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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2013

The Faces That We Face -- and what they signify

by Donald DeMarco

The Artificial:

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, refers to a most interesting notion of idolatry that Martin Buber attributes to a rabbi of Kotsk (in the province of Lublin, Poland).  According to the rabbi, idolatry occurs “when a face addresses a face that is not a face.”  This is a most intriguing statement both for what it makes explicit and what it implies.  The ultimate beatitude for all human beings is to enjoy a face-to-face relationship with God.  When we place our faith in God, as Pope Francis states, “we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols” (§14). This is what the rabbi’s statement implies.  But when we place our faith in something that we made with our own hands, not only do we reject faith in God, but place our faith in ourselves, as if we were “the center of reality.” By ascribing a divine face to something artificial, we turn that face into an idol.

We may think of the artificial as anything that human beings make or attain that can be used as an idol.  The list is extensive and includes money, material possessions, status, power, fame pleasure, and human respect.  These idols have a “face,” in a certain sense, but not one that can speak, for idols “have mouths but cannot speak.”  As idols, they contribute to man’s disintegration.  They are illusions that are ultimately destructive. One’s faith should be put in God and nothing else.

This intriguing remark of the rabbi naturally evokes a meditation on the face.  The face has its importance, but can also be deceptive.  What kind of faces are there, and how do we distinguish them from each other?

The Subhuman:

Swiss writer and Catholic convert Max Picard (1888-1965) has been called the “Poet of the Human Face.”  For this meditative thinker, the human face holds the soul together. It can be seen as an image that announces the mildness of God. The face of Hitler, however, shocked him and rendered him, for a time, speechless. In his book Hitler in Our Selves he states that the face of the Führer was the obtrusion of a vacuum, the first time in history that nothingness invaded the visage of a ruler. It was not a face that introduced a person, but one that conveyed a void.  Hitler’s face, in Picard’s assessment, was essentially sub-human.

It can truly be said that Hitler’s plans came to nothing. A face can mirror God or nothingness. Jacques Maritain, in God and the Permission of Evil, points out that the words of Saint John — “Without Me you can do nothing” (15:5) — can be taken in two ways.  In the first sense, it means that God is the sole initiator of good.  But it also means that without God, man can do nothing, that is, introduce that nothingness, that privation of good which is evil.  The face, then, can reflect the goodness of God or the barrenness of evil.

The Inauthentic:

Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted two versions of “The Lovers” in 1928. Both paintings portray a man and a woman in an embrace.  They are icons of frustration, however, since the “lovers,” whose heads are completely covered in cloth, are faceless.  Faceless love cannot be an expression of personal authenticity because personality shines out through the face.  Platonicus uses a similar image in his Metamorphoses. Cupid makes love to Psyche but forbids her from seeing his face.  In C. S. Lewis’s adaptation of this story, Till We Have Faces, he emphasizes the difficulty involved in achieving an authentic face.  “How can they [the gods] meet us face to face,” he writes, “till we have faces.”

Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy could be accurately summed up as a lifelong quest for personal authenticity.  In Either/Or, he likens society to a masquerade party in which people believe that their true identity can remain hidden, that their false faces can remain concealed.  Life will not be mocked, Kierkegaard warns, “Do you not know there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask?”

T.S. Eliot appropriated this theme in his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” His indecisive character is the epitome of inauthenticity. He could easily have fit into Kierkegaard’s masquerade party as he finds “the time to prepare a face meet the faces that you meet.” The word “prepare” is critical since it denotes something added from the outside rather than developed from within.  It brings to mind the billion-dollar cosmetic industry and the contributions of Max Factor, Helena Rubinstein, and Estée Lauder.

The Human:

There may not be a more beautiful tribute to the human face than the couplet that appears in John Donne’s poem “Elegy IX:  The Autumnal”:

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace

As I have seen in one autumnal face.

Because the beauty of the face is associated with the beauty of the soul, it cannot be marred by the mere passing of time.  Moreover, the charm of the human face is clearly evident in the smile of a baby. The face, as Russian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev writes in Slavery and Freedom, “is the summit of the cosmic process, the greatest of its offspring... The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world; another world shines through it.  It is the entrance of personality into the world process, with its uniqueness, its singleness, its unrepeatability.”

Emmanuel Lévinas, a Lithuanian Jew, is distinguished for developing a “philosophy of the face.”  He is an existentialist in the most concrete sense inasmuch as he establishes the basis for his morality not in an abstraction or in a code, but in what is written in the human face.  He presents his “philosophy of the face” in Totality and Infinity (1961), where he states that the first word of the face is “Thou shalt not kill.”  It is an order, a commandment that is registered in the very structure of the face, one that is more compelling than words, more decisive than any dogma.

According to Lévinas, in the access to the face, there is also an access to the idea of God: “To my mind,” he writes, “the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face.  The face signifies the Infinite... When in the presence of the Other, I say, ‘Here I am!’, this “Here I am!’ is the place through which the Infinite enters into language... The subject who says ‘Here I am!’ testifies to the Infinite.” 

For Lévinas, the face-to-face encounter with the other discloses the other’s weakness and mortality.  The face is, as it were, naked, destitute, and without defense.  Its command is:  “Do not leave me in my solitude.”  In looking at another’s face, one senses the supreme inappropriateness of violence and, at the same time, the profound obligation to love.  The command to treat the other with justice is registered in the human face.  But it takes a godly person to read it properly.

The Divine:

An in-depth analysis of the human face naturally leads to a sense of the presence of the divine.  When Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, the image of His face appeared on her cloth.  The name Veronica, a hybrid of Latin and Greek, means “true ikon.”  Icons showing the face of Christ as well as various saints have become widely accepted and serve to facilitate prayer.  Like the face of Christ imprinted on Veronica’s cloth, it serves as a bridge connecting the human with the divine.

The Incarnation, Christ becoming flesh, overturned the Old Testament proscription against making religious images.  Veneration toward an icon is not to be construed as an act of worshipping the icon.  As Saint Basil the Great has explained, “The honor shown the image passes over to the archetype.”

There are several references to God’s face in the Old Testament:  “Yahweh, in your great tenderness turn to me:  do not hide your face from your servant” (Ps 69:16-17).  “Bring us back, let your face smile on us and we shall be safe (Ps 80:19).  “He shall see God’s face with rejoicing” (Job 33:26).  Such references attest to God’s love and His desire to establish I-Thou relationships with His human creatures.

The widespread practice of putting on a face to keep up appearances, together with the proliferation of alienating technologies such as electronic gadgets, has brought about a significant decline in face-to-face relationships.  This phenomenon cannot be regarded lightly. The human face reveals the soul and therefore provides the basis for genuine person-to-person relationships. In addition, the face, in its authenticity, transmits a spiritual reality and a sense of the presence of God. Christians are obliged to see the face of Jesus in the visage of their neighbor.  Mother Teresa dutifully personified this obligation.

No doubt there is a close relationship between the lack of face-to-face relationships in our present world and a diminished sense of spiritual realities accompanied by a decline in worship and church attendance.  Pope Francis’s reference to the current practice of “a face addressing a face that is not a face” is most timely, for it identifies in a nutshell the fundamental pathology of our time. 

We find God by first seeing His light in the face of another.  Narcissus would not look at the face of Echo, and misinterpreted her loving words as coming from himself.  As a consequence, his fate was sealed.  The face of another beckons us to respond with a face of our own. This is the humble genesis of love, brotherhood, peace, and the adoration of God.


Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario; adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut; and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.

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