When the pandemic first overshadowed us, it was significantly troubling for me to wear a mask. Fully understanding that it was one of the most effective tools to “flatten the curve,” protecting myself and others, I found it unsettling and discordant. For one, while wearing it I found myself alarmed by my own face in the mirror. I would think, “Who is that person?” The mask seemed “just too much” beyond the province of a hospital. It also felt like it was not just a barrier for my breath, but also a barrier in relating to others. I’ve thought repeatedly: “Can you really smile with only your eyes visible? Or will they just think I am wincing?” I’ve now found myself talking with my hands much more readily to bridge this gap. I could go on, marveling at how something so simple as a mask can open up intricate vistas of consideration and introspection.
I once attended a spiritual retreat in high school at the conference center of the Diocese of Georgia that was a robust hybrid of charismatic Christianity and the Holy Week services of the Book of Common Prayer. The weekend was peppered with guitar-based hymns which were patterned on the style of the 60’s that were earnestly meant to connect to young people of the 90’s. I have to say it worked relatively well, but in a roundabout way. What was nostalgic for the directors was engagingly exotic for the participants. One version of the Lord’s Prayer that they taught me there I now sing to my son as a lullaby every night. Another hymn we sang at almost every turn was one entitled “What if what they say is true?” At the bridge, we sang from mimeographed sheets:
Take off your mask / Look at yourself / Know you’re not alone / With Christ in your life / There can be no doubt / with Him you’re walking home.
This line always stuck with me, because it picked up a major theme of the weekend, from the various talks that were given: “Take off your mask.” The calling to be vulnerable and free from guarded restraint, no simple feat for the sometimes abrasive and caustic communities by which a high schooler would have been formed. I imagine that the goal of our directors was to get us to be less fearful, less clique-y, and more able to relate to one another, ourselves, and with God (Frankly, I imagine this theme also served to limber us up for the various enthusiasms of prayer that would have been new to so many.) And so “taking off your mask” became, for me, a memorable sign of authenticity and true relationship, even true faith. And wearing a mask became a sign of falsehood and bondage.
Unlearning this signification has been, indeed, a spiritual task. I have had several occasions to spend time with others while masked. This includes the various in-person worship services that we have begun to phase in at Saint Thomas Church. Of course it is odd and awkward, at first, but it is remarkable to experience how quickly the lion’s share of the adjustment takes place. The body communicates so very much. It is especially astonishing to have discovered that my brain blesses me with a lovely gift, especially in the flow of conversation or activity. From time to time, I truly forget the masks are there. I wouldn’t have believed it if this grace hadn’t happened to me a number of times. The relationships and the connections we can make have this sublime power to make our masks, at least in consciousness, fall away. In the Spirit, what can ever truly divide us?
While wearing a mask at the altar during various moments in the liturgy, I have been known to be distracted by how it rubs against my nose or feels around my ears. I have been worried about how to use it properly. But, I have also been known to meditate on the angels that the prophet Isaiah heard singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts,” and how even those fiery seraphim had to protectively hide their faces from the glory of the Presence of the Lord with two of their wings. I’ve dwelt upon how Moses wore a mask, or a veil, when he returned from the Presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai, to protect God’s people from the glory of God that shone from his face. And, while the incense rises from our altar, I have thought about the tradition that tells us that the High Priest who went into the Temple of Jerusalem’s Holy of Holies once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur entered with as much incense as he could, to ‘mask’ his sight, lest he catch a glimpse of the Holy One and be struck dead. What is our salvation history trying to tell us in giving us these vivid visions of protective barriers between each other, ourselves and God, and even the angels and God? Is it something like “good boundaries make good fellowships” (not exactly Frost, but close)?
It must be said that the preventative healing power of the mask far outweighs its potential for misunderstanding and alienation. Since that potential, alas, remains, I have reconfigured one of the private prayers of the priest said before Mass for your use. This particular prayer is meant to be said quietly as you don your mask in whatever circumstance demands it:
“May the masking of our faces, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring us to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for us protection in mind and body and a healing remedy. Amen.”