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Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Peace In Seeing The Other's Face
One of the jokes in my house is that I am always half way through a dozen books at a time. By the Grace of God, sometimes I actually finish a book. Somehow the books in the pile slowly change.
One of the books I am half way through is St. Macarius The Spiritbearer: Coptic Texts Relating to Saint Macarius the Great. One of the stories that is told of St. Macarius is about a conversation he has with a departed person while speaking to the departed person's skull. St. Mararius and the skull talk about the experience of the departed person in the afterlife. Here's part of the conversation:
The old man [St. Macarius] said to him, "Are you at peace, or do you suffer?"
The skull said to him, "I am being punished."
The old man said to him, "What sort of punishment is it?"
The skull said to him, "Just as the sky is high over the earth, so too is there a river of fire boiling over our heads and underneath us, lapping over our feet. We stand in the middle, unable to look at one another because our backs are joined to each other. But at the moment when someone offers a great supplication for us, we gain a little peace."
The old man said to him, "What is this peace?"
The skull said to him, "For a blink of an eye we see each other's faces."
And this is peace: to see each other's faces.
When we hear this story, our culturally conditioned concepts of hell lead us to focus almost exclusively on the river of fire boiling overhead and lapping at their feet. We imagine that this is the torment, for to have fire over our head and lapping our feet would be very painful--or so we imagine. But remember, this is a dead person. The fire lapping their feet does not burn them--they have no body. St. Macarius is holding the fellow's skull and it is not burning.
I don't think the fire is the punishment. I think the fire above and below refer to a situation of being trapped and unable to escape their condition. The punishment is not the fire, but it is that they cannot look at one another. Notice that when someone prays for them, they experience a little peace. What is this peace. Does the fire go away or become cooler? No. The peace is to see, for the blink of an eye, the face of others.
Peace is to see another's face. Peace is to know and relate to others as persons, not as parts or as functionaries. Perhaps the punishment that the skull describes is a punishment many of us spend our lifetime choosing. It is a punishment we choose every time we do not let the humanity of the people around us touch us. It is a punishment we choose every time we turn our face away, when we don't want to see or be seen, when we don't want to encounter the other--except as tool, or part, or functionary. We choose not to look at the other's face, and so we enter eternity back to back, tormented, unable to touch or be touched by the humanity of our neighbor. I think this is the punishment that the skull describes to St. Macarius, the torment of hell.
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How true, how true.
There are moments during the Liturgy when my silly brain can focus on nothing and is constantly distracted. Once in a while, though, it is calmed by looking at the faces of my brothers and sisters, as if to see their hearts and be warmed by their presence, even if we are not interacting. To acknowledge they are like me and I like them - we struggle, we rejoice, we are confused, we are strong, we fall down, we wonder, we get angry, we are healed.
Something about that is reassuring. And not only that, but it also gives space to be merciful and filled with compassion. For we are all fighting great battles.
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