The Ordinary as Mask of the Holy

by Belden C. Lane

Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 3, 1984, p. 898. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our tendency to seek the holy directly, apart from any mask or ambiguity — through what Luther criticized as a theology of glory. In other words, we want to possess the sacred without owning the ordinary.

Experience may be akin to what Dorothy Day once said of property the more common it becomes, the more holy it is. Writers like Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard and Lewis Thomas all speak of the most ordinary things, yet find in a weasel’s stare, a swollen river, a snail’s strange life something far more than ordinary. How does one learn to see with their eyes? Whence comes that double magic of recognizing the ordinary as extraordinary and the extraordinary as ordinary? Standing knee-deep in miracles myself, I often glimpse only a world of profane commonness. The twist of focus that brings the holy into view seldom occurs.

The one great practical truth of the incarnation is that the ordinary is no longer at all what it appears. Common things, common actions, common relationships are all granted new definition because the holy has once and for all become ordinary in Jesus Christ. G. K. Chesterton s Father Brown became the uncannily clever detective that he was simply because he knew the truth. While others were always ready to evoke the occult and supernatural in their efforts to explain the most difficult crimes, it was this balding and unassuming Catholic priest who invariably solved the mystery by means of the most everyday, commonplace observations. As a believer in the incarnation, he really could not do otherwise. Having become accustomed to expecting the holy in the undistinguished form of human flesh, he now looked upon every ordinary detail with more than usual attention. What struck him as conventional and natural, seen with his eye for the peculiarly “normal,” impressed others --  ironically -- as miraculous. Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought a this-worldly Christianity, knowing Christ to be the center even of that which fails to recognize him as such. Christianity is simply the process whereby men and women are restored to normal humanity, reclaiming everyday existence. “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but a man, pure and simple, just as Jesus was man,” Bonhoeffer states (Letters and Papers from Prison [Macmillan, 1962], p.225). “Human beings fully alive!” shouted Irenaeus. “Such is the glory of God!”

Why do theologians so often lack the ability to consecrate the normal and natural? They too readily abandon the held, letting the poets celebrate the creation they leave unpraised. Part of the problem is that theologians find it hard to escape the rigid dualism of sacred and profane, subject and object, nature and supernature. Poets, on the other hand, can more easily think beyond such limits -- reaching, as they do, for mythic wholeness. Yet theirs can be the tendency toward a shallow monism in which God, the world and the self rollick in a syrupy nature mysticism. How does one learn to esteem the commonplace without resorting to apotheosis? The theologian at last is driven to listen with the poet’s ear for the muted and unremarkable mystery of the cosmos.

Canoeing down the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, Wendell Berry paddled past wild flowers pasted with reckless splendor on the banks. He followed the current into the quiet water of a deep pool and sat in the long silence. There, in a single moment of Zen awareness, he became present to himself and to the space he had entered. “Ahead . . . a leaf falls from high up in a long gentle fall. In the water its reflection rises perfectly to meet it” (“A Country of Edges” in Recollected Essays, 1965-1980 [North Point Press, 1981], p. 229). Such an absurdly simple and yet strangely profound observation. Had I sat for hours in the same canoe, watching many leaves fall into the silent current, I might never have connected those three things -- the descending leaf, the joining reflection, and the moment in which they precisely met. Although I know with Martin Buber that “all real living is meeting,” I seldom make myself fully present to those occasions when the ordinary whispers of the holy.

In his essay on “An Entrance to the Woods,” Berry describes the process of making oneself open to the mystery that often is already there. He says it requires a certain forgetting, a gradual clearing and slowing of the mind and body. Rushing by interstate highway to a needed retreat in the forest one weekend, he’s keenly aware at first of his disease on entering the threatening silence of the woods. He sleeps restlessly. But by morning, his mind and body have begun to forget the highway and the dissonance of the previous day. As he lies in the sun on an outcropping of stone, in his forgetting there is also an anamnesis, a deep remembering. Only then is he able to enter the woods for the first time. “As I leave the bare expanse of the rock and go in under the trees again, I am aware that I move in the landscape as one of its details” (Recollected Essays, p. 241). An entry has been found, the process made complete. Forgetting occasions memory, memory brings meeting, and meeting forges unity.

Daniel Boorstin, the American historian and librarian of Congress, speaks of the historian’s similar difficulty in entering the past. He tries to drive out of his mind all the hurried expectations of finding there what he knows to be commonplace in his own world. Meeting the past in its own mystery, therefore, demands an unlearning, a disengagement from those very ideas that one can hardly help but entertain. Says Boorstin, “The historian trying to recover the past is like the mythical alchemist whose formula for making base metals into gold would work only if he was not thinking of a white elephant. How can we recapture ignorance?” (The American: The National Experience [Random House, 1965], p. 472). The question is golden. How can I disremember that which prevents me from encountering the new (and the holy) in all of its simplicity? Learning, like real meeting, is never what one expects. It presupposes a deliberate unlearning, a willed naïveté. The spiritual disciplines all have exactly this as their goal.

What happens, then, as one is launched on this spiritual pilgrimage of forgetfulness is that the ordinary begins to reveal itself in new ways. It discloses a reality hidden within the commonplace. “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.” says Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. They point sacramentally to mysteries far beyond themselves. Ahab’s own fixation was on the great white whale as the mask of some “inscrutable malice,” sinewing the whole. Melville’s vision was a fixed, haunting gaze into the heart of darkness, but he knew the power of masks, the ability of the ordinary to evoke the numinous.

It was Martin Luther who explored the other side of that idea of the holy -- its fascinans as well as its tremendum. He insisted that God’s naked, awful majesty could never be pursued directly. In order to shield human beings from the unapproachable light of Gods glory, God always remains hidden, veiled by a mask (larva). Though not seen face to face, this God is yet encountered with a striking immediacy in the larvae Dei -- the created marvels of God’s hand, the bread and wine at mass, even the mystery of one’s own self as created being. They all “contain Christ.” himself the veiled and incarnate God. From this perspective all ordinary things assume new importance. They are masks of the holy: not sterile occasions for rationally inferring the existence and attributes of God, but vivid means by which God as Mother of creation comes herself to meet us.

The implications of this notion of the holy as masked in the ordinary arc drawn out more convincingly by storytellers and bards than by the theologians. Metaphor, with all its multivalent concreteness, is ultimately the most truthful servant of truth. It is said, for example, that a man once came from a great distance to study under Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. This great rebbe had himself pushed upward the heights of mystical knowledge through his studies with the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch. At the same time only the brilliant Gaon of Vilna exceeded his ability in memorizing and arguing Talmud. In the balance of spiritual and intellectual insight the man was without peer. To this distinguished tzaddik, therefore, came the distant visitor. On learning of his quest, the villagers of Ladi all asked with pride if he wanted first to hear their great rabbi read Talmud or to hear him pray. Neither, he said. He wanted only to watch him cut bread or tie his shoes. The villagers were stunned as the visitor simply observed the rabbi sitting absently in thought in thc light of the afternoon sun, and then went away edified.

One begins to suspect that the contemplation of any ordinary thing, made extraordinary by attention and love, can become an occasion for glimpsing the profound. Lewis Thomas finds hope for the human species in the accumulative intelligence of termites, the thrush in his backyard, and a protozoan named Myxotricha paradoxa. He simply attends with the eye of a biologist to what passes beneath our senses every day. G. K. Chesterton once suggested that ‘‘it is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the bookcase, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship onto the solitary island’’ (Orthodoxy [Fontana. 1961]. p. 63). Such an exercise can be no small aid in attaching true value to the most commonplace of things around us.

Where can I not encounter the holy, has been the question of spiritual writers in every tradition and every age. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” asked the psalmist (139:7). Once our attention is brought to focus on the masked extraordinariness of things, we are hard put in to discern the allegedly profane. Joseph Campbell recognized this well in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1968). He tells of an ancient Hindu sannyasin or holy man who, while lying

down to rest by the hallowed Ganges, propped his feet upon a sacred lingam, the symbol of Shiva. A lingam is a combined phallus and vulva, indicating in a very earthy way the union of God with his Spouse, the androgynous unity of creation and chaos. (Unfortunately, Westerners readily take offense at the very idea of representing the sacred through sexual genitalia. Most Christians, after all, don’t believe that firmly in the incarnation.) A priest passing by asked this sannyasin how he dared so to profane the religious symbol. “Good sir,” he replied, “I am sorry; but will you kindly take my feet and place them where there is no such sacred lingam.” The offended priest roughly grasped the man’s ankles and moved his feet first to the right, then to the left, but -- to his amazement -- in every place that the feet touched a new phallus sprang from the ground. Finally he understood. Sacred and profane are ultimately artificial distinctions. Can the foot touch any place where there is no God? Having stalked the holy up narrow paths on windswept slopes, I’m brought full circle by discovering that I have passed it already along every step of the way.

The chagrin is that the realization takes so long. Most of us balk at the sharp paradox of God’s mysterious presence in the world. On the one hand, the ordinary reaches out to be noticed; it cries for recognition. The holy makes itself obvious in every turning leaf. Shug Avery, in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, says, “Everything want to be loved. . . . You ever notice that trees do everything to get attention we do, except walk?” (Washington Square, 1983, pp. 178-179). How, then, can we so readily overlook the presence of the sacred? It is because, on the other hand, the ordinary also conceals -- by the very fact of its ordinariness. It anesthetizes the mind with its dull predictability. Saturation perception takes over, turning what we see all the time into what we don’t actually see at all.

This paradox of seeing and not seeing discloses the central nature of a metaphor. It is something which bewilders or disguises in the very process of revealing and making known. That’s why the notion of “mask” is so appropriate to the mystery of the divine presence. A mask identifies the character represented, as in ancient Greek and Roman drama, but it hides identity as well. It is this juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange that grants a metaphor its power to engage the imagination. Understanding the ordinary as a mask of the holy, therefore, is a way of maintaining a metaphorical tension between similar and dissimilar things. The mask is never able to contain or consume the holy, yet neither can the holy be known apart from the mask. Both must be kept in tension. We live in equivocality like fish in the sea. But our discursive minds seldom rest content with metaphor. We seek its resolution in a single dimension of clarity. We’re uneasy with ambiguity. In a course I teach on storytelling and theological method, the hardest task is to persuade students that the story itself, with all of its intense and colorful imprecision, is the truth.

Our tendency is to seek the holy directly, apart from any mask or ambiguity -- through what Luther criticized as a theology of glory. In other words, we want to possess the sacred without owning the ordinary. Trying to grasp heaven in all of its naked majesty, we denigrate the sign, the mask. We lift up its edges in order to glimpse firsthand the glory it shades. As a result, inevitably we look beyond everything without seeing it for what it is. We scoff at the commonplace in the process of reaching for a grandeur we’re convinced it lacks. Ironically, in doing so we miss both. The sacred in its naked glory completely eludes us, while we contemptuously pass by the subtlety of the mask itself. The trick is to be able to see the holy both in and through the mask, even as the archaeologist traces back the various layers of writing on an ancient palimpsest or as the artist explores an old canvas to discern the effect known as pentimento. Lillian Hellman offers a vivid description of the latter:

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines; a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again [Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (Little, Brown, 1973), frontispiece].

It is this simultaneity of vision which the mask, with all of its multivalence, makes possible. I see with greatest depth that which I observe from different perspectives at the same time.

There’s a deep intrigue in the double seeing, as well as in the anonymity, that a mask affords. Whether we think of All Hallow’s Eve, the white face of clowning and mime, or the masquerading heroes of primitive mythology, the appeal of the mask is profound. Take, for example, the rituals surrounding the use of masks in Native American religion. The subtle dynamic of the mask as at once revealing and concealing, the holy is powerfully exemplified in Hopi initiation rites in Arizona. There children between the ages of seven and ten are introduced to the cult and mystery of the kachina masks. Prior to this time, the children have always considered the kachina figures to be magical beings bearing gifts or frightening them with numinous wonder. They have never dreamed that the faces of the dancing figures are anything less than the visage of the sacred itself. But in the process of initiation they suddenly are shown the kachina figures without their masks. They discover, to their dismay, that the figures have been their own male relatives all along. The masks carried by them appear to be mere false faces of carved wood. This is a keenly liminal experience for the initiates, brought as they are to the very threshold of formal religious life. It is marked by confusion, disenchantment and rich new insight -- all at the same time. One must not think that the child’s experience is merely one of disillusionment. On the contrary, says Sam Gill, what the Hopi child discovers is that things are much more than what they appear. The child is put into a position to learn “what is perhaps the most important lesson in his or her entire religious life: that a spiritual reality is conjoined with, and stands behind, the physical reality” (Native American Religions: An Introduction [Wadsworth, 1982], p. 92).

I sometimes ask myself if I, with my own neat Cartesian distinctions, have begun to learn as much. Am I able to accept the holy, without taking offense at receiving it through the commonplace? Indeed, can I discern my own relatives -- my wife and children -- as themselves masks of the holy for me? Luther insisted that the freedom of Christians is realized in our becoming Christs to each other. In wearing that mask,, putting on that reality, we discover in each other the presence of more than what appears. We are set free from despising ourselves and all the trivial details of our lives. Suddenly they become masks of the Lord Christ, calling us through them to an intense focus of attention and love.

This tenacious insistence on life -- an ability to attend unremittingly to the particular -- is what I find especially compelling in Annie Dillard’s writings. Her opening essay in Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1983) describes a meeting she once had with a weasel in the woods near Tinker Creek. They surprised each other beneath a tree one afternoon and stood stupified in each other’s presence for a full half-minute. It was as if their eyes had locked and someone had thrown away the key, Dillard writes. The experience led her later to read further about such animals and to learn that weasels are known for the tenacity of their grip. Their teeth, like those of English bulldogs, are able to lock, once they bite down on something. In fact, an eagle was once found in the wilds with the dried skull of a weasel still anchored to its neck. Apparently, the weasel had struck the eagle in a desperate attempt for food. Missing the jugular vein, the teeth had sunk into the cartilage of the neck as the eagle flew off with its attacker in tow. Gradually the eagle then ate what it could of the animal dangling limply like a pennant from its throat. A grisly story, this -- full of fervid, sanguine ordinariness. Yet Annie Dillard asks herself, can I sink my teeth into life with such tenacity -- even if it means in the end being borne aloft as dried bones hanging from an eagle’s underside? That’s the only way worth living. “You must go at your life with a broadax,” she says in Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977). And she’s exactly right. The created detail of all of God’s world cries out for merciless attention.

According to the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius, the seraphs are the highest of nine choirs of angels. They are born of a stream of fire flowing from under the throne of The Almighty. Being all wings, they perpetually move toward God, rapt in praise and crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy. . .” Yet it is said that they can sing only the first “Holy” before the great intensity of their love ignites them into flames, returning them to the stream of fire from which they are replaced by others (Holy the Firm, p. 45). Of such intensity is the fire that belongs to Annie Dillard. It is the wondrous delight that invites each of us to the contemplation of everything common, an invitation to gaze stealthily on that which would dissolve us into flames if viewed firsthand. At the end, then, I’m driven -- like the aged Lear -- to own what I have denied so long. To the once-scorned Cordelia, Lear uttered a last eloquent cry for prosaic mystery:

So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too --

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out --

And take upon’s the mystery of things

As if we were God’s spies. . . .


Take upon us the mystery of things, indeed. It lies there masked in ordinariness, whispering the splendor of a God whose name remains Deus Incarnatus. I discover it all: Wendell Berry’s falling leaf, the rabbi’s quiet pose, the lingam under every foot, the Hopi mask and the eagle’s flight. In each case, Dorothy Day proves right: the more common it becomes, the more holy it becomes.

“Split the stick and there is Jesus,” said the ancient Gospel of Thomas, knowing the ordinary to be fraught with wonder. The dictum is only partly true. Theologians rightly caution against any simplistic Gnostic gazing at the naked sign. The stick reveals its fullness only because of the emptied Christ. Otherwise a stick is a stick is a stick. The mask, therefore, is not the holy; it only suggests access to the holy. Neither the stick, nor the falling leaf, nor the wonder of my own children ever reveal the fully formed face of Christ. The masks remain masks. Yet the poetic insight still holds true -- Christ is the center. My eyes strain to discern the reality behind what I see. “Split the stick and there is Jesus; lift the stone and one finds the Lord” (95: 26-28).