The above title is a phrase from a book called, ‘The sacrament of love’, by Paul Evdokimov (1985, p. 62). Paul Evdokimov is one of my favourite lay theologians. He was a Russian immigrant to Paris after the revolution, a Professor of Moral theology at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute and the author of several other books that are well worth reading. I often turn to his writings when I want to be reminded about what it means to be a Christian human being, who we become when we are oriented towards Christ and gradually learn to participate in the life of God, and what we/can we offer our world, so broken and in need of healing?
Today, the words of this title were a timely reminder. In fact, the words could easily be rephrased to say, “One cannot offer what one has, but only what one is.” Parker Palmer said the same thing – that the “who of teaching” is the most important question educators should ask and continue to ask. All acts of teaching are mediated through a person and offered to persons. This mediation imparts a quality of spirit. It is not possible to be disengaged in the act of teaching, because even when we are feeling disengaged ourselves, our disengagement is an engagement. Who we are being impacts our students and the content we teach. Our being is revealed in the faces we turn towards our students. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Humanity is composed of men with the face of angels and of men wearing the mask of the beast.” We cannot separate what we have to offer from who we are.
It is good to think about the face you offer your students, your colleagues, your family. You realize how important faces are when you say good-bye to a loved one straining for a last glimpse as they walk through security at the airport, or when you sit for long minutes holding the gaze of a newborn child, or when a stranger smiles at you for no particular reason, or when you see the eyes of a beloved parent close for the last time. You realize that all that matters to you is the ability to see their faces and to know they are seeing you. Somehow you are saved by that one look and experience great loss when the gaze is absent. I remember my son saying to me once after he knew that he had done something hurtful, “Mom, please, just look at me.” He knew that somehow all would be restored if I would look at him with love, see him into being with love.
What is the face of an angel? Angels are unceasing prayer, they are rejoicing and gladness, they are ‘criers of splendor’ as St. Gregory Nazianzus said. They exist within a full awareness of eschatological fullness. They are in communion. They don’t need reasons to be good or loving, they create their own reasons – their adoration for God and all others.
It is Monday morning, it is dark, it is raining, I am already tired and a little overwhelmed by the week that lies ahead. I can only offer what I am. Lord, have mercy.