Face to Face with Whom?

Face to Face with Whom?

We surround ourselves with objects – things we own and use, which become familiar and even dear to us. But they remain objects. They do not have a ‘face’. Our true joy and fulfilment comes from relating to people. Only a human face and a human voice can draw from us a full human response.

What Reality am I responding to when my conscience hears a ‘voice’ and recognizes a – ‘face’?

The Story of Anne

A happy mother of three children, whom I shall call Anne, once came to consult me. She proved to be a very sensible person from every point of view. One of the stories she told me was a harrowing incident, dating from the time when she had just married. It is not the kind of thing one would normally reveal. She wanted to relieve her sense of guilt, she said. I will try to recapture the account in her own words.

A shopping trip

`We had just moved into our flat in London. Even though both Pete and I had jobs, we lived on a tight budget. You have no idea how many unforeseen expenses turn up when you’ve moved into a new place! Tiles in the kitchen, curtains, lampshades, an extra wardrobe, plumbing to connect our washing machine. We were not poor, but just a little under pressure to make ends meet.

I’d gone to Tescos to buy supplies for the weekend. As I was stacking various articles into the trolley, I kept checking the prices and adding them up in my mind. I knew I had to be economical. I was very conscious of what everything cost. It was almost an obsession at the time. It does explain, to some extent, what was to happen.

The old lady

At the counter I found an older woman before me in the queue. She had not bought a lot, but when her time came to pay, she was slow and a trifle fussy, asking questions on whether the price tags were correct, and so on. I was getting impatient. When her bill had been totalled up, she took ages producing her purse. She was nervous, checking up on the articles on the counter while fumbling in her purse all at once.

She got hold of a five-pound note and handed it to the girl at the counter. I saw that something else fell from her purse at the same time. I stooped and picked it up: it was a twenty-pound note! I looked at the old lady: she had not noticed. Neither had the girl at the counter. I was the last in the queue, and as I looked surreptitiously over my shoulder I felt certain no one else had seen it. Before I knew what had happened, I held the twenty-pound note folded in my hand, out of sight.

A sense of shame

My heart pounded within me as I saw the old lady collect her things and move off while I settled my bill. I couldn’t help noticing that she was obviously not well-to-do. Her coat was worn and her shoes very plain. I piled my supplies into my shopping bag and walked out of the door, my cheeks glowing with an unexpected fear and my heart already filled with a sense of shame.

I had never done a thing like that before. Nor have I ever after. I can’t understand myself. One thing I know: it’s something I have always deeply regretted throughout my life! At the time I didn’t even dare to tell Pete. For all I knew, she might have been an old-age pensioner. Twenty pounds was a lot of money at the time, surely more than her income for a week! I could picture to myself how distresed she must have been when she discovered the loss! Her anguish if not her despair! I wondered if she would have to go without any essential things on account of not having that money. I felt mean and rotten. Not only because I had become a thief but mainly because I knew I had done another person a great injustice.

Of course, I could have gone back to Tescos and declared the money as found. That I didn’t do so is still a riddle to me. I was paralysed in some strange manner. I was probably afraid of being exposed. I told myself it was only a small matter.  I found excuses in things that needed doing. I was still justifying myself to some extent. It was only later, as the days went by, that I became more and more conscious of my sense of guilt. And looking back on it ever since, I feel it is one of the meanest things I’ve ever done in my life.’

A voice speaking inside?

Conscience is a very beautiful thing. Having a conscience makes us mature, human, responsible. Think of Anne’s story. We know she committed a mistake, but we can respect her at the same time because she had ‘a conscience’ about it. We would look on her in quite a different way if she was just callous about the incident, if the injustice inflicted on the old lady would leave her cold. In fact, it is Anne’s conscience that reveals her to us as a loving and sensitive person.


What is conscience?

Authors and playwrights have frequently tried to describe it. Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth! They portray it as a voice speaking inside us. Before the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III can’t sleep. He keeps remembering the people he has killed. He cries out, O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Again, he complains:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
(Richard III, Act V. sc. iii)

The voice of conscience, it should be noted, does not only accuse or condemn. When we have acted rightly, it will give us inner strength and joy.

What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he arm’d that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though locked up in steel
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.
(Henry Vl, Part II, III, ii, 232)

Conscience has often been treated with a good deal of suspicion. It is a manifestation, we are told, of our Parent Ego state. It is a collection of norms and conventions drilled into us by our parents and by society at large. Yes, social conditioning and parental instruction do play a part in the formation of conscience. They provide an emotional and social framework for it. But they are not conscience itself. The distinguishing mark of true conscience is that it rests on a judgement by our mind. It is our power of reason telling right from wrong.

Again, ministers of religion are said to use conscience to instil fear into people. Some do, unfortunately. Conscience can be misguided or exploited. But such an abuse does not invalidate the need and worth of conscience itself. For conscience is not, as many seem to think an instrument of fear, but of relationship.

The Personal element

Has it ever struck you that the judgement of our conscience always involves other PERSONS? We are not concerned about the fate of things. What matters to us is how people are affected by our actions. Anne, for example, was upset because she had done an injustice to the old lady. What does this imply?

A line of thought that may help us is our experience of ‘face’. There is something precious and irreplaceable about our own face and the face of other people. The reflection I will develop here owes much to the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. He was intrigued by the implications of our experience of faces.


faceThings we use

Objects in my life I can make my own. I see a loaf of bread, I take it and eat it. I wake up on a fine summer day. I have a picnic and so use it for my purpose. I hear about a country called Guatemala. I study its history and characteristics. I add it to my list of mental conquests. Even the galaxies far out in distant space can somehow be subjected to me, by my observing them and entering them into my file. In our Western world, this is typically what we try to do: to conquer the whole universe, by knowing it and making it serve our purposes, to the extent we can do so.

Persons we meet

Enter the experience of a ‘face’, of another person. Of course, again we can treat him or her as an object. We can try to conquer, to use and to own that person. He or she is then no more than a thing. But if we realise that he or she IS a true person, has a ‘face’, everything changes. We can no longer just conquer, use and own. We can only speak to that person and seek a relationship. We have to admit his or her autonomy, the person being different, being ‘the other’. This is not a gracious concession on our part. The other person possesses freedom and autonomy; cannot be forced to become my thing. This is what it means to have a face. I can enter into a relationship because 1, too, am not a thing, but have a face.

Is reality a thing?

Going one step further, we may reflect on the wider reality of our world. We may imagine that we own the whole universe as we in the West implicitly seem to do -, but experience teaches us differently. We live on this planet, not by our own choice, but because we were put on it. We have to submit to all the physical laws of nature. We live and we die on terms not dictated by ourselves. We find a moral order of right and wrong not of our own making. Does it make sense to suppose that the whole universe holds only things and small human persons? Or do we discern the traits of a Face, of The Other in absolute terms?

Who makes me a person?

Or put it like this. Objects and things cannot make me a person. Other human persons can recognise my face and treat me as a person. They, too, could not make me the person I am because I would still be a person even if others disowned me. Who is it that gave me my face? Who made me autonomous and free? To whom am I unconsciously relating when I judge myself as a person? With whom am I face to face all the time, even when I don’t advert to it?

Conscience as implicit response

It may be worth our while to pursue this line of thought to its implied conclusion. If we analyse our experience of conscience down to its deepest roots, does it not point to the existence of a personal God, to a being to whom we feel ultimately responsible for all we are and do? It may seem a bold assertion to you, but, if it were true, would it not be an important discovery: to realise that in all my ethical decisions I am, in fact, implicitly acknowledging the presence and the mastery of the Creator himself?

The idea is not new. In a well-known verse conscience is described as

the soul’s rough file that smoothness does impart;
the hammer that does break the stony heart;
the voice of God in man, that without rest,
does softly cry within the human breast.

Could conscience be that voice of God in us, human beings? Could it be one of the places where we meet God face to face? Could every experience of conscience ultimately be a veiled encounter with Ultimate Mystery?

The classical argument adduced in favour of this interpretation does not seem to have lost its cogency today. No one has expressed it as forcefully and clearly as John Henry Newman (1801 -1890). Please read the following extract from his ‘Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent‘ (London 1891, pp 106 – 111) which has been slightly modernised in expression and spacing.

Suppose a person has allowed himself to commit an immoral deed, a thing mean and wrong in itself. He will then feel a lively sense of responsibility and quilt, even though the act itself may have no immediate social consequences. He will feel anxious and fearful, even though the deed may have been useful at the same time. He will have a sense of sorrow and regret even though the deed saved him pain and embarrassment. He will feel deep shame and confusion, even though there may be no other human beings who know of it.

These various disturbances of mind: self-accusation, deep shame, haunting remorse, anxiety about the future, are characteristic of our conscience after we did wrong. Their opposites. self-approval, inward peace, lightness of heart, and so on, indicate a good conscience, a conscience telling us that we have acted rightly.

These feelings of conscience differ very much from our other intellectual powers, such as our ‘common sense’, our sense of efficiency, our own good taste, good manners, our sense of honour and balance of judgement. Conscience has the peculiar trait of being deeply rooted in our emotions. It is always emotional. This means that it involves the recognition of a living object towards which it is directed. Lifeless things cannot stir our affections. Affections respond to persons.

If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear.

On doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us when hurting a mother.
On doing right we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father. If so, we certainly have within us the image of some Person to whom our love and veneration are directed; in whose smile we find our happiness; towards whom we direct our pleadings; because of whose anger we are troubled and sad.
These feelings are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being. We are not affectionate towards a stone. Nor do we feel shame before a dog or a horse. We have no remorse or regret for breaking a mere human law. The emotions of conscience manifest a Person.

The wicked person flees, even if no one is pursuing him. Why? Who is it that he sees in solitude, when he is alone? Whom does he face in darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to the visible world, the Person to whom his view is directed must be supernatural and divine. Thus the phenomenon of conscience shows that in the imagination of man there lives a picture of a supreme governor, a judge, holy, just, powerful, all seeing, who punishes the wicked, but rewards the good.’

Inner parade of faces

Conscience being such a precious possession, we should cherish it. With this I do not mean that we should waste our time in becoming scrupulous or in nurturing feelings of guilt. What I mean is that we should consciously use our conscience to become more aware and happy persons.

How to listen to our conscience

Conscience is all about relationships. During the day we have dealings with a variety of people. Some of our encounters may have been of a fleeting nature, others more intimate, others again businesslike. How did we function in them? Do I relate better to these people now, as a result of the day’s contacts? To work this out, I spend a few minutes every day to examine my conscience’. I select a quite moment at the end of the day: while brushing my teeth or settling in to sleep. I first allow any feelings to emerge that engaged me durinq the day. Have I been annoyed, or angry, or deliqhted? When aparticular emotion impresses itself on me, I recall the event and especially the face or faces associated with it. Why did I feel the way I did? Did I respond in the right way? In this manner, I review the emotions I felt and the faces I met in a kind of inner parade. Then I assess my own behaviour. Not in a negative fashion, but to become more aware of the relationships I am building up. If I feel I have handled a person in the wrong way, I will make the mental adjustments that prepare me for a more successful encounter next time.

After this first review, I try to evaluate the day on a deeper level. How and where did I meet the Other? Have I been aware of his presence? Are my feelings and reactions a reflection of my relationship to him? What does he tell me through the human contacts I made today? Did I see his face? Or am I still running away from him?

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followed,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to:
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.

Francis Thompson, ‘The Hound of Heaven’ in Poetical Works, London 1937, p. 89.


newmanFor those who have the time and the ability, I recommend especially three books by John Henry Newman: Callista: a Sketch of the Third Century, 1856 (a novel portraying early christianity); Pro Vita Sua, 1864 (an autobiography, describing his search and conversion); The Dream of Gerontius, 1866 (expression of his deepest religious feelings).

Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801. After studying and lecturing at Oxford, he was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1824. He became one of the leaders of the religious revival known as the Oxford Movement. His studies on Christian doctrine gradually persuaded him of the truth of the Catholic position, leading to his admission into that Church in 1845. He was ordained a priest, became rector of the Catholic University of Ireland for some time, but spent most of his life at Edgbaston Oratory in Birmingham. In 1879, one year before his death, he received the cardinal’s hat. It crowned the general recognition that Newman had been the outstanding figure in nineteenth century English theology.

I conclude our reflections with three extracts from his writings. They should, I suggest be read slowly and prayerfully.

Witness of the heart

“I fee! God within my heart. I feel myself in his presence. He says to me: ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ You may tell me that this command is mere law of my nature, as it is to rejoice and to weep. I cannot agree to this. No. It is the echo of a person speaking to me. Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a person external to me. It carries with it its proof of divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel satisfaction, when I disobey, a soreness. Just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend. Believing in God I believe in what is more than a mere ‘something’. I believe in what is more real to me than sun, moon, stars, the earth and the voice of friends. You will say, ‘Who is he? Has he ever told you anything about himself?’ No, he hasn’t. But I will never give up my conviction. An echo implies a voice, a voice a Speaker. That Speaker I love and fear.”

From: Callista, London 1970 edition, p.314

Confession of Faith

“Almighty God,Thou are the One Infinite Fullness.

From eternity Thou art the One and only absolute and most sufficient seat and proper abode of all conceivable best attributes, and of all – which are many more – which cannot be conceived

I hold this as a matter of reason, though my imagination starts from it.

I hold it firmly and absolutely, though it is the most difficult of all mysteries.

I hold it from the actual experience of Thy blessings and mercies towards me, the evidences of Thy awful being and attributes brought home continually to my reason, beyond the power of doubting and disputing.

I hold it from that long and intimate familiarity with it, so that it is part of my rational nature to hold it, because I am so constituted and made up upon the idea of it, as a keystone, that not to hold it would be to break my mind to pieces.

I hold it from that intimate perception of it in my conscience, as a fact present to me, that I feel it is as easy to deny my own personality as the personality of God, and have lost my grounds for believing that I exist myself, if I deny existence to him.

I hold it because I could not bear to be without Thee, O my Lord and Life, because I look for blessings beyond thought by being with Thee.

I hold it from the terror of being left in this wild world without stay and protection.

I hold it from humble love to Thee, from delight in Thy glory and exaltation, from my desire that Thou should be great and the only great one.

I hold it for Thy sake and because I love to think of Thee as so glorious, perfect and beautiful.l

Yes. ‘There is one God and none other but He’.”

From: Meditations and Devotions, London 1902 edition, pp. 126-127.

Text by John Wijngaards, first published by Catholic Enquiry Centre London in 1984.
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