Just Pieces of Cloth?

The Vexing Spirituality of Masks

This article appears in the September/October issue of Spirituality and Health and is shared at The Cottage with the kind permission of the publisher.

How did masks become a political issue?

The question was a headline in a late June article in The Guardian. Resistance to mask wearing exploded across the news as further evidence of America’s social and political divide in this time of COVID-19. A subtitle underscored the headline’s question: “They’re just pieces of cloth, but a passionate portion of the US population sees an attack on individual freedom.”

I have been wearing a mask when I go out in public for months now. I do not think of this as a political statement: I consider wearing face coverings good public health practice. It is a way to care for my neighbors. Yet …

Even though I am politically liberal and I want to stop the virus from spreading, each time I put on a mask something feels awkward. A small hesitation arises. This “piece of cloth” elicits a response that runs counter to my intellectual and moral commitments to both good science and communal responsibility.

Something more—something harder to identify—is at play. In Western societies, masks are weighted with meaning about who we are and who we hope to be.

The Western concept of masks goes back to ancient Greece, where masks were used in theater. They were a way to place actors into a liminal space that mediated between reality and story, allowing actors to disappear into the role they were playing and become who they were not, creating an alternative reality for the audience.

The Greek term for these theatrical masks is persona. Eventually, the notion of persona expanded to include the masks people wear more generally. A mask became the person we show to the world, regardless of who we really are under the mask. Greek theater gave Western culture another term to describe this disconnection between the actor and the mask—a word that meant “play-acting” or “dissembling”—hupkrinomai, literally “to judge from under a mask,” a word we know in English as “hypocrite.”

Western people mask when they want to hide, and masking has a long association in European societies with naughtiness, lying, criminality, and sin. Masks provide distance between our inner selves and outward actions. 

In the last century, psychology has adopted the language of masks and personas to describe authentic and inauthentic selves. In many circles, taking off masks is the most important step toward discovering our true identity. And even if we cannot completely shed our masks, the goal is to bring our public personas into closer alignment with our inner selves.

Add to all of this Christianity—with its warnings against hypocrisy and its hope for beatific vision—and one gets a sense of the deeper meaning of masks in our society. Masks are wrapped up in Christian notions of sin, selfhood, and salvation. Even as church adherence declines in Western culture, the Biblical narrative lurks in our memories—after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they covered themselves and hid.

The first act after sinning was putting on a mask.

Human beings are the well-practiced offspring of veiling, of masking our sin so as not to be known. In the Hebrew scripture, Jacob and Moses both saw God “face to face,” a rarity to the people of Israel, and a hope that the New Testament claims on behalf of all who follow Jesus. As St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” It is not unreasonable to argue that the Biblical story is one of masking and unmasking, until God is finally and fully seen in each human face. Salvation means everything will be uncovered.

Every time I put on a mask, these associations vex me. I may be politically liberal; I want to be a good citizen; I believe that covering my face is a way of loving my neighbor. I wear a mask. But I confess. Inwardly, I wince. Words sound in my mind: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Not God’s back, but God’s face. The veil is rent. Glory revealed.

This is the stuff of our culture, spirituality and psychology shaped by language of theater, the acting out of a divine drama of concealment and revelation, heightened in particular ways by American identity. To understand these dimensions of masking is not a call to reject wearing face coverings. Instead, to understand is to know the source of what elicits an awkward moment for some and deep anger for others. We are being asked to do something that runs counter to things we can barely explain in order to save our lives and the lives of others. Wearing a mask runs contrary to Western notions of being authentically human—saved and uncovered—of a spiritual quest to reveal our true face to God and the world.

Knowing the archetype gives some measure of real choice to act differently in this strange time. Masks may grate, irk, and annoy. They challenge deeply held, but often invisible, cultural assumptions about being human. No wonder I wince. I long to walk face-first in the world, unhidden and whole. But now, however, compassion insists on a mask. Covering one’s face to show care and kindness is odd for those of us shaped by Western spirituality—masking to reveal love. I guess the beatific vision will have to wait. 


This article is from the September/October issue of Spirituality & Health and is reprinted here with my thanks to the magazine editors.

View the online version here.

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INSPIRATION FOR REFLECTION:

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.
― Nathaniel Hawthorne

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Oscar Wilde

The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask.
Agatha Christie

How can the gods meet us face to face until we have faces?
― C.S. Lewis

We all wear masks
to veil the truth.
Truth is nakedness.
Truth is fear.

― Kamand Kojouri


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