When is the Mirror True?

Our little dog found a sweet spot on the bed in the flat where we lived a while. She could look out the window and see if Barbara or Jan from next door were in the garden, but with barely a flicker of her eyes, she could also use the big mirror on the dressing table to keep watch on the kitchen (and the fridge) behind her. She knew it was a mirror. If we came to the bedroom door and spoke to her, she would watch us in the mirror, but if it was something important, she would turn around to face us. Annie Rose understood mirrors.

At our new house, there is a Murray Magpie who owns the back yard and picks the bugs off our vegies. This morning it landed on the clothesline by the shed and noticed there was another magpie looking at it. It jerked its head at it, telling it to shove off. But the other magpie, instead of flying away, simply jerked its head back at our magpie. So, our magpie launched itself at the intruder, crashed into the shed window, and fell down into the parsley patch.  The Murray Magpie doesn't understand mirrors. It flapped back up to the clothesline and did the same thing, all over again. A couple of times it half flew, half scrabbled, straight up the shed wall, which meant it had the intruder scratching at its stomach all the way up the window. This went on for a while because, as you may have observed, Murray Magpies just don't understand mirrors. There was one at the church which spent futile years attacking the other magpie inside the lounge window.

I'd like you to follow me in a leap of imagination here: We human beings are rather a lot like Murray Magpies. We spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, thinking what we see is real, us, rather than a reflection of something else. And much less do we realise how much the mirror lies to us.

What I mean is that we reflect upon the image of ourselves. We think this is the real us, and that if we reflect upon our lives and what we are doing, and how we are doing, we will see who we are, we will understand ourselves. Perhaps we've noticed people taking lots of selfies and putting them on Instagram or Facebook.  Perhaps we sense they are trying to find themselves, and sense how many folks are trying to measure up to some external image of beauty or authenticity that they've found. But we all do it, don’t we?

We all measure ourselves by other people. It's just that most of us do it more privately. We spend our days looking at ourselves in the mirror that reflects other people's approval. We carefully curate our lives. We strive to measure up. The Old Testament has a name for this. It calls it idolatry because we put ourselves at the centre of our being. We focus on ourselves and how well we measure up to those whom we admire, and who can blame us, for how else will we know who we are? But do you see that then, measuring ourselves by the example of others, we are not focussing on what God wants for us, and upon the person God wants us to become? We are focussing on other people and their approval, as if they knew something about what it means to become more fully human when, in fact, they are in the same boat as us!

Kierkegaard saw this:

For it seems indeed as if, in order to be themselves, a person must first be expertly informed about what the others are, and thereby learn to know what they themselves are—in order then to be that. However, if they walk into the snare of this optical illusion, they never reach the point of being themselves... For from "the others," naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a person from being themselves. "The others" in turn do not know at all what they themselves are, but only what the others are.[1]

Do you hear the magpie flapping?

The mirror lies. It lies because it doesn't know who we are, which is because it doesn't know who it is, either. The mirror is the people we compare ourselves to, the people who tell us how we should be and act, and who we should be, rather than who we are.

I saw this most clearly, and in a startlingly literal way, (and in a moment of pure grace) on the day I walked down the hall in our house, deep in thought, and was pulled up short by the fact that there was a man standing in the bathroom! After jerking to a stop, I realised I was seeing "me" in the mirror, except that I am a nonbinary person, closer to being female than male, and I've spent all my life trying to shoehorn myself into being a bloke, but never quite able to fit. Why? Because being a bloke was what the mirror said I was. But on this one day, "female me" was just enough focussed somewhere else than upon fitting in to what the mirror demands of us, just free enough, to see that what the mirror showed me and demanded of me was not me.

I think the t-shirt which says, "It's weird being the same age as old people,' is reflecting a similar experience: We often don't feel the way society says we should be "at our age."

How do we escape the mirror?

This is a serious and difficult question. We are not an instinctual species, like Murray Magpies. We are a "hyper-imitative" species.[2] We do not know who we are. We have to learn how to be from other people. Specifically, we learn to desire what they desire. James Alison sums this up with an economy our pretention to be free agents finds brutal: "We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen." (Alison, On Being Liked, pp1. I have added the emphasis.) Other people are our models for how to be a human being.[3] Who else can we learn from?

The Christian escape from the mirror (I glean this from James Alison) is that we can best learn how to be human from watching the person Jesus.   I think part of what we are affirming when we say Jesus is both fully Human and fully Divine is that he is/was focussed on God's desire for his freedom, and for God's desire for the completion of his creation, in a way that few if any other people have ever been focussed. He was in some way free to model himself upon God while essentially, largely, being free from what you and I, and his other neighbours, thought of him. He did not require the approval of others in the way that most people do. Jesus was/is his own person in a way that we are not. If he were to look in a mirror, his assessment of himself would be based upon God's hopes and approval, not upon ours.

But, of course, Jesus is mediated to us through other people. We can only learn the Jesus way from our peers. There can be no "direct" revelation which is somehow not subject to our interpretation and discernment, and that discernment is always developed through life with others, and influenced by our need for their approval and acceptance.  At first glance, it seems following Jesus, modelling ourselves on Jesus, is no answer at all.

But what if there were a way to look at Jesus, and seek out Jesus, which minimised our need for the approval of others? Is there something which takes our eyes off the mirror and focusses them somewhere else? How might we practise that forgetfulness of ourself that allows us simply to be, living in the moment, not worrying about "us" and about how we feel, or look, or how we are performing?

I find an answer in Matthew 25:31-46. [4]

There are aspects of this parable we will wish to disavow, and I have reflected in some detail upon this elsewhere[5], imagining a dialogue between Luke and Matthew.  In the parable of the father and his two sons, (Luke 15:11-32) Luke shows us a God/Father who knows that the younger son is trying to put one over him when he finally comes home.

As he comes home, the text says, "While he was still far off, his father saw him.." "While he was still far off" is code for "while he was still far off from God in his idolatry." Luke has already used the word far—translated by NRSV as distant[6]—to indicate that the distant country was spiritually far from God, an exercise in idolatry. We use the same language that Luke uses of the father, today.  We say of a crook tradie, "He saw me coming..." We mean he saw into our character, who we were, and he knew how to rip us off." So it was with the father: He saw the son coming from a long way off. He knew... he knew what the younger son was up to[7].

And... despite that... the father "was filled with compassion. He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."[8]

One of the things I take from Luke's parable is that God does not judge us, not even that younger son who was the epitome of an idolater, far from God.  Instead, it is we who judge. We judge ourselves and each other. The mirror judges us, but God has only compassion for us as we live under its spell. God does not condemn us.

From this perspective Luke might read Matthew 25:31-46 and say,

"Eternal fire and punishment!? Have you fully thought this through? What sort of God would do this? Doesn't this make God into a monster?"

And Matthew might ask if Luke has thought things through: Actions have consequence. How can we be evil, rejecting and harming those whom God loves, without consequence? Even Luke's older brother does not go into the feast that signifies the completion of the Creation but stays outside.

Matthew and Luke are never going to resolve this argument because it is one of those places where the otherness of God, and the radicality of God's grace, are simply beyond our human comprehension. We must take what we can from Matthew, whilst seeing the limitations of his insight, and likewise from Luke. [9]

I'm more with Luke in this argument and wonder how Matthew would write his story today with the benefit of another couple of millennia's reflection. But the story still grips me. He made a key point, a key challenge to us, that still rings true.

37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew says that in the outcast, the person who can offer us nothing, the person who is what we don't want to be, we can meet Jesus. This person costs us. We do not gain approval from our association with them; in fact, we may lose the approval and acceptance of those by whom we have sought to measure ourselves. It is true that we will always be at risk of justifying ourselves by helping the outcast person, but my little experience of so doing mostly leaves me aware of how inadequate I am, which is a fine antidote to feeling pleased with myself. The outcast person mirrors my inadequacy and my utter dependence on God's grace.

I use the word "outcast" to describe the people Matthew names because they are not merely a list of people in need of benevolence. In Matthew's time, they are the ones thought by society to be deservedly suffering God's judgement, and deserving of being cast out by society, rather as Jesus himself was seen. I also find that these people include those I have judged, even though they may have more material possessions than me.

These folk discomfort me. They take my attention away from the mirror of self-approval measured against others. I enter the blessed place of self-forgetting. How odd that in the parable, the ones found to be righteous are unaware, unconscious, of what they have done! Indeed, the parable implies that they expected judgement. They thought they had failed because they had not measured up to the mirror of other's expectations of what made a good and faithful disciple.

My friend Marianne says we allow healing to happen rather than make it happen. In other words, healing is done to us while we are doing something else. We do not cause healing. We cannot claim in by some show of faith. We can only get out of the way. Healing is grace. The mirror is futility.

There is necessarily a subtlety here. Indeed, there is an art to be practiced, so that we may distinguish between "taking a good hard look at ourselves" and simply measuring ourselves by the approval of others, for our humanity does depend on a level of self-awareness. Perhaps the question is, "Where does our self-appraisal and our self-awareness take us; what does it evoke in us; what does it allow in us?"

Do we, as I have done for far too long, measure ourselves by others, and congratulate ourselves for being as good as, or even better than them, whether measured by possessions, or behaviour, or correct belief? Whenever I do that, my humanity and being and person is dependent upon, and defined by, the people around me.

I could go deeper; I could reflect upon what has happened to me, what has injured me, what has shaped me and limited me. I might even go beyond helplessness, or hatred, and decide to do better despite my wounding. But if that is all I do, I will still be operating from the view in the mirror. I will be circumscribed[10] by that which injured me, reacting to it, defined by it—I speak from long experience here.

Or... I could look at the Christ in the parable (instead of me in the mirror) and see a person who is vulnerable, outcast, weak, and needy. (Which would also be me, wouldn't it?) What if I had mercy on that person, saying "You don't have to measure up to what others demand of you? You are enough." You see, that's what the "sheep" in Matthew's parable did. To welcome and feed and clothe the outcast is to be merciful, which means to be vulnerable like them. If I feed you, there won't be as much for me; indeed, there might not be enough. My sense is that doing this for others, being this for others, is somehow a profound practice for doing it for ourselves, or perhaps more accurately, allowing it to be done for us.

There are techniques for befriending our traumatised self in our imagination[11]; that is, being merciful or compassionate to them. I imagined, put myself back into, a time when someone had (unwittingly) traumatised me, that poor little overwhelmed child. I was surprised to find that my chief concern, my overwhelming response, was a great rush of compassion for the person who had hurt me: O, you poor, poor thing! Healing happens to us. That response was no choice of mine; indeed, it was out of character, given to me.  But in that giving of compassion for someone else, something was loosened in me, and healed.

I am a mirror watcher, par excellence, an inveterate self-assessor, as selfie-obsessed as the poor kids who put their filtered selfies on Facebook. In some ways it's been as futile as the Murray Magpie trying to drive off what it sees in the mirror, not realising that it's not real, not being able to see what is really happening. Yet you remember I quoted Alison saying, "The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen."[12] Well, whatever his limitations in understanding the problem of violence, Matthew understood that Jesus desired mercy.[13] When we let this guide us—the world does not desire mercy, it wishes to judge so that it can feel better about itself—when we let Jesus' desire for mercy guide us, it makes available the seeing of other things. It has shown me the mirror. It has let me see healing. And, as I used to say while preaching, mercy allows us to see and experience a grace out of all proportion to anything we can imagine or deserve.

Andrew Prior (2023)


[1] (Christian Discourses  pp42, quoted by Bellinger. I have modified the original to be gender inclusive. Quoted here)

[2] James Alison http://jamesalison.com/we-didnt-invent-sacrifice/

[3] I'm loosely quoting another of my posts: https://www.onemansweb.org/what-makes-us-who-we-are.html

[4] Matthew 25:31-46 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

[5] https://www.onemansweb.org/fathers-sons-sheep-and-goats.html

[6] The distant country to which he travelled, which is Luke's symbol of idolatry reinforced by prostitutes, and pigs and being attached to a person of that land.

[7] The son was only pretending to repent

[8] https://www.onemansweb.org/fathers-sons-sheep-and-goats.html

[9] Ibid

[10] I understand by circumscribed that everything about me is defined by the injury, not by what God desires for me. In this mindset healing is always limited by the injury and never quite able to transcend it.

[11] Marianne can tell you about them. https://lighthouseeft.com.au/

[12] Op. cit.

[13] Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Matthew 9:13

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