The ancient Jewish city Damascus, capital of modern Syria, is the oldest capital in the world. It also is the fourth holiest city in Islam. And it’s the legendary site of the confrontation between Saul and Jesus that radically pivoted Christianity from a regional rabbinic sect to a global movement.
Recently, the term Damascus has become a sermonic pun. The blinding conversion of Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus has become a sly reference for our struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic: Paul’s Damascus debacle is now our “De-Mask-Us” dilemma.
Our relationship to “The Mask” is a many-splintered thing: How to mask? Whether to mask? When to de-mask? What does my faith tell me? What does my doctor tell me? What does common sense tell me?
As a pastor and university chaplain for the past 47 years, I have come to view masks as essential to our well-being. I have witnessed enough ER crises, served in enough prison settings, and travelled in enough foreign cultures with rampant diseases that I respect masks as vital to life. At a deeper spiritual and pastoral level, I have seen a different kind of masks that also has enabled folks to survive, often without even knowing it.
My first awareness of this deeper mask was from my seminary mentor, the Rev. Dr. Carlyle Marney, a Southern Baptist theologian, pastor and spiritual director. He told me the story of a client he was counseling. “Who are you when you aren’t a doctor?” Marney asked him. The good doctor bristled and sputtered, “By God, I am always an M.D.!” Marney replied, softly, “And that’s just the hell of it for you, isn’t it? You live 24/7 with your assigned role of an M.D. It’s your mask, and it’s welded so tightly to your face that, if you ripped it off, you would bleed to death. But you are something besides your mask, and the more openly you explore that deeper self, the healthier and holier you will be.”
So, it’s not your physical mask that concerns me. Whether you wear it or not is a legal, health, and civic/social issue that you must resolve for yourself, as must we all. What concerns me more is your welded-on mask, the invisible mask that protects you from being your better, deeper, healthier and holy self. I see and hear it in so many different forms: “By golly, I’m always a…Patriot! Democrat! Republican! Christian! Buckeye! Wolverine! Hard-worker! Jokester! Macho Man!” Who are you behind that mask? What holds you back from exploring your deeper, more holistic self?
A final kind of mask-wearing concerns me, as well. In my pastoral and chaplaincy care of folks, I see masks worn for protection from the slings and arrows of social, civic, legal, and even spiritual abuse from others. Consider the mask of the Black man or woman who has spent their entire life smiling, even when white folks make assumptions about their character, their motives, and capacity to achieve. Consider the mask of the young teen who is struggling with LGBTQ or Trans identity issues, who masks their pain with gender-rigid roles and behaviors. Consider the mask of the Muslim or Jewish or Sikh, or Hindu, or Baha’i neighbor who fears their co-worker’s or neighbor’s rejection because of their dress or sacred practices. Consider the mask of the refugee from Asia or Latin America who wears a mask of silent or soft-spoken demeanor in fear that they will be judged by the color of their skin, their facial features, or their accent.
The Rev. Dr. Marney’s admonition lingers in my pastoral soul: These masks of ours, for whatever reason we wear them, are welded so tight to our face that, if we ripped them off, we would bleed to death. But we are something besides our mask, and the more openly we explore that deeper self, the healthier and holier we will be. May it be so.
The Rev. Jon R. Powers is chaplain emeritus at Ohio Wesleyan University.