“If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities – “selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects” – Thomas Merton
Carnival has begun. In this tradition, masks are donned for a period of time, typically before Lent. The whole thing culminates on Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, when the last burst of over-indulgence is expressed just as Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.
I remember being in New Orleans a number of years ago (not for Mardi Gras) and learning that the “success” of the Mardi Gras celebration was measured by how much garbage was collected. I’m not sure if that is true or apocryphal, but what a metaphor for the hours before Lent begins!
In any case, I read the words shown above this morning and was struck by what they say about human dignity. The dignity of the human person is unsustainable unless we choose to cooperate with grace and to be the very people that God loved into being.
That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Pffffft…. Yes it does. Doing so, living it? Hmmmm…. not so much, I’m afraid.
When I read the history of Venetian Carnavale at this link, I was reminded of the
etymology of the word carnival and its meaning of “farewell to meat.”
Lent is a time when we say “farewell to meat” or at least for part of the time. Lent is a time of stripping away, taking off the masks of our daily lives, not to mention the carnival masks. We all wear masks, whether we realize it or not. Being who we truly are is not a task for faint hearts.
And there is the rub… being who we are in Christ means being who we are. No – who we truly are. (**shudders**) What a messy business that is. If I am who I like to be, then I am a classic overachiever, an over-do-er and all around I-can-handle-it-all type. Oh sure, I say all the right words and I even think that I believe them a good deal of the time, that it is God in me doing the work. I’m just cooperating.
I’m considering what my mask – let me rephrase that – what my masks are. It makes me highly uncomfortable. What makes me more uncomfortable is the removal of those masks.
The stripping away. The letting go. The saying farewell to meat, both practically as well as spiritually.
We embed ourselves into our masks and objectification is the end result. I am who my mask says I am… Anyone who has read this blog at all knows that I loathe, rant and rave about labels. The whole, “I am choose one” notion of I am a (fill in the blank), Republican/Democrat/Liberal/Progressive/Conservative/Orthodox/ProLife/ProChoice/Vegetarian/Meatatarian/Libertarian/TeaPartier/Fundamentalist/Traditionalist/Revolutionary…
This causes me particular angst when I read about how those of us who are Catholic divide ourselves up along these lines. It makes my head spin. That is why I want to eschew all labels except for that particular one.
Yet that too can become a mask of sorts if I do not really live as God asks me to.
Too many masks makes for objectification. Objectification makes for dehumanization. There is no dignity in that.
These are some thoughts on my mind as we approach Lent. I guess that is what I might give up this year… if I can.
(this post might get revised… just wanted to put it out there for now.)
I know where you are coming from but Ihave some reservations. People who constantly want the true raw encounter can be very draining. There is a parallel here with secular therapy and some types of religion. Any therapist will tell you that it can take a lifetime for a person to strip themselves of their multiple masks and that a person's defences are there for good reason ! It is very frustrating as a therapist to see what damage and limitations the masks may be doing in a person's life and it's easy to identify them too. But the stripping of a mask has to be voluntary and that is why so many therapists can do untold damage by going in too fast too soon. And the vulnerable core that is left open after removal of the mask leaves a person very vulnerable and open to hurt from others – I have also seen the same happen to people in churches; very often it is the ones that are the most vulnerable too that somehow are attracted to the let it all hang out bare your soul lure only to find that after the heady rush of catharsis they are left high and dry a few years on and they drift away even more disillusioned and needy than before.I think that is why the monastic contemplative mentality is something worth teaching more at an early age. It might equip people better for the "slings and arrows of misfortune" that can hit them in their lives. Just a thought !
Phil, I'm at work, so I don't have much time, but you make some excellent points; some of which I considered before I hit publish and the very ones that inspired the last sentence, in parenthesis.Thank you!Fran
Fran and Philomena — thank you both for this post and comment. I do a lot of thinking about "who am I really" and how that gets defined, by me or by others, and that thinking has different wrappers around it at different times: lifelong Catholic (though many would say not very good at it; I beg to differ), student of Buddhism, survivor of childhood monstrosities, patient in therapy, poet, and so on. "Self" is a difficult thing conceptually, and what we do with our perception of self even more so sometimes. I love Lent as a liturgical season, much as I love Advent, for a number of reasons, but the primary reason in both cases is the focus on reflection on the Divinity present in our lives and how we can bring it to the fore. Sometimes our ability to do that may depend on wearing a particular mask, either for our own protection or to make it easier/safer for someone else to relate to us.I'm seriously rambling now… although Fran, I challenge your characterising your post as "lunatic" rambling!! At least based on your writing, you're actually one of the sanest people I know.
I'm not sure I want to take off masks myself. Lent, I believe, is more about surrendering yourself to God, and then let God help you take off the masks, gently, one at a time, day by day. What will fill the space when the masks come off? The radiance of God's love. Is the removal of the masks easy? Not in my experience, especially since you like the mask, even if you know its destructive. We will tend to cling to our false gods/selves. I think a great Lent would be if you could take off one of the many masks. We continue to then move closer to the true self.
I only love this post because all of the comments are so wise and help to reveal what I could not find the words for. @Piglet – thank you.@JT – thanks for the clarity, God helps us to remove the masks indeed.