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The Face of the Other as Revelation, as Epiphany

The movement to know another is an endless task and an endless work of love.

I am thinking of Emmanuel Levinas today, and of Erik, and what it is to reach to know and love another even in the midst of all our messy human-ness.

Levinas was a Jewish philosopher who did a lot of writing after WWII, trying to understand how such a war could happen and what might be necessary between people for such a thing to never happen again.

For Levinas: This face to face encounter is key.

The face is far more than the physical features we perceive. Levinas describes face as: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me.”

For Levinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face encounter with another, is a phenomenon in which the other person’s proximity and distance are both strongly felt.

The face is a door to a vast realm that is the person, which implies mystery. You can never know everything about another person. In fact, the more you know another, the more that person defies capture by your labels and ideas of them.

I’m thinking about how deeply I knew Erik and also the parts of him that stay mysterious to me. How when people ask me, “How did your husband die?” or “Why?” I find it difficult to find something that feels true. I have many stories and threads but there is also a great mystery in Erik’s decline, the way he dissolved before my eyes over the weeks before his death.

Above all, for Levinas, the face appeals: “You shall not commit murder.”

This call comes with infinite force, as, for Levinas, to be confronted by the face of an Other is also to be, in some way, confronted by God. This God-ness in the Other is something to be perceived and responded to.

For Levinas, to be face to face with another is a call to responsibility and a moral summons.

Levinas writes, “I do not struggle with a faceless god, but I respond to his expression, to his revelation.”

And I’m thinking about the way medical models can sometimes reduce a person to a simple label, to a diagnosis, to a problem. Perhaps they don’t mean to, but these labels can shut down a sense of curiosity, a sense of reaching into the heart of another past what we think we already know. To a place where we allow ourselves to be surprised and moved. Where the other becomes an unfolding revelation.

Playing off Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion writes, “Perhaps we can imagine replacing ‘thou shall not kill’ with the existential ‘become who you are,’ or the religious ‘thou shall love God with all they heart, thy soul, and thy spirit,’ or the legal ‘thou shall not do unto the other what thou does not want to be done unto thyself,’ or even the erotic ‘love me’.”

The movement to know another as an endless task and an endless work of love.

And, I’m noticing, it doesn’t end when someone dies. Although I’m finding it becomes less intellectual (What didn’t I know? What did I miss?) and softer (Who are you, Lover? What’s yet to be revealed?)

We must allow for mystery – an opening for grace – in all our tidy ideas and labeling of others.

We can never fully know another, and yet, our curiosity, our seeking, our striving to glimpse the fullness of another is an act of love. And possibly… a form of prayer.

May we also glimpse a little of this depth and mystery in ourselves as well. Or feel its possibility reflected back to us in the way we are held by others.

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