Have you seen this man?

Charles de Foucauld

His name is Charles de Foucauld, and that is nearly all I know about him.1 Except what is visible in his face, which I will not try to put into words. My mother says that when she saw the picture some years ago, her first thought was: “How did they take a photograph of Jesus?”

It’s clearly Him. This is what Hopkins meant, or part of it, when he said

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.2

This past week I’ve been enjoying the new translation of the Mass. One part stood out particularly: “Welcome them into the light of your face.” I love it. It makes me think of the blessing my father used to give us, the same one Aaron gave his sons:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the Lord life up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace.3

I’ve heard people wondering whether this is an apt translation — does God have a face? The answer, of course, is yes. God has a face because we have faces; or rather, we have faces because God has one.

When we’re comparing ourselves to God — the fact that we have faces, that we have desires, or that we hunger and thirst — it’s tempting to say: “Yes, that’s true of God, in a metaphorical sense.” The implication is that our faces and our desires are somehow more concrete than their correlatives in God. We, after all, are flesh and bone, and He is only spirit.

No, no, no! We are the ones who are metaphors. Flesh itself is a metaphor. Our faces are symbols of His. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we’ve only ever seen shadows. And more often, shadows of shadows: how often have you met a man whose face burns as brightly as Charles de Foucauld’s? What would it take for your face to look like that?

And if the shadow of God’s face, God’s tenderness, God’s smile, looks like this, what will the reality be like?

1 Probably time to remedy that.
2 As kingfishers catch fire.
3 Numbers 6:24-27.

21 thoughts on “The Light of Your Face

  1. Ron

    Charles de Foucauld lived from 1858 to 1916. He was beatified (so he is now called “Blessed Charles de Foucauld”) by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. This is his most famous prayer, the Prayer of Abandonment:

    Father, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord.

    Into your hands I commend my soul. I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.

    AMEN!

    Reply
  2. Ima

    Actually, the Charles de F. photo was a sort of runner-up: the photograph that I mistook (for a moment) for an actual photo of Jesus was of Richard Wurmbrand, a Jewish convert to Christianity and pastor of a Church. He was arrested and imprisoned by Nazis and then Communists and tortured for many years. After the first 7 years he was freed. He had forgotten all the Bible verses he knew but suddenly one came to him: “And Jacob worked for Rachel seven years and it seemed to him like a brief time because he loved her.”

    Reply
  3. Julia

    I just need to tell you how much I look forward to seeing your posts show up in my RSS feed. You are so incredibly insightful about so many things and are so inspiring to me on such a broad level. I obviously started reading your blog because of your perspective on SSA, but I’m glad it’s about so much more. You truly are a gift and a blessing.

    Reply
  4. Charity M.

    What a beautiful post! And what an inspiring blog.

    I once found a really great, out-of-print biography about Charles de Foucauld called “The Warrior Saint” (by R.V.C. Bodley) in a parish library, and after reading it, searched online until I found my own used copy. (Looks like you can still find it used on Amazon.) It’s one of the best lives of the saints I’ve ever read – a deeply moving account of a life of total self-gift to God.

    Reply
  5. Molly

    Steve,

    I’ve only just stumbled across your blog today, and I’ve been drinking in your wisdom all morning. You are an adorable, beautiful soul, and so refreshing in your honesty and frankness about such a sensitive subject.

    I am blessed to count many strong Catholic men in my life as close friends, and we know each others’ struggles and triumphs in the quest to live lives of grace, particularly in a world that seems to so despise the Lord and His Holy Church. We hold each other in the highest regard for being brave enough to be young people who live our faith in an orthodox way, and we pray that one day we will join the Lord and each other in the company of the saints.

    But I think, in terms of bravery and the quest for sainthood, you are leagues ahead of us all.

    God Bless, and I hope you have a peaceful Advent!

    Reply
  6. Christine

    You’re exactly right about us being the metaphors. I was just trying to explain this to my students the other day. They kept drawing the wrong conclusions from the idea of Christ being the Bridegroom (of the Church, of consecrated religious, and of all of our souls). I tried to explain to them that it is marriage that is the passing reality, marriage that is the metaphor, and that we’re limiting our understanding of the reality of Christ’s love by taking the metaphor for the reality.

    Reply
  7. Mindy Goorchenko

    I delighted to read this, as it is one of my favorite parts of the new translation as well.

    Also, I just watched a film about one of our priests from Alaska who is now the pastor of our sister Church in Magadan, Russia; in this film, he talks about Charles de Foucauld. I encourage you to watch it!

    http://t.co/suT5a7Ao

    Peace in Christ.

    Reply
  8. DiAnne

    Your article in Nov 13, 2011 OSV was refreshing. With a couple of gay men in our family (living the lifestyle), and my concern for them – you can imagine my response to reading your words: gay isn’t something you are, ssa is something you have.
    Yielding to the Lord is a trust walk, and I applaud you for taking the first steps. A relationship with him is beyond anything we can think or imagine – and difficult to relay to someone who thinks it’s all simply ‘religion’ with every negative connotation imagineable.
    I’ll be praying for you ‘steve’ – and know the Lord will bring to completion what He has begun.

    Reply
  9. George Kaczanowski

    Around 1974 I left university to join a ‘Christian’ theatre troupe. The director once said that homosexuality is a condition one finds oneself in, not the definition of who I am. Here I am many years later understanding something of what was said to me those many years ago. The theatre director died of late stage alcoholism. I find my way into recovery.

    Reply
  10. Fr. Joseph

    Your post made me think of CS Lewis’ book “Till we have faces” which is where he comes closest to Tolkein’s ideal of myth rather than allegory. In this case it is actually retelling a myth but in his own masterful way. Well worth the read!

    Reply
  11. Gabriel Austin

    Blessed Charles de Foucauld was a French nobleman [whence the "de"], who after a successful military career in North Africa, gave himself over to a severely strict way of solitary life on the edges of the Sahara.
    Wikipedia has a fairly good short account of his life. It also has a fairly good account of the Berber Tuareg [the extremely tall people], among whom de Foucauld lived and of whose language he made a large dictionary.

    Reply
  12. Ben10

    Steven,

    Thank you for sharing this. I too have SSA and have had reactions similar to yours and your mother’s to Bl. Charles of Jesus. What is that face? It’s clearly been transfigured in some way(s). Jesus, can you do the same with us today?

    I’m a convert. Bl. Charles de Foucauld has been with me my entire Catholic journey. And although I love him in general, there’s at least one other thing about his life that strikes me deeply as a man with SSA. Bl. Charles wanted to be the “little brother” of everyone he met. It seems that’s one right way to form (man-man) relationships that minimize some of the other worries/problems/issues associated with or contributing to my SSA. (Of course, your mileage may vary.)

    God bless,
    Ben10

    Reply

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