Our faces

Despite his belief that the things people spoke, thought or dreamed about could betray deeper and often unpleasant realities, Freud is said to have observed that sometimes a cigar was just a cigar. So too, despite the use of the Greek word for face (prosopon) to signify person (see posting of 12 Jan), sometimes it simply means face. The word frequently occurs in the Bible, sometimes being used of a literal face and sometimes a metaphorical one, as when it speaks of God renewing the face of the earth (Ps 103 (104):30; now that we have seen pictures from space that show the appearance of this face, the beauty of the image has become more resonant.) 

Similarly, the Apostle speaks metaphorically of seeing face to face, and knowing as he is known (1 Cor 13:12). Mothers of the newly born, lovers and in various ways all of us have a deep instinct to look into the faces of other people. Abba Macarius is said to have come upon the skull of a pagan priest that spoke to him of hell: ‘It is not possible to see anyone face to face…Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little.’ (Benedicta Ward Sayings of the desert fathers p. 115; Macarius the Great 38) One of a group of monks who visited Abba Anthony never asked him a question: ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’ (Ward Sayings p. 6; Anthony the Great 27) Hence the convention that icons show the faces of Christ and the saints frontally; it is safe to deduce that anyone shown in profile, as if turning away from our gaze, is on the wrong side. People reveal things by their faces: we assess the character of those we speak to by looking at their faces, and the expressions of those who have recently acquired responsibilities for others can become richer. Indeed, ‘[o]n my face one may read the projection by my conscience of the faces of other persons for whom I feel responsible. All the more on the face of the saint one may read the projection by his conscience of the face of God, before whom he feels himself responsible, and of the faces of the other people for whom he feels himself responsible before God.’ (D. Staniloe)