My Father’s Face: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
My Father’s Face
A few years back some friends commissioned my portrait as a gift to me and my wife. I had always admired the work of the artist, Constance Scopelitis, and I was very excited to see what she would do. Additionally, it would be a match for the portrait of my wife which we had commissioned in the UK and was shown at the, then, John Player exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I was not, however, prepared for what I would see as my portrait progressed.
First we decided what the portrait would be. Some thought I should be portrayed in my academic robes with all the accouterments – the standard academic portrait. Together with Constance, we decided against it. While academia has been a part of my life, it was not the totality of my life. Then there was the thought of having me in a priest’s cassock, or perhaps cassock, surplice, hood and scarf, i.e. standard choir dress for an Anglican priest. We discussed it at length and finally decided against it as well. In the end, we decided that I would be dressed in a simple black suit, a linen waistcoat, white shirt and a black tie. As a nod to the other areas of my life and career, we placed the robes and accouterments on a chair in the background. I would simply be portrayed standing, holding a small red leather box in my hand, signifying the giving of a gift.
Once that was settled, we started the process. First was a photography session in natural light and then several sittings in the studio as Constance began the oil sketch that would be the basis for the final painting. After a few weeks had passed, she invited me to her studio to see the monochrome oil sketch before she began to lay on the color. I went to the studio not knowing what to expect.
As I walked into the studio I was taken aback.
Now, I should explain something. Constance, at the time, was a relatively new friend. She had never met my family. What she knew about me was based upon our conversations in the studio. That was why, as I walked into the studio, I was stopped in my tracks. What I saw was my father’s face.
I had always been told that I really did not resemble anyone in my immediate or extended family. My relationship with my father was, in my mind, distant and “business-like”. I cannot remember, at any time as I grew up, my father hugging me or even putting his arm around me. Even on his deathbed he had a list to go over. I was to take care of my older brothers and my mother. He had named me as his executor and he told me where various papers were located. We then talked about his funeral plans. He asked me to conduct the service and do the eulogy and, at the end of the conversation, we shook hands as we said goodbye to each other for the last time.
It was not, in my mind, a close relationship.
Yet, there was the canvas… and there was my father’s face. Constance had seen something that I did not see as I looked into the mirror day by day. As distant as I considered the relationship, she had seen more than myself. As an artist, she saw in my face what I could not see, or what I chose not to see… she saw my father’s face.
Often I feel distant in my relationship with God. There are times when I say the Morning and Evening Office that it feels “business-like”. I say the words, but my thoughts wander. There have been many times in my life when I have doubted God’s love for me and, at times, even his presence in my life. Sometimes I feel like God has given me a list of things to take care of on his behalf. The list may include actions to be admired – be merciful, be loving, be faithful, etc. – but it can still seem like a list. There are times when, instead of giving me a loving embrace, I feel as though God is offering me a rather distant hand shake.
Yet through all of this, something remains that I am unable to see. In fact, it may be something that only others can see. Baptism made me a part of a family, the Church. When, Sunday by Sunday, I approach the altar, I reaffirm my place in that family as I encounter Christ in the Holy Eucharist. My place in that family is not dependent on the evidence of my academic expertise. My place in that family is not necessarily shown by the place of ministry I hold or the wearing of vestments associated with that ministry. It is about others being able to see in me my Father’s face… even when I cannot see it myself.
When, in the course of time, my mother saw the completed portrait, she gasped at first and reached out her hand to touch the face. Still staring at the portrait, she then said, “Its your father…” and paused before saying, “its him, but its you…”
Maybe that expresses the mystery of the Incarnation and, indeed, of Christian faith. It is for others to look at us, and our lives, and to say, “Its Him, but its you…”