Seeking God’s face as a theme in the psalms

Burning bush
I know that face

How do we recognise people? By their voice, by their touch, but above all by their face. Where does that leave our relationship with God? Every now and again, there is great internet excitement about someone finding ‘the face of God’ in the inside of a fruit or vegetable, or a picture of Our Lady, or Jesus. Sometimes it’s the letters which spell the Holy Name.   What always intrigues me, though, is how do people know that it’s God (or Jesus, or Mary) and not somebody else?   We have no contemporary photographs or even portraits; it is easy to demonstrate that people’s idea of God’s appearance (or the appearance of anyone else in the story) is culturally conditioned (all those blond Jesuses in long white nighties, all those Marys with peaches and cream complexions – and long blonde hair).

Pregnant BVM
a beautifully pregnant Mary, but the hair is surely wrong

Till we have faces

God is a spirit and he doesn’t have a face.  Jesus offers his own : ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).  Clement of Rome (died about 95 A.D.) said,’Through him we see as in a mirror the spotless and excellent face of God’.  We don’t have even a sketch of Jesus;  any sort of pictures of people (recognisable portraits) are rare until quite recently, historically speaking.   The existence of the Turin Shroud and the Veil(s) of Veronica indicate how desperate people are for a true image of the Lord.  They are a fascinating and relatively rare example in the Western Church, of the ‘not made with hands’ holy objects which are much more frequent in the Eastern Church.  I think this is partly why our own Church treats such images  with gentleness, like relics.  They are very important to lots of good people, even if their provenance is so unclear.  Jesus’ face is an understandable concept for people to focus on.  He was born, lived and died as a human being, and we all have faces;  unique to us, familiar to and loved by those who know and love us.  God is different.  He is not human.  The God of the psalms is from before Jesus’ arrival on earth.  What about his face?

The Psalms : God has a body
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

The idea of God’s face recurs in the Psalms like a bass note or a bell. It’s partly because of the almost shocking physicality of the psalms (look no further than Psalm 3 : ‘you [God] who smite all my foes on the mouth, you who break the teeth of the wicked’,v.8).  God is a mighty man, a warrior, definitely human in his Biblical image, as I’ve said before.  God is as physically present in the psalms as the psalmist himself.  He is shown in very corporeal terms; even his clothes are described, his cloak made of sky (most beautiful concept), his hands and feet, his strong right arm.  Of course he has a face.  In the Psalms  it stands for the answer to all questions, to all yearning.  

Burning bush
Moses sees God’s face (note his bare feet, and the shoes in the foreground)

I haven’t got time to develop it here, but seeing God’s face is an important part of Moses’ story, and there are rules and prohibitions about it because it is so important.  The  foundational Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6.25ff  talks about God’s face twice, first shining upon his people and second being lifted up in their direction.  According to my commentary, the Hebrew verbs for ‘lifting up’ and ‘shining’ are closely related, so we expand the lines to translate them. 

May the LORD bless you and keep you; may the LORD cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the LORD lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace.

This is the context of the psalmist’s understanding of God’s face.  ‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord’ (Psalm 4.7).  He combines the two lines from the blessing.

face to face with Adam
God and Adam,  face to face
‘The light of your face’

This is a beautiful expression, and brings its own explanation with it.  Often and often you can see the light come into someone’s face : when they catch sight of someone that they love, when they see a baby for the first time, when they see again someone dear to them after absence.  We say, ‘her eyes lit up’; ‘his face shone’ ; we talk about somebody ‘beaming’.  A loving face is full of light.  This may be one reason why the sun (in children’s picture books) is so often given eyes and a smile.

Stories about faces

Seeing someone’s face is important.  This is why it is a motif in so many stories.  Not always positive, either : the sight of Medusa’s face turns men to stone; the stone faces of pharaohs and sphinxes have a stern appearance.  The wicked queen in Snow White looks into a mirror to find out who is the fairest, hoping to see herself,  and then talks to the mirror which reflects other faces back to her.  Dorian Gray and the picture in the attic.  Beauty and the Beast.  Shrek, even. 

….all she wants to do is see his face

My favourite is Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid, here a young man rather than the baby archer, falls in love with the nymph Psyche.  (This is a very short version of the story, which was developed in every conceivable direction.  For longer versions, check  with wiki, but you could be there for some time.)  He carries her off to a palace of delight and woos her with every pleasure, but she may not see his face (so she does not know who he is).  Her jealous sisters nag and try to frighten her about her invisible lover until she lights a candle (or a lamp) to look upon him while he is sleeping.  He is so lovely that her hand trembles, a drop of wax (or oil) falls on him, he wakes up, and flees, and she has to go through suffering and trials before a final happy ending.  Seeing someone’s face can be dangerous; but the human desire to do so is overwhelming.

The Dream of Gerontius : seeing God’s face

J.H. Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, shows the eponymous hero (it just means ‘old man’ in Greek/Latin), at the point of death, and what happens next.  It is intensely dramatic.  Elgar set (much of) it to music,  and I find that I can never have it on in the background because it is too immediate and distracting.  Gerontius dies, or goes to sleep, and wakens to a different reality.  He is being carried by his Guardian Angel, to God and judgment.  When ‘The Soul of Gerontius’ realises who is carrying him, he describes the Angel as one who ‘has had a strong and pure celestial life,  And bore to gaze on the unveil’d face of God’, so he is thinking of heaven already in terms of the Beatific Vision, the sight of God’s face.

the angel takes the lead because he knows the way

But Gerontius can feel and hear; he cannot see.  Everything seems dark, and he asks the Angel whether he will ever see anything again. They have quite a lengthy theological discussion about this (one of the parts of the poem which Elgar omits).   The Angel tells him that he will see God, but only for a moment :

Then sight, or that which to the soul is sight,                                                                    As by a lightning-flash, will come to thee,                                                                     And thou shalt see, amid the dark profound,                                                                     Whom thy soul loveth, and would fain approach,—                                                    One moment; but thou knowest not, my child,                                                                      What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair                                                             Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too

and it is precisely God’s face that will cause him pain :

It is the face of the Incarnate God                                                                                     Shall smite thee with that keen and subtle pain

– but even knowing that, Gerontius presses on.  The music sweeps forward in a great crescendo, until there is a mighty crash of cymbals as Gerontius darts from the Angel’s restraining hold, and is described as ‘scorch’d and shrivell’d’, –  but it’s all right :

O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe                                                                            Consumed yet quickened by the glance of God.

This is what ‘seeking God’s face’ is all about : a longed-for close encounter, a ‘face-to-face’ meeting.

As for me, I shall see your face (Ps 16/17)

Just like Gerontius, the psalmist looks forward to seeing God’s face after death.  ‘As for me, in my justice I shall see your face / and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory’  (end of Psalm 16/17).  And this looking is mutual : ‘They walk with ever-growing strength, / they will see the God of gods in Zion.[…] Turn your eyes, O God our shield, look on the face of your anointed’  (Ps 83/84 v.8f).  God’s face is like a reward; seeing it is a physical expression of what heaven is about.  But it’s not the after-death vision of God that the psalmist means most of the time.  He is talking about seeking God’s face as a rule of life, as a basic orientation which changes everything.

Bearded woman
Such are the men who seek you, seek the face of the God of Jacob

In Psalm 104/105, one of the long retelling-of-salvation-history psalms, this is the crucial message to be gleaned from all the stories passed on down the generations : ‘Consider the Lord and his strength; / constantly seek his face’ (v.4).  The saints are defined as ‘the men who seek your face’ (Ps 23/24),  in the psalm we use every year for All Saints, and ‘the people who walk in the light of your face’ are described as happy or blessed (Ps 88/89).

Two different sorts of seeing
Close up of the Arnolfini mirror

This fits with the psalms’ usual emphasis on life here and now, rather than an afterlife of which we know nothing definite.  There are two sorts of seeking God’s face : there is the daily striving to do God’s will,  something we have to keep working on (not always successfully); and there is the seemingly vaguer, more mystical aspiration to gaze at God for ever.  This corresponds to St Paul’s two different sorts of seeing in 1 Corinthians 13.12, ‘now […]in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

Lighten our darkness

Because God’s face is light, it is dark when he turns his face away, and darkness in the Psalms is always frightening and dangerous (‘The Lord God is our light’, Ps 117.27).  So there are several pleas for God not to hide his face (Pss. 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).  But in Psalm 50/51, the great penitential psalm, the speaker implores God to turn his face away from his sins, because if God is not looking at them, there is no light and they cannot be seen.  God’s glance is full of power :’the boastful cannot stand before your face’ (Ps 5); ‘may [the wicked] perish at the frown of your face’ (Ps 79/80) – but in the same psalm we have the refrain ‘let your face shine on us/ and we shall be saved’.  God’s face is salvation itself.

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
Do not hide your face

When God hides his face, the psalmist is distraught (Pss 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 29/30, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).   He wants God to look at him as much as he wants to look at God.  He is afraid to be out of God’s sight (Ps 30/31), because God’s power is such that a man cannot be out of sight unless God chooses to turn his face away : ‘Where can I flee from your face?/  If I climb the heavens, you are there. /If I lie in the grave, you are there’ (Ps 138/139).  This is a comforting, not a terrifying thought, because the whole psalm is a celebration of God’s infinite power and reach, even into the recesses of the psalmist’s own being.  He ends by opening his heart to God without reserve : ‘O search me, God, and know my heart’ v.23.

God’s eyes are always open; ‘he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’ (Ps 120/121).  He is contrasted with the idols that other races worship : ‘they have eyes but they cannot see’ (this comes up twice, in Ps 113/114 and in Ps 134/135).

Sicut cervus
stag in a stream
desiring the waterbrooks

What the psalmist longs for is to look peacefully upon God’s face and have God look upon him.  This is at the root of all the yearning psalms.  ‘When can I enter and see the face of God?’ (Ps 41/42).  ‘My body pines for you […] so I gaze on you in the sanctuary ‘ (Ps 62/63).  In Ps 68/69, the psalmist complains :’My eyes are wasted away /from looking for my God’, a striking image even in this psalm of so many (it’s the one that begins ‘Save me, Lord, for the waters have risen to my neck’).

This watching is sited in a place of calm, of tranquillity.  Like the weaned baby in Ps 130/131, the soul is at peace on its mother’s breast, needing nothing, trusting for everything.  This attitude makes all these psalms natural prayers in contemplation or adoration, words for when words stop.  We can of course look at God when we think he isn’t looking at us, as it says in Ps 122/123 : Our eyes are on the Lord till he show us his mercy;  but what we seek, what we long for,  is the mutual gazing.  As the old farmer is supposed to have answered St John Vianney, who asked what he was doing when he looked at the tabernacle, ‘Nothing; I look at him, and he looks at me’.

‘Let us fix our gaze on the Father’ (Clement of Rome, first century)

There’s another high Victorian poet I would like to quote in this context. F.W. Faber, often called ‘Father Faber’, wrote a lot of hymns.  Many are too sentimental for modern taste, but some are still sung (There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Faith of our fathers (with arguments about the original version of the words), O come and mourn with me awhile, Souls of men, why will ye scatter, and many others less common today).  The language is unbounded and can be cloying;  he has all the faults of his time, he is hopelessly non-inclusive and Counter-Reformation (though he was himself a convert); but he was always trying for simplicity and not afraid of strong feeling.   I admire the way that he is not afraid to tackle the mysteries of God in a simple hymn.  And he admired the Wesleys, so he understood the power of a good hymn.

Faber at the front, Newman at the back, helpfully together

We used to sing his hymns at school (that probably dates me), which means I know many by heart.  For years I have had a very soft spot for his My God, how wonderful Thou art, simply because of the last verse : Father of Jesus, love’s reward / what rapture will it be/ prostrate before Thy throne to lie / and gaze and gaze on Thee!     Some of the other verses are a bit twee, but I have always loved that one, and it is saying precisely the same thing as the psalmist of thousands of years ago.  Immortal, invisible, God does not change;  nor does our longing for him, our desire to see his face.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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