I generally write a short reflection for our (Cliftonville Moravian Church) newsletter. Here is the May instalment:
Quite a few years ago now, when I travelled extensively with work, I would often pick up items of interest from the countries, town or cities I visited. One of my favourite items is a Malaysian painted face mask I bought whilst visiting the Johor Bahru region, a few miles across the causeway from Singapore.
These masks, I later found out, were historically tribal attire that was used in a range of ceremonies, in addition to decorating homes. I was struck by the intricacies of the hand-painted design and the beautiful mixture of vibrant colours that really brought an inanimate object to life.
And so this ‘souvenir’ sits proudly on a display shelf in my sitting room; the colours catch my eye each and every time in walk in to the room. It is a welcoming face that reminds me of an earlier period in my life, filled with travel and the joy of learning about new and diverse cultures, some of which are significantly different to our own.
The mask is an item known to many cultures throughout antiquity. In our own contemporary society, we frequently ‘put on a mask’, although in a metaphorical sense. We hide our true emotions behind that mask, which can be multifaceted and every changing, but however it manifests itself, it always has a spiritual dimension at its core.
How many times, I wonder, do we hide our true emotions behind a smile or an upbeat demeanour? How often, do we say ‘I’m fine’, when the truth is somewhat different, or even radically different – when we are struggling to cope with a painful life event or series of perceived failures? Or what about those instances when we wrestle with a spiritual malaise that there seems to be no answer to?
In truth, we can never really tell at first glance whether or not the facade is real or forced; it can take some time to unearth emotional turmoil and pain bubbling underneath the surface. And that is why we need to take to heart that aphorism attributed, sometimes to Plato, but by others to John Watson: ‘Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. How hard that battle actually is we can only guess at, in each individual we meet, from an emotional and physical distance.
As a therapist I see people from all walks of life; many exhibit an outward demeanour of confidence and contentment with life, but behind the mask, constructed to please others, or even to convince themselves, there is much suffering and pain, struggling to find an outlet. As a Minister I know that those who care for others are sometimes the hardest hit and feel under the most pressure to retreat beneath the facade they have either carefully constructed and cultivated, or has been projected on to them.
But society is changing, and I would contend, very much for the better. No doubt you are aware that recently, in their quest to encourage us all to tackle the stigma and prejudice that still sadly accompanies mental illness, the new generation of the royal family have been very proactive in encouraging us all to step from behind the facade and to talk openly of our emotions. That can only be a good thing, for individuals, but also for wider society. The typical ‘stiff upper lip’ approach of our culture has been advantageous in displaying fortitude and Stoicism, but leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the emotional health and wellbeing of ourselves and others.
As a community of faith, we should be especially alert to these messages of openness and honesty. After all, Jesus himself was a master of seeing beyond the facade and engaging with the real person behind it. When we consider those many awe-inspiring and life-changing encounters he had in his earthly ministry – reaching out and touching the spiritual core of those on the margins. We read of a Jesus who could see the pain of the Samaritan woman, the struggles sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, and the spiritual distress of the woman who was haemorrhaging and ostracised from her community.
Also as a community of faith, we are reminded in an equally important manner of the Jesus who saw beyond the legalistic and pious mask of the Pharisees, and found within a dearth of spiritual connectedness with the God of grace and love for all.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Well, it is no small step to admit our vulnerability, to each other as a loving, Christian community; it is no small step to open up and admit when we need help or support, emotional or otherwise. It can be hard too, to see those around us in the light of their own struggles. Remember those words of the famous Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer.” And I would add, not being ashamed to own that suffering and to let others enter into our emotional and spiritual lives to share in all that we go through; we can only do that by ridding ourselves of the ‘all is well’ mask.
Bonhoeffer did of course put this more poetically than I ever could, when he observed: “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” And we can only do that when we begin to chip away at that facade and reveal our true selves to those we live in community with, and to live honestly in the light of God’s love.
We all have burdens that we carry – some less significant and disabling that others – but they are burdens nonetheless that prompt us to turn to God. We all know those immensely powerful words, uttered by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.
But as we turn to God, we need to be cognizant of the fact that he works through others in their vulnerability, and opens us up to new possibilities through our vulnerability. Here, I want to finish this short reflection with the words of Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
So I look now at my magnificent souvenir mask, as an object of beauty and a reminder of new cultural vistas explored, but also as an aide memoire that the mask is not always meant to be worn – the contours of our true selves is infinitely more cherished and loved by God than any facade we may construct.
Every blessing, Scott