Sunday, September 22, 2013

Reflections upon a Mirror

On our car ride home yesterday, actress Maria Romine had a lot to say about the "mirror" image from the Epistle of James (the first quotation below).  I have included two more quotations to round things out, as well as some "Reflections upon the Mirror" ...

  • But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  (James 1:22-25
  • ... the purpose of playing [i.e. acting] ... is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.  (Hamlet III ii 20-24
  • For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12

Yes, there is something artificial in a mirror.  We see not exact reality, but a picture of reality, a flat image, reversed.  And in the third of the three quotations above, Paul laments the lack of clarity in the image that could be seen in ancient mirrors.  Karen Butler writes ...

The mirrors of the ancients were of polished metal, in many cases they were of brass and they required constant polishing, so that a sponge with pounded pumice-stone was generally attached to it. ... The images reflected in these brass mirrors were indistinct in comparison to our modern mirrors. They were seen "darkly", which, literally translated from the original Greek language in which [Paul] wrote, means, “in a riddle or enigma…that the revelation appears indistinctly, imperfectly.” 

And yet, even such imperfect revelations can be shocking.  Hamlet, after all (quotation #2 above) is hoping that the "mirror" he will hold up to the face of his uncle Claudius, in the form of a stage play, will jar him into a recognition of self - which is exactly what happens.  Seeing his own image presented in the "mirror" of the dumb show on stage reveals to Claudius the murderous monster that he is, literally knocking him out of his seat and out of the theater.

But this is not followed, in the play Hamlet, by any immediate climax.  The truth revealed to Claudius by seeing his own reflection, and to Hamlet by Claudius' reaction to his reflection, is just another kind of muddle, a "riddle or enigma" added to the mix, despite the rather distinct impression it makes.  Hamlet has the proof he was looking for - and still he delays.  Claudius sees his true self reflected before him - and still he refuses to repent.

Claudius and Hamlet are like the man described by St. James in the first quotation - one who sees his face in a mirror, but then walks away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  Why?  Because he failed to act on his image - to incarnate the word, to be a doer of the word and not just a hearer.  Of course there are always legitimate and prudent reasons not to act - this is certainly true in Hamlet.  But more often than not we fail to act - we fail to see our true selves - even after catching a glimpse in a mirror - for reasons that are less than noble.

This is from my own stage play, The Call, spoken by Sister Maria to a young man who is very much afraid of his own reflection, who is shrinking from his vocation, from God's call to him ... 

MARIA:  And now, you’ll go home and watch TV and read some books and play a video game and try to convince yourself this conversation never happened.  But if He’s really calling you, you’re hooked.  If it’s a true vocation, you won’t be able to forget it.  You’ll try to be happy doing other things, but you won’t be able to.  Something will haunt you, and every time you come close to doing what He’s calling you to do, you’ll feel more joy, more happiness than you ever thought possible.  It will be a foretaste of heaven, and it will scare the hell out of you—literally.  

God is giving us revelations all the time.  He speaks to us a lot more than we speak to Him.  Our prayers are being answered even when we forget to make them.  He gives us many glimpses - some by means of the mirror: moments when we see our true selves, sometimes darkly, sometimes starkly - but we see our true selves, face to face.  And we recoil like the guilty Claudius.  Or we turn away and forget what we look like - for we are not always avoiding the sight of our own sin, but sometimes the glimpse of the goodness that threatens to shine forth.  For when He shows us who He is, He shows us who we are.

And that image - whether seen in a play, or an insight, or in an actual mirror - can often unsettle us and tempt us to turn aside and to forget.

But we are people of the Word Incarnate, the Word Incorporated - we are doers of the word and not just hearers.

We are actors.


Anonymous said...

First, I have show that line from your play to my children, some of them have expressed interest in religious vocation.

Second, why wasn't Hamlet made King on the death of his father?

Dr. Eric

Kevin O'Brien said...

Dr. Eric, there are several excellent answers to your excellent question here ...