The meaning of the dream symbol: Face

Max Picard remarks, the individual dare not look into the face of another without a tremor, since above all, the face is there to be gazed at by God. To gaze upon a human face is as though one were attempting to govern the Almighty... Only in a climate of love can a human face retain the properties with which God created it in his own image. Unless encircled by love, the human face becomes set and whoever gazes upon it sees only the lifeless flesh and bone of which the face is made instead of the true face and whatever conclusions the observer draws from the face are falsified.

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Symbol of the mysterious, the face is like an invisible door to which the key has been lost. The Holy Shroud of Turin was the object of an extraordinary adoration because it was believed to reflect the face of Christ. Father Le Guillou calls Christianity ‘the religion of faces’. Olivier Clement writes: ‘God is made manifest in a Face of which the light grows brighter as from generation to generation the faces of ordinary people are transfigured.’ A whole theology and way of mystic life might be developed from the face.

The face symbolizes human evolution out of darkness and into light. It is their degree of brightness which will mark the difference between the Devil’s and the angel’s face. The Devil’s forehead is seamed with horizontal lines and shaded by its sprouting horns. When the face expresses no inner life, it is no more than ‘an artificial limb... a rubber mask.’

The Hebrew always uses the plural (panim) for the human face on which thoughts and feelings are written. Turned to the light, it may glow with its brightness. God’s face is identical with his essence, and this is why it is impossible to gaze upon it. Nevertheless, St Augustine suggests that ecstasy - in so far as it is an image of death - allows of some apprehension of God, as was the case of Moses upon Mount Sinai and of St Paul taken up into the third heaven. Such a vision anticipates the state of bliss. Seeing God face to face is reserved for eternal life. Mystics often pray God to reveal his face to them. The face is the symbol of God’s very being, or of the human personality whose manifestation it is. This was the reason why it was regarded as sacrilege to stare upon the face of the Emperor, especially when, as in China, his nature was divine.

Since the face stood for the individual as a whole, to Celts ‘face-price’ measured the compensation paid by one individual to another and the phrase ‘so many faces’ was used like the term ‘so many souls’. It was upon the face that the tenth-century Welsh laws of Hywel Dda and the Irish legal treatise, the Senchus Mor, set the price of settlement or indemnity to be paid to the family of a murder-victim or to an injured party. The ‘face-price’ was also the dowry paid by the husband to the wife before the marriage could be consummated, like the Germanic Morgengabe. Welsh laws sometimes mention the gift in damages of a gold plaque or plate the size of a face and the thickness of a finger. ‘Loss of face’ is well known in Chinese and Muslim tradition. This is another aspect of the same symbolism.