Pastoral Reflections

The Many Faces of Me

In a recent television documentary about self-portraits the presenter, Laura Cumming, said: “Every day we present a version of ourselves to the world” and it got me thinking.   

Each of us is at least two or three of the following: a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter, an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a friend, a colleague, and whatever we are at work according to our profession.  It’s almost like having multiple personalities and, as with that particular disorder, each “personality” determines who we are at different times and in different circumstances, and each has its own history, traits, likes and dislikes.  Basically we can say that we are rarely who we really are – in fact do we know who we really are?

Think about this.  One of the basic ways in which we recognize ourselves is in looking at our image in a mirror.  There I am – that’s what I look like – that’s me.  Well, is it really?  When you look at yourself in a mirror what you are seeing is in fact a reverse image of yourself, so it’s not exactly what you look like – at least not to others.  When an artist paints a self-portrait, obviously they can’t look at themselves and so they will often use a mirror.  Now if, let’s say, they have a birthmark on their left cheek they will see it on the cheek on the left of the image they are looking at, but when they paint what they are seeing in the mirror the birthmark will be on their right cheek in the portrait.  (You might like to read that again!)  Generally speaking, however, we know who we are and we know what we look like, the right way round or not.

But then, as the presenter of the programme said, every day we present a version of ourselves to the world and very often it’s a different version according to where we are, what we are doing, who we are with and who we have to be when we are with them.

Who we are at home with our family is going to be very different to who we are with our colleagues at work, as reflected in the names we are called in those different situations.  No one at work is going to call us ‘Mam’ or ‘Dad’ and our children are not going to call us by our given name.  My father, Walter Howard, was ‘Dad’ to me, ‘Howard’ to my mother, ‘Sonny’ (a family nickname) to his parents and sister, and Walter to his workmates.  Those are the various names he would expect to hear according to where he was and who he was with.  How we see ourselves also changes depending on whether we are at home or at work or relaxing socially with friends.  According to the situation we are in, we draw on different areas of knowledge and ability – the difference, for example, between a miner digging out coal and the same man at home looking after his baby, or someone whose job it is to ‘drive’ a 48,000 ton nuclear submarine at sea but who hasn’t a licence to drive a car on land.  In a sense we are constantly putting on different “masks” according to who we are expected to be, or in an attempt to ensure that other people only see what we want them to see in terms of who we are. 

So now, where is all of this going from a pastoral point of view?

Perhaps because every day we present different versions of ourselves to the world, we often tend to forget that the one “person” who knows exactly who we are is God.  He created us, he knows us inside out.  There is absolutely no point in trying to put on a front, or hide behind masks, with God.  “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.” (1Samuel 16 v 7)   The gospels, for example, don’t always paint a very complimentary picture of St Peter and in his fear after Our Lord was arrested he denied even knowing him, and yet who did Jesus choose to be head of the Church on earth?  Clearly he saw something in Peter that may not always have been evident to everyone else.

And pretence is a complete waste of time.  Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had disobeyed his command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as if God wouldn’t know what they had done and also wouldn’t see them hiding.   Later we have the story of Cain killing his brother out of jealousy.  God asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” and he lies thinking God doesn’t know what he has done.  And at the Last Supper when Jesus foretells that someone sitting at table will betray him, Judas (who had already accepted the thirty pieces of silver but thinks Jesus doesn’t know) asks “Not I, Rabbi, surely?”

It’s pointless for us to “put on a face”, a façade.  It’s that old adage that we may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, but we can never fool God any of the time.  And so it doesn’t matter whether from day to day, hour to hour, or situation to situation, we are a father or mother, a husband or wife, a son or daughter, and so on, whatever version of ourselves we present to the world, with God we are always who we are, the person he created, “I have called you by your name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43 v 1).

One of our many faces is that of a Christian.  To whom do we reveal that aspect of ourselves? – just to our family or is it known to our friends?  Is it known to the people we work with?  Do they know we go to church?  Would they be aware of other ways in which our faith has a place in our life?  Would we be known for objecting to them gossiping, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, or using bad, sexist, or racist language?  If they asked us questions about our faith, how comfortable would we be in discussing such things with them? 

The thing is that ordinarily such a personal area of our life would probably be something we wouldn’t let other people into, and yet as followers of Christ we are called to bear witness to our faith as and when the opportunity arises even if we have to decide the most appropriate way of doing it.  On the other hand if our faith is something we keep to ourselves, is that doing us and others as much good as it could and should be?  

So let’s see what the catechism says about this face, this version, of ourselves that we are called to show to the world by virtue of our baptism:

Lay people fulfil their prophetic mission by evangelisation, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of their life (which) acquires a peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 905)

The witness of a Christian life and good works done in a supernatural spirit have great power to draw people to the Faith and to God. (para 2044)

Because they are members of the Body whose Head is Christ, Christians contribute to building up the Church by the constancy of their convictions and their moral lives. (para 2045) 

By living with the mind of Christ, Christians hasten the coming of the Reign of God, ‘a kingdom of justice, love and peace’.  They do not, for all that, abandon their earthly tasks; faithful to the master, they fulfil them with uprightness, patience and love. (para 2046) 

Among the many faces of me,

should be the face of Christ for all to see.[1]

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[1] That little rhyme came into my mind so I thought I’d better include it in case it wasn’t me who put it there.