When St. Teresa of Avila was 9 years old, she briefly ran away from home looking to be martyred by the Moors. When her parents returned her home and demanded an explanation, she explained her motive: “I want to see God.”
Scripture is filled with references to the human longing to see God’s face, as the face contains and reveals the whole mystery of a person. Our brains are wired to attend in exacting detail to every feature and movement of the face in order to understand the unseen, inner world of the other. 1 Cor. 13:13 and Revelation 22:4 describe eternal life as the vision of God face to face (prosōpon pros prosōpon). And there’s no mistake that we derive the English word “person” from the Latin and Greek words for face — persona, prosopon.
I thought of all this for two reasons. First, I was speaking with a priest recently about the spiritual life. What wisdom he had for me! Part way through our conversation, he talked about what’s different in the spiritual life as you get older (he’s in his late seventies). He said, among other things: “Lots of the things you struggled with and worried about when you were younger just start falling away. Or falling off. [we laughed] Concern with your reputation; with other’s opinion of you; being admired; vanity; getting your way; over-identifying with your work. It’s a marvelous mercy of God in old age that those things you just couldn’t seem to shake before, He just strips them away. If you take it that way, as a liberating gift, it’s freeing. If you don’t, and you see it as unjust theft, you’ll despair.” Then he said something so moving I teared up. He said, with tears streaming down his cheek: “But more than anything, I long to see His face. I’ve loved Him so long; I just want to see Him.”
I felt tiny before his Mount Everest.
Last evening as I was recalling his words, there stirred in me another insight. I have been away from my wife and children for nearly three weeks. It’s been so hard; harder than it’s ever been. Hard because I know she’s carrying the whole family alone. Hard because I miss them terribly. Certainly, the edge of time and distance has been smoothed by the gifts of Google Hangout and FaceTime. And my children and their friends have sent me lots of fun pictures which I cherish. I even have a separate folder in my iPhone with pictures of Patti that I can look at. Her face. Their faces.
It all makes me realize how much it is on the faces of these people that my love rests. Those faces are sacraments — revealing pain, joy, worry, desire, mischief, anger and so on.
But it’s the faces that I’ve longed for most. That longing has given me a new perspective.
Cardinal Ratzinger said in an interview I read once, referring to the dark night of faith St. Therese endured in the last months of her life (quoting here from memory): “When you sense God is absent, it is not that He has withdrawn His presence from you. It is, rather, that He is present to you now in a new form: under the form of yearning. And yearning stretches your capacity for love.”
The longing to see the faces of those I love and the longing to see God’s face is not one thing, and then another. They are all one thing. Jesus is God’s human face. The Incarnation is the seal on the deepest truth of creation: God gives Himself to us only through the human face; through the human faces around us. As Jean Valjean in Les Miserables sings so eloquently, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Don’t ever take others’ faces for granted.
I long to see your face, O God. I long to see her face, O God. I long to see their faces, O God. All one longing.
May the object of my longing, O Lord, be fulfilled now and in the Age to Come. Amen.