Sadness, Faces, Beauty

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

In Marilynne Robinson's brilliant new book, Gilead, her hero, a seventy-seven year-old minister, describes his wife:

"She was well into her thirties when we were married. As I have said, I think she experienced a good deal of sorrow in those years. I have never asked, but one thing I have learned in my life is what settled, habitual sadness looks like, and when I saw her I thought, Where have you come from, my dear child? She came in during the first prayer and sat in the last pew and looked up at me, and from that moment hers was the only face I saw. I heard a man say once the Christians worship sorrow. This is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it's fair to say that. There is something in her face I have always felt I must be sufficient to, as if there is a truth in it that tests the meaning of what I say. It's a fine face, very intelligent, but the sadness in it is engrafted into the intelligence, so to speak, until they seem the same thing. I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God's good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low."

Her sadness was engrafted into her intelligence. What a wonderful insight! How does that happen?

I have always had an assumption, perhaps as much false as true, that sadness makes for a particular kind of depth and beauty and that, like this minister who's describing his wife, this is something I'm called to be sufficient to, something that tests the meaning of what I say. I remember, years back, as a young student, very much identifying with a passage by Mary Gordon (Final Payments) wherein her heroine, a young woman struggling with timidity, walks into college dorm party and immediately, unconsciously, begins to scan the room for a sad face, someone whom she could trust, a face that, for her, suggested that life is more than simply being robustly healthy on a given night.

That was me then, perhaps it still is. I've always, rightly or wrongly, made a certain identification between sadness and depth, sorrow and beauty, and have always scanned a room for a sad face, one that I feel I can trust. I haven't always been right of course and have found myself wronged by sadness on more than one occasion. Sadness doesn't automatically translate into depth and beauty, though, on the other hand, it doesn't lie either.

The French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has written some remarkable passages about the human face. The face, he suggests, is the one part of the human body that is always exposed, vulnerable, naked: "There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defence. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity. It is the most destitute also: there is an essential poverty in the face, the proof of this is that one tries to mask this poverty by putting on poses, by taking on a countenance. The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill."

Our faces, more than anything else, mirror of our souls and, in the end, they show forth both our beauty and our struggle, our softness and our hardness, our forgiveness and our jealousy. And sadness, perhaps more than anything else, is what ultimately shapes our faces.

And while sadness always translates into a certain intelligence, it doesn't always translate into beauty. The pains that cause sadness will always to make us deep, but, depending upon how we handle them, we can either grow deep in compassion or in bitterness. Pain and sorrow can soften us, but they can also harden us. They can give us an intelligence that's beautiful and inviting (as you see so strikingly in faces of Therese of Lisieux and Anne Frank, both of whom had suffered a great deal) or they can give us an intelligence that's hard and bitter and which puts others off.

Sadness will always engraft itself into our intelligence and ultimately into our faces, but that can look very different in different persons, just as, inside of each of us, it can look quite different from season to season, day to day, hour to hour. Habitual sadness, engrafted in a face, can look like a frown, a jealousy, a bitterness, a hardness, a menacing judgement, or it can look like an inviting depth, an ocean of character more deep, more inviting, and more beautiful than any genetic endowment.

That's way I'm still taken by sadness in a face and, perhaps more often than I should, look up, see a certain face, and exclaim inwardly: "Dear child, where have you come from?"