looked at my own face for such an extended period of time. And that made me think… or rather, reflect.
Emmanuel Lévinas, a French-Lithuanian philosopher of the last century, came up with a radically alternative way of doing philosophy. He’d inherited a philosophical tradition that had the subject at its heart: I, me, the face in the mirror. But Lévinas thinks the subject is not as important as the relations between subjects. His philosophy is face-to-face. And not the face in the mirror; he means the face of the Other. The relation between you and me is of ultimate and irreducible importance. He said the only thing that really converts people, the ultimate moral imperative, is “the face of the other.”
I am responsible for the other without waiting for reciprocity, even were I to die for the other.Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo
It’s beautiful, of course. The other represents a debt I can never repay, even in death. (cf. John 15:13) I am obliged to seek the good of the other before the good of myself. Its resonances with Christianity are obvious. Our Lord came to serve not to be served.
And I have huge respect for Lévinas’s insights, but I’d want to argue there’s nevertheless always and inevitably something reflective or reflexive in our relationships. There’s a deep moral truth buried in the Narcissus myth. And as we approach Holy Week, our thoughts turn to texts like Lamentations:
Let us test and examine our ways,Lamentations 3:40
and return to the Lord.
You need a metaphorical mirror for this sort of thing; I’m being urged to examine my own heart, my own conscience. And there’s the proto-Kantian golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31) The ‘you’ here is primary. You need to know yourself first in order to act in the way instructed towards others. Most fundamentally of all, of course, is the fact that we are made in the image of God. We exist, come to life, only in and as reflection.
There’s a shocking moment in the film Dolores Claiborne (1995; dir. Taylor Hackford) when the young journalist, Selena, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, revisits a scene of buried trauma from her childhood. As the awful memories resurface, she turns to look at herself in the reflective surface of a bathroom mirror.
And she sees the back of her own head.
It’s a chilling, brilliantly realised image of profound disassociation, dislocation. We need to see ourselves, our faces, reflected back at us in order to make sense of the world which is yours and ours, in order to feel we’re part of the world, included. The face – even our own face, especially our own face – should always be turned towards us in love, in the way the faces of the saints or the Blessed Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ are turned towards us from icons.
Icons are sometimes described as windows on heaven. They offer views out of this world, and into the Kingdom of God. But I think there’s another way to look at icons. Rather than seeing through them to another world, I think we should consider the surface. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as coolly observant, standing outside and looking in, like Selena looking somehow back at herself (or even turning her back on herself). Rather, I think we should imagine the icon’s surface, not as a transparent ‘window’, but as a reflective surface, giving back to us an image of ourselves transformed, blessed, freed. Allowing us, not to see into another world, another Kingdom, but to see this world transformed into that Kingdom which is both in the midst of us, and still to come.
This is the contemplative insight of St. Clare of Assisi, founder in 1212 of the Franciscan Order of the Poor Clares. In a letter to Agnes of Prague, Clare writes:
Place your mind in the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead itself through contemplation.Clare of Assisi
As Easter approaches let’s pledge to live with our minds mirroring eternity, reflecting the brilliance of God’s glory out into the world. And remember, that starts with yourself.
Too obvious to include? Too beautiful to leave out:
God, in whose image we are made,
whose image we share with all our brothers and sisters:
draw our tested souls into the brilliance of your glory,
lodge our broken hearts in you
and transform us – slowly but surely – into our true selves,
that we may lovingly reflect your glory in the world
through your Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ
God bless you all,