I was recently reminded that the English word person has its origin in the Greek word persona, which was the name given to large masks Greek actors used to wear on stage. How fitting that this is what we call ourselves. In a related moment of epiphany, I recently read a pastor's account of attending a James Taylor concert. She said that in between songs, someone shouted: "I love you, James!" There was laughter, but then Taylor stepped to the microphone and said: "That's because you don't know me."
And this is one of the reasons why we are these clipped personae calling ourselves persons, because each of us wants to be loved, yet many of us believe that we are, in our truest selves, not all that lovable. Years ago I gave up writing for a time, and when I announced it, my wife was saddest of all. (Let's be honest; she was probably the only person who was sad about it.) She told me that reading my words helped her see into my heart, a view that I didn't often afford her.
We've labored down a long path together since then, and I like to think that I reveal more of myself to her now than I used to. Still, it's hard for me, having grown up in fear of being vulnerable, to talk to anyone. With this in mind a friend recently suggested that I read what I write to her. He thought it might draw us closer, what with the intimacy of my voice speaking to her the words I only dare offer up because I don't have to look any of you in the eye when I write them.
I protested that these words aren't who I really am. I don't write out the black-hearted parts of me, at least not in non-fiction. I'm much worse, I told him, than what anyone sees of me.
"I know," he said. "But so is everyone."
Most of us are personae at least some of the time, and many of the people who believe otherwise are personae to themselves. We hide who we are because we see who we are, and because everyone else is hiding himself. So we can fall into the trap of thinking we are worse than most -- less organized, more resentful, more covetous, more easily discouraged.
I suppose the truth is that most of us aren't any worse than anyone else, but let's face it: that isn't saying much. When I think about who I really am -- who we really are -- I am overwhelmed by God's word breathed through the lungs of Paul, that we will know just as we have been fully known. We have our personae with one another, but every one of God's children is fully known, and loved. We are personae with ourselves, seeing in a mirror dimly, but in that day of final homecoming we will be face to face, with ourselves as we were intended to be, and with a loving God who has offered up His life for us in full knowledge of who we are.
It's a revolutionary idea, if you'll let it be. It can change how you view yourself, how you view others, how you view God. No matter how low you have fallen, child of God, you are loved in full knowledge of what you are. No matter how lowly you think someone else is, how then can you deny him love, knowing that the perfect God knows him more fully than you, and loves him unto death? And finally, while bad preaching and bad theology can render God a distant, dispassionate entity, how comforting is it to learn that He knows us fully, and that in time He will make himself fully known to us, face to face, as father with child?
The world expects us to wear an acceptable mask, but we know that God sees us as we are. I like to hope, in my better moments, that knowing this will give me the courage to set my mask aside from time to time, if only for a while. Maybe we all can.