I recall having a conversation with a young lady who claimed that she did not believe in God. “If you do not believe in God,” I said to her, “then what do you believe in”? “I believe in virtue,” was her response. “Then,” I said, “All you need to do is to put a face on virtue”. Now, I cannot claim to have played an important role in her subsequent conversion, both to a belief in God and to the Catholic Church, but I think I was on solid ground by alluded to the moral significance of the face.
We need more than an abstraction to warm our hearts and motivate us to do good things. My friend went on to write two very fine books in praise of marriage and the family. The ultimate desire of all human beings is, one day, to see the face of God. But in our pilgrimage, we can see reflections of His face in the face of others.
St. Veronica saw the face of God and was moved, according to the 6th Station of the Cross, to wipe His face. Jesus showed His gratitude by leaving an imprint of His face on the cloth she used. Veronica (we do not know her real name) is so named because Jesus provided her with a “true image” of his countenance, one that would last long after his Resurrection and would offer the world a reminder of the moral significance of the human face. The face of Jesus on Veronica’s veil gave the world a message that is a continuation of the Gospel. It does not speak in words but through the emotions, character and soul of a living God. Likewise, the face we show to others speaks more convincingly than words.
The mainstream philosophers have not given much attention to the moral significance of the face. But this was not the case with Max Picard (1888-1965), a Swiss psychiatrist/philosopher. He is known as the “Poet of the Human Face”. His book, The Human Face, was published in 1929. When we look at a human face, Picard tells us, our whole being is struck, for it is an appeal calling and a holding the soul together. God is in every face. Thus, we can experience a face-to-face relationship with God, the intervening space being filled with love. Sadly, Picard avers, this space has been expelled in the modern world. Where God had dwelled, man has intruded. The loss of the love that united man with God, in this face-to-face relationship has condemned modern man to loneliness.
There can be little doubt that the space between the face of St. Veronica and that of Jesus was filled with love. Moreover, that interpersonal love serves as a model for all face-to-face human relationships. And yet, in the contemporary world the face-to-face relationship is disappearing as people fixate on material possessions that cannot smile back and reveal their inner being. The face has been replaced by the façade.
Another thinker who devoted a great deal of attention to the human face is Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher born in Lithuania and of Jewish descent. He has formulated a “philosophy of the face” in which the starting point of philosophy is looking into the face of another. In his book, Totality and Infinity, he states that the first word of the face is “Thou shalt not kill”. This is a commandment that is inscribed in the very structure of every face. It is a commandment that is more compelling than words. Another command written into the face is, “Do not leave me in my solitude.” “To my mind,” Levinas writes, “the Infinite comes in the signifying of the face. The face signifies the Infinite. According to Levinas, in the access to the face, there is also an access to the idea of God.
The central irony of the Stations of the Cross, is that the commandment not to kill, written in the face of Jesus and inscribed on Saint Veronica’s veil, was unrecognized and contradicted by those who crucified Him. Jesus, however, bequeathed a message for all of us to heed. Look into the face of the other and you will find a command to be loving. The face tells a truth which expresses a moral command. It is said that it is difficult to lie when a person is looking into the face of the other. The truth of the face, when denied, will haunt the liar very much as it did for the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart.
Rene Magritte, a Belgian artist, has done several paintings depicting a man and a woman in an embrace, while their heads are completely covered by a white cloth. They cannot see each other’s face. The images are icons of today’s world of alienation in which people remain strangers to each other. This theme has been repeated many times by a variety of artists. Another way of expressing isolation, loneliness, and alienation, is not to have of face-to-face relationships.
Saint Veronica offers today’s world a critically important lesson. She is telling us that the way to love begins with face-to-face relationships. We must take the time to look at each other’s face. Then, we will see the portrait of a soul, and one which reflects the Love God has for all who are created in His likeness.