What the Skull Said: Finding Oneself in the Face of Others
By Douglas Cramer
There is an interesting story about hell told by St. Macarius, a Christian monk who lived in the fourth century Egyptian desert. Walking in the desert one day, he found laying on the ground the skull of a dead man. He nudged the skull with his walking stick, and it began speaking to him. St. Macarius said to the skull, “Who are you?” The skull replied, “I was a pagan high priest; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.” St. Macarius said to the skull, “What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?” The skull answered, “As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other's face a little. Such is our respite.”
Prosopon, the Greek word for person, actually means “face.” It is deeply significant that no one, without a mirror, can see his or her own face—my face may only be seen by another. Without relationship, then, our own faces are hidden, even to ourselves, like flowers in the dark.
Bishop Kallistos Ware, a well-loved Orthodox teacher, says, “The human person is created for relationship.” There is a Greek word that broadly contains the essence of this truth: koinonia. It means, in its most basic sense, “community.” But in Orthodox belief there is also a profound depth behind this simple word. Most important is its implication that because human beings are created in God’s image, and because God exists in community—as Trinity—then humans too are created for communion with God and with each other.
We understand that God Himself is not in isolation. “God is love,” we read in 1 John 4:8. God is love because he exists in a communion of love, the Holy Trinity. Bishop Kallistos goes on to say, “God is not a unit, but a union. God is love in the sense of shared love, the mutual love of three Persons in one.”
We can only truly understand ourselves, we can only lay claim to the image of God within us, when we recognize that, like God, the truth of our own identity is found in the face of others, in community. The truth of our very nature demands that we fully embrace our relationships with others, despite the fact that, in this world, we are surrounded by a tendency toward the opposite: disfigured relationships, fractured relationships, individualism, and isolation.
But this world has always denied koinonia. Indeed, it can be said that the very essence of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise was the rejection of relationship. When God asked Adam if he had eaten the fruit of the tree, Adam answered: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:12) And Eve said: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:13) With such a response, Adam and Eve each failed to carry the sin of the other, to bear the burden of the other, and to remain in a state of unbroken love and communion with each other. Each pushed the other away.
Selfishness, leading to the rejection of the other, continues to ensnare us, both openly and in disguise, saturating society, and our hearts.
It is interesting to point out, by way of example, a national recruitment campaign launched by the United States Army a couple of years ago. After years of testing and development, the Army unveiled a major new marketing program with the tagline, “an army of one.” It is odd to hear an institution so deeply linked with teamwork, community, and sacrifice being promoted with a phrase placing all the emphasis on the individual. To be fair, the campaign was also intended communicate that it was about one army with one vision and one mission. But, the recruiters who built the campaign also clearly stated that they felt the best way for them to reach young people today was to strike a note that on the surface appealed to self-centeredness.
Christians must be different; they must strive to carry the burdens of others, especially the weak. They must face the challenges of relationship and interaction with whomever God has placed around them, no matter how unlikable or unlovable, embracing both the joys and burdens. In facing others, we affirm our true identity as created in God’s image. We find our most true face, our own personhood—our own prosopon—revealed.
Douglas Cramer is Chairman of the Department of Internet Ministries. This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website, www.myocn.net.