Underneath the Mask by Paul Dass, S.J.
Behind the self-quarantine and the auto-isolation, remains the miracle of the face.
The times have overtaken us. We’re not able to even touch our own faces without first being sure that our hands have been sanitized. That gesture by which we often take self-assurance, by which we, in some inexpressible way, make sure that ‘we are there’ and that ‘it is just us as we are’ and, often, all too self-consciously make up for our insecurity and lack of self-assurance – that gesture that has served us only too well and all too often, in the past, is now suspect; it would now serve to be the conveyance of something all too deadly; the means and manner, now, of which something fatal might be transmitted. Gone now is the simple and all too pedestrian fact of a hand reaching out for its own face, for whatever reason, in favour of a second degree of thought, a second degree of suspension, a second degree of unsure motion; a simple and all too pedestrian fact that has come up to unnerve us.
The times have overtaken us, all too acutely; the face is now a theatre of the ever-present incursion, the site of a clear and ever present danger. The philosopher Immanuel Levinas is quoted as saying: the face is the most vulnerable part of the human person. It is ever exposed; one’s body may be fully clothed, but one’s face, by all counts, remains daily exposed. In fact, by its very best, it remains to want to show itself. It remains the display that it wants to be to the rest of the world of the ever present ‘I am.’ But right now, the face, or its better part, must be masked. It, too, must go into some sort of a quarantine, a self-seclusion, an auto-isolation. For it risks not only being infected but actively poses the threat infection. But, isn’t every pore of the skin of that face and not only its open orifices exposed in some way? Isn’t every root of one’s hair upon one’s head – if one isn’t already bald and all the more for it – exposed to the sun, if not the rain, and the daily rise and fall of uneven temperature? One does stand exposed all the same. And, it’s the best thing that could have been given us.
Underneath the mask, behind the self-quarantine and the auto-isolation, remains the miracle of the face. One has only to take away the mask and reveal oneself to oneself, even now, in happy seclusion. Before mirrors were ever invented, people must have caught glimpses of their faces upon the clear reflection of running streams or still ponds. They must have taken time to look. For the stillness of the reflection may not last. One does not look at the same image twice. But, there and then, looking at their face, they must have had a wondrous thousand thoughts. They must have marveled. They must have beheld surprisingly, lovingly.
If the current medical gear seems only all too forbidding, if faces are to be masked and hands must remain ever cautious – as they should – it is only lends to an accentuation on a different plane; it is only there to tell us that someday, there will come a time when we may unmask, and can stay unmasked; that there will be a time for revelation upon revelation when the face will come home; come home to itself; come back to recognition upon recognition, and proffer epiphany.
The days of our masks will pass. The days of our hands that instinctively touch our face will come to be. The days of our reassurance will return. And, time will move apace.
"Reflection 1 on the COVID-19 pandemic."
Bridging Borders family and friends share their smiling faces. (Inle Lake, Myanmar, 2018)
Paul Dass, pictured bottom left
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QUESTION: How do we preserve and create connections in this time of masks?