(This article first ran as a blog on EngagedLiminality.org June 6, 2020)
If there is one thing that has become emblematic of this season of pandemic, it is the mask. We are masked, we mask ourselves, we sell and buy masks, we scramble for masks, we resent having to wear masks. Public spaces contain masked people scattering to and fro. We notice who is and who isn’t masked and have feelings about them. In the realm of online commerce, producers of masks compete for the position of most trendy, least expensive, or most effective.
We are masked.
And yet ironically, at the same time, in the liminal space beyond the threshold of what might have been normal, much is being unmasked.
What is mostly being unmasked are the stories we tell ourselves. Back in the old world these stories propped up the way things were, kept us striving after the next shiny thing, and even defined who should stay where and how. Some stories made more than a few of us hyper religious. Other stories provided ways we should be patriotic. But mostly the stories we were told and continue to tell ourselves defined a world. This is how we see and understand things. At least in the old world we did.
Surprisingly, this same time and space that has required we wear masks is now methodically exposing and unmasking us in other ways. These painful revelations of the in-between include the ways that aspects of our true selves have been covered by false stories. And the ways our false stories have created pain and suffering for those around us.
Of the many Biblical water stories, two are conspicuous in the way they unmask us.
The first is the flood story which, if read with its full narrative power, won’t leave one of us back in the old broken down life before the waters lifted the ark off the ground. The past and its ways are washed away and an interim community of hope floats toward the future. Somewhere on the other side chaos a new world rises up like a dove flying over Atlantis. If we don’t see rainbows we should.
But then there is the water that provided the supposed escape route for Jonah. This is no moral example tale, this prophet running from destiny. But his story does cast a light on our own cowardice, our unwillingness to move forward when it is hard, our reluctance to let go of fear and hate and become more of what we are meant to be. Jonah is washed away by another flood – a storm – though his transportation is by submarine. His ark is a big fish, and it serves as his temple, womb, transforming container, and way out all in one. When he is spewed out on land at the very place he first departed, the circle is completed: Jonah is conspicuously unmasked, shown for who he is, even as he is given a second, quite imperfect run at it.
In both stories the truth about the world and our human nature is unmasked in unavoidable ways. Deep calls to deep. The voice echoes off the betwixt and between canyon walls of our existence. All that is hidden shall be revealed.
All that is to say that this liminal interlude represents more than a regrouping, timeout, or waiting room to get back to normal. It is more than that. In the fullness of time we swim in a tsunami of history. The flood has washed away the old world, and no matter how reluctant we are, the only way forward is forward. Even if we attempt to batten down the hatches on the old world, a big fish is sending us where the work really needs to begin.
This is the gift from the time of masks, to be unmasked.
And yet, there is another sort of mask, a future, transcendent mask, that arrives for an altogether different reason. We are told that after Moses descended from the holy mountain his face was so luminous that he had to wear a veil to spare the eyes of all those who beheld him. Such is the mystery of the new world on the other side of the flood, a hoped for, future world of the most sacred imagination, a mount of transfiguration where the face of the holy shines like the sun and a bright cloud of presence consumes the need for every mask that ever was or ever will be.
Thank you so much for this reflection. It’s like I was staring at the puzzle all over the table, all the pieces are there, but now I see the puzzle completed. I’m so stretched between, “the only way forward is forward,” “We’ll never be the same again,” and the thoughts of, “Wishful thinking. We’ve seen this excitement / arousal before, and it went pretty much nowhere.” “Who are we to think this is really the breaking point of 40 centuries of Patriarchy and 400 years of American racism?”