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Seeking the Lord’s face and seeing his back

Behold, I send my messenger before your face. 

The boy’s name was Malachi: “messenger” in Hebrew, “angel” in Greek. I didn’t know that at first. I thought of him as the boy from the house of a thousand children a few doors down or as the boy who couldn’t talk plain. He’d been playing with my son for the last couple of days. When I did learn his name, I thought to myself, “That’s a nice biblical name.” But I didn’t really think about its meaning.

Talking to Malachi was an exercise in patience. He couldn’t even say his name very well, which is partly why it took several days to find out what it was. I doubt my son had understood him when he said it. Malachi’s speech was effortful and laborious and not just the mechanics of it — he had some problems of that sort, when producing certain sounds — but expression itself seemed hard for him too. He would grimace with concentration and then string out diffidently some barely passable sentence: “When he up here?”

It made me wonder if anyone talked to him.

Malachi was enjoying playing with my son, Harry, because they are the same age and he doesn’t seem to get much attention from anyone else.  He passes most of his time playing aimlessly outside and looking for someone to play with. Malachi can also be a little bit of a nuisance. He rings our doorbell often.

“Can he…play?” he would crank out haltingly in a series of awkward chirps. If my son couldn’t, Malachi would be sure to appear again in what seemed like no time at all, setting the dog to barking and the baby to crying in a sort of unwelcome avalanche. He also has an underdeveloped sense of boundaries. He sometimes rings just to get a drink. Then he might ask for a drink of something better. He can be a tutor of bad habits too. He plays in the street carelessly, and last week we sent him home for giving the finger to my ten-month-old. All in all, he is not the most welcome sort of guest.

On the evening of Monday, July 21, Malachi rang my doorbell just after we had sat down to eat dinner. I remember the date because it was the day after the feast of the Prophet Elijah on the Byzantine calendar.  He had rung it only a few minutes before that, asking to play with my son. “We’re about to eat dinner,” I had told him. “He can play afterward.” Characteristically, Malachi was checking back just in case anything had changed since.

“What this for?” he asked, pointing to an aloe plant on our front porch.

It took me a while to figure out what he was trying to say.

“A bruise,” he was saying. He pointed to his big toe. “Will it make my bruise go away?” It wasn’t a bruise. It was some kind of cut or scrape. It, like the rest of his toe, was black with the dirt of a boy’s life, spent somewhere near the border of idyllic and poor, outside, and barefoot.

“Ah,” I said. “It’s for burns or sunburn. I don’t think it would be much help for that. You need to wash that and put on some ointment. To kill the germs. Do you have any ointment?”

“No… Is…your…mom a doctor?” he asked, eyeing his filthy toe-bruise.

“No, Harry’s mom isn’t a doctor.”

“He said she was.”

“Oh. Well, she’s a nurse.” Malachi started to crank some utterance into motion but the inertia outlasted my patience, and I cut him off quickly, “We’re eating dinner right now, Malachi.”

“What…are you…having?”

“Malachi, come back later.”

Once I returned to my seat, my thoughts turned back to what I’d been mulling over between the interruptions that take up most of my day. They turned to the events in Iraq, wishing idly that there was something I could do. The Christians of Mosul were being expelled from the city with the clothes on their backs. And then a message came to me. It wasn’t exactly anybody else’s voice but it addressed me directly and clearly, and I was convicted by it right away.

Something you could do? Really? Could you do this? Could you help a five-year-old? Who comes to your door? Who asks you for help? Who asks you to wash his feet?

The words connected like a gut punch, and, when they sank in, I could taste the bitterness that I imagine St. Peter must have tasted when he heard that cock-a-doodle-do. I even wondered to myself if Malachi had rung for the third time. I didn’t cry, but I finished my dinner hurriedly so that I wouldn’t. I understood immediately what the message meant: I had missed the Lord’s coming. I knew it, and I knew it immediately; he had come to me, but he had already gone.

I exited quickly to gather up the necessary things, humbled by reproach. “If only I could do something.” As it turns out, I couldn’t really manage to do much at all. I accepted this spiritual whipping silently as I went about readying myself with my penance.  I found a sort of bucket, a washcloth, Neosporin, and some warm soapy water. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I had missed the visitation of my Lord, who dissembles himself and diffuses himself among so many others that there is behind every exchange and encounter this one and only one: to stand before Christ on the Last Day and to hear one word or the other.

Against You only have I sinned. He had told me where to see him. And he had come to me, had asked me to help. Could it have been spoken any plainer? I knew which choice I’d made, and I knew its wages. Annul this covenant.

I worked quickly, furtively, ashamed, eager to avoid the added embarrassment of anyone seeing me. But while I slunk around on my errand, the voice of my mind was fully engaged in a conversation. Words were unfolding in my head. They were mine, jumbled together in my own accent and cadence, but some addressed me, some answered back.

Lord, when did we see you? Whatever you did to the least of these? What exactly does it take? If you don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, you will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead. Even if a little one knocks on your door and tells you what to do. Even if I make it all very easy for you. Even if You make it all very easy for me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The outcome was prosaic. My messenger didn’t unveil anything hidden for me. I saw no mountains, no city, no temple. Malachi wasn’t a ministering spirit, and I wasn’t a prophet. He was only a five-year-old kid who couldn’t talk very well, with filthy feet and a scraped toe. He didn’t want me to wash or otherwise touch his injury, but he did accept the wash cloth and cleaned it himself. I was like the nurse on TV assisting the physician in the operating room, responding wordlessly to his terse instructions. And he mostly healed himself. I handed him the ointment on a Q-tip, and he applied it. He didn’t even look much changed or improved except for that one toe, gleaming pink from the whole blackened set.

“What about the band-aid?”

“I guess we’re out of band-aids, buddy.” It was the one thing I couldn’t find.

“Will this medicine make my bruise go away?”

“It’ll kill the germs, and that will help it get better.”

“Okay.” And his filthy feet took him right back to the bustle of the sidewalk.

24.10.14- image for Congrove piece

Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen. 

As I concluded my little penance, I was thinking about this verse from Exodus. I pray to seek the Lord’s face always. And I understood then that he had come to me, that I had indeed seen his face, or rather, that I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t recognized him until he was already come and gone.

Reflecting on the same verse in the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa observed that seeing the “back” of God had something to do with one’s vantage point. To St. Gregory, the Prophet Moses serves as a model saint; he shows us what it means to be God’s friend. And seeing the back of God shows us the pattern of genuine discipleship. Because discipleship is following God, it means that we must always see him from behind, as it were.

I’ve held on to this insight of St. Gregory’s since I first read it in his Life of Moses. And, as I was turning it over again in the light of this encounter, I understood it not just an exegetical solution or a spiritual ideal, but as the measuring of my own meagre faith. I was seeing God from behind, all right. But seeing his back would be a little bit generous to describe what I could see. I wasn’t really seeing anything at all. I was only looking ahead to where I knew he had been. My discipleship wasn’t much of an obedient following; it was more of a running behind. If I was following the Lord at all, I was following him at a very great distance. St. Peter followed after and watched from a distance. From a distance, he followed after when Jesus was betrayed and taken away. Faithfully, cluelessly, from a distance, he followed after him and the whole mob surrounding him, thinking to spring the Lord of Hosts with a clumsy piece of iron. For all that distance — for all that following — Peter wept bitterly when he caught up to Jesus.

And I know that I am not making up this distance. I am not gaining on him. I am not catching up. If my following is like a running behind, it’s even more like a falling behind. But the Twelve fell behind too. They didn’t prove to be Jesus’s disciples because they could keep up with him. They couldn’t. They stayed true only because they stayed with him. And they stayed because they knew there was nothing else for them but falling behind this one, the Holy One. About that much I really am sure: running along behind and losing ground — but where else to go? Who can believe it? Indeed, but who else to believe?

On Monday, July 21, the Word of the Lord came to me. Sort of. He stood waiting on my answer as I waited for a little boy to jumble out some half broken plea. And I had cut him short. I missed the Lord’s coming! Like a thief in the night he came to my door and like a thief he was gone. I only recognized him already come and gone. And like the thief, what else can I do now but call ahead into the distance from very far behind:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom! Lord, don’t forget me! Master! Don’t leave me behind!


The first image above is “Walk away” (2010) by Flickr user chriscom; it is licensed under Creative Commons. The second is “Sudarium displayed by two angels” (1513) by Albrecht Dürer; it is in the public domain. 



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