When we first meet someone, we do not immediately expose to them our deepest secrets, the events in our lives that we are most afraid to reveal, which could include our own actions, something that has been done to us, or something that has happened to which we are indirectly related. We would not reveal to them certain truths, such as if we had killed someone in a car accident, regardless of who was at fault; or if we had been raped; or if we had an alcoholic uncle. Although we may reveal some truthful aspects of our lives, such as our names, where we live, or where we work, for the most part we are always presenting ourselves to strangers, to our family members, to our friends, and even to our self, with masks on. The mask protects us from the penetrating objectifying gaze of the other; it keeps the other from knowing who we are; it allows us to control the image that we hope to project onto the world, and to ourselves.
In the fallen world, life is one big masquerade party where we parade ourselves in “garments of skin.” And, yet, the mask cannot always protect us from the projections that others place upon us, or that we place on ourselves. Even though we construct a mask to present to ourselves and to the world, because the mask is not real, it functions like a blank screen onto which both the person wearing the mask and those encountering it can project their own desires and fears. Put another way, the mask permits others to objectify us. In the masquerade party, there is a circulation of false images whose end result is the objectification of the self by others or by our own self, and, thus, the constitution of relations of non-uniqueness and unfreedom; in other words, in the language of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, the greatest Orthodox theologian in our lifetime, our masks constitute us as non-persons (Being as Communion, SVS Press).
If a relationship is to move beyond this economy of objectification, this exchange of false images, it can only do so through truth-telling. To tell the truth is to cut through the mask to allow both the self and the other to be present in her uniqueness. To tell the truth is to free oneself of the necessity of the mask. It is only by dropping the mask that a relationship can go beyond the false projection of images and move toward authenticity, intimacy, trust, and love. If we desire an authentic relationship with the one in front of us, then we must tell that person the things we most fear to say; it is only by revealing those truths that we move the relationship beyond superficiality; that we can have the intimacy, trust, and love we crave with the other in front of us. And because we desire such a relationship, in order to remove the mask, we must speak the truth; and, once that truth is spoken it can never be taken back; it hovers in the midst of the relationship with the power to change the relationship forever. Truth-telling is a relational event.
The power of this truth-telling will now depend on the listener. If the truth received is manipulated and used against the one who spoke, then that relationship is potentially destroyed, and the one who spoke the truth will, again, put on the mask and will be mistrustful of showing weakness or vulnerability in future relationships. Once the truth is spoken, the listener has the potential to render the one who speaks the truth as non-unique and unfree. If the truth spoken, however, is received with care for the one who speaks, with trust and with love, then that exchange of spoken truth and loving reception has moved the relationship past the simple circulation of false images and projections. The speaking of truth that is lovingly received becomes an event of freedom and uniqueness: freedom from the necessity of the mask; and, this unmasking is the realization of the uniqueness of the self in all its truthfulness. And, yet, this freedom and uniqueness of the person only occurs in relationships of truth that make possible the deepening of love.
In my theological judgment, this is what makes confession sacramental. It has nothing to do with a contractual arrangement—confess sins and God is obliged to erase them. In confession, the sacramentality—the presencing of God—is an event that requires truth-telling, but also an iconic form of listening, because the wrong kind of listening, such as extortion, gossip, or manipulation, would make that event symbolic in a demonic form. As St. Augustine said so beautifully, “And certainly from you, O Lord, before whose eyes the depth of the human conscience is laid bare, what in me could be hidden even though I were unwilling to confess it to you? I could not then be hiding myself from you, but you from myself” (Confessions 10.2.2).
This phenomenology of truth-telling as an event of freedom and uniqueness helps to understand why the Church identifies Christ as the Word of God. As God’s Word, God the Father has revealed all that God is in the Word; has revealed the being of God in the person of Christ, and, as Fr. John Behr reminds us, what it means to be God is revealed in all its fullness in the Word spoken at the Passion of Christ, that is, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ (The Mystery of Christ, SVS Press). God cannot take this spoken Word back; it is irrevocable; it hovers in between the Uncreated and the created, waiting for the response of the listener. This listener is all of creation, but there is no living being who can listen and respond to this Word the way the human being can. The power of the Word to transform the relationship between the Uncreated and the created, to undo the mask we place before God as a result of our fallen condition, depends on how we respond to the truth that God has spoken, the truth that God is in God’s Word. Unlike human relations, it is not so much that our response has the power to render God unique and free; rather, it is our response that actualizes a relationship with God that constitutes our own self as unique and ecstatic. God has irrevocably spoken the truth of God’s being in the person of Christ, and our own desire for freedom and uniqueness ultimately depends on how we listen and respond to this truth, and this response must include the truth of our self to the self, to others, and to God.
Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.