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Your Radiant (Instagrammable?) Face

16:39 14/10/2020
Your Radiant (Instagrammable?) Face

Dominic White, OP, asks if Christian theology can move us from selfie anxiety to real radiance.

A radiant face is a beautiful thing to behold. I remember the face of a nun, a friend of my godmother’s. Sister Mary Raymond had an extraordinary gift of intercession, and many people, including me, had written to her over the years to ask her prayers. When I finally got to meet her in person, she was seriously ill in hospital. She could only manage about five minutes with people, but I was so touched by her warmth and welcome. I don’t remember her words, but what has always stayed with me was the radiance of her face. She died a few weeks later.

We have all, I hope, seen radiant faces – of a child opening a present, a friend celebrating a success, a couple at their wedding. Not all radiance lasts, of course. But at moments when we ourselves have been radiant, we may have noticed how others are looking at us – their gaze, as it were, reflecting our radiance, seeing our beauty.

Seeing our beauty? Am I beautiful?! We try to find out by measuring ourselves against standards of beauty – standards which are of course tied to a particular culture at a particular time, and can change, quite arbitrarily. We “improve” our appearance with exercise, a diet, clothes, make-up…

The selfie has taken this to new heights. At their best, selfies keep great memories for us, and smartphone technology enables us to share them instantly on social media. They might make a friend’s day. They might make our day if we get lots of likes. But this is also a source of terrible anxiety for many people. If I don’t get many likes, do my friends really like me? Like how I look? Psychologists have traced a significant rise in mental health problems among young people to selfie culture – especially the fact that by “retouching”, I can alter my appearance. Beautiful or not in real life, with a few taps I can have “Instagram face”. But then of course, I realise that in real life I don’t have Instagram face. So I get depressed – regardless of the fact that no one naturally has Instagram face. So the problem we have is that the digital image has become more real for us than the actual image.

Can Christian faith help us with this? Does it offer us a way out from selfie anxiety to a radiant happiness which even manifests in the face of someone aged and dying? Genesis (1.27) teaches us that humankind is made in the image and likeness of God. Israel searched for the face of God: Moses’ face shone with unbearable brightness after he had seen God on the mountain, such that he had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 24.29-35). Moses saw God because he was seen by God. This transformed his appearance.

Yet at the same time there was the risk of idol worship: projecting our image of God on to the God we don’t see, even as we often project on to others and fail to see them. Indeed, we fail to see ourselves. So Deuteronomy insists on the clarifying Word of God. The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas brings vision and word together in the ethical demand the face of the other places on me, in how I discover who they are in the “saying” of conversation, which challenges the “said” of my preconceptions.

When Jesus, the Son of God and image of the Father, looked at people, He looked into them and loved them. He really saw them. This was challenging – and Jesus called out the lustful, objectifying gaze. But is disciples were at the beginning of a transformative journey: seeing God seeing them, they started at last to become themselves.

I realized however, during my years as a chaplain to students, that for many of them the problem was not how they looked at others, but how they felt looked at, and much of this was due to selfie culture. I was inspired, though, by some exhibitions at Shieldfield Art Works (a great community arts venue to support in these tough times): through painting and photography artists explored the positive impact of a “good gaze”. The people in their pictures were not objects, but subjects.

This prompted me to search more deeply for the gaze in Scripture and Christian tradition. I was intrigued to discover that in early baptism rituals, the face of the new Christian was anointed with oil which would make them shine. The effect would be heightened by the candlelight or the rising sun (baptism was at dawn, at Easter). The faces of the newly baptised would be dazzling, just like the glorified Jesus that John saw (Rev. 1.16). “Our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord,” as St. Paul says (2 Cor. 3.18). They would have seen the church gazing in wonder on their radiance. How therapeutic this must have been!

Perhaps it’s something we need to recover, or incorporate into retreats. It’s certainly what I saw in the face of Sr Mary Raymond, who over the years learned to be seen by her community and to see them in turn, in love; to see God in each and every person and so to see that real person, to reflect their glory back to them. A divinising gaze…

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Dominic White, OP is the author of How Do I Look: Theology in the Age of the Selfie, published later in October. Pre-order before 30/10/20 via our website and receive a 20% discount