The image of the mirror has been wandering through my thoughts lately, not only as I ruminate upon my discovery of family history connected to Cyprus but also as I struggle in the dark and dangerous currents of our contemporary political culture. The mirror, or sometimes the glass, goes back to the myth of narcissus, who was captivated – and captured — by his own image in the still pool of water. Genesis speaks of our being created in the image of the divine. We are imago dei. Fascination with our own image competes with our awe about the origins and destiny of our universe. Maybe that is why the Latin word for mirror, speculum, is also the root of speculation – imaginative reflection beyond the world we take for granted.
Indeed, the Biblical concept of being made in the image of God has often meant that in knowing ourselves we also come to know God. (The converse, that in knowing God we come to know ourselves, is much harder.) In our daily life it is the mirror that reveals to us most directly our own image. It reveals who we really are – warts, wrinkles, and all – as well as what we might become. The widespread use of mirrors, particularly in the Renaissance and afterward, was indispensable to widespread valuation of ourselves as unique personalities, each bearing a unique image of God. John Calvin, who spent a good deal of words on the knowledge of God and ourselves, used the mirror image extensively.
In the Middle Ages, numerous books arose to instruct the nobility in how they ought to behave. They were called “Mirrors of the Princes,” in German, Fuerstenspiegel. Kings and princes were to look in these “mirrors” to see what kind of person they ought to become. Moreover, these mirrors were often also conceived of as a glass through which they could see the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, namely Jesus Christ. The divine hierarchy of father and son found its image, its mirror, in the earthly hierarchy of king and prince.
While the Mirrors of the Princes had a laudable aim to civilize them in the midst of bloody rivalries, they also reveal the seduction of the mirror. The glass through which we might see a world outside ourselves also becomes a way we lock ourselves in our own world of self-delusion, the peril of narcissus. The glass becomes a mirror. It is with this eye that I look at our current world. We see dour Ayotollahs oppressing the Iranian people with absolutist dogmas and divine decrees, but do not our own Supreme Court justices function in a similar way? Is not their Constitutional fundamentalism a mirror of the Ayotollahs’ Qu’ranic fundamentalism? Or for that matter, the fundamentalism of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish settler in the West Bank?
What we think is a glass of transparency to a world beyond becomes a mirror trapping ourselves in our own self-congratulation in many other ways that you can recount: our much-praised legal system that ends up incarcerating a higher percentage of people than any comparable country in the world; a country calling itself a seeker of peace that leads the world in the manufacture and deployment of armaments and explosives of all kinds; a country that has been a beacon to the world’s tired and poor, its “huddled masses yearning to breath free,” that cannot find a way to a humane acceptance of these very people just across its borders. And of course, the glass of freedom that is also the mirror of slavery, the glass of purple mountain majesty that is also the mirror of European exploitation of the New World.
Glasses and mirrors. Do we smash the glass, crush the mirror? Rid ourselves of the tortured duality of our perceptions? Or must we find a way to live with this marvel of our world of silicone, knowing that the glass we think we see through “face to face” with the other can in a twinkling eye become the self-absorption of our pride and ignorance? St. Paul longed for that move from hybris to true vision of the divine, from seeing “darkly through a glass” to genuine encounter. As we move through the rhetoric of a political contest orchestrated mainly by Big Money I am going to be challenged to remind myself and others that in the mirrors of our highest ideals we may only see our petty selves and not the better selves we are to become. But I still resist the desire to smash the glass, as if I could find a world of pure vision. We need the glass, lest we huddle in inner darkness. We need the mirror lest we forget the unique person that we are. And conversely, without the glass that enables us to see outside, we really don’t know who we are. Without the mirror, we cannot begin to find empathy with every other human finding his or her unique self.
Well, that’s my sermon for today! Your own reflections (there it is again!) are always welcome.