When word of COVID-19 started trickling in earlier this year, I began to consume the news with the same anxiety most of us experienced about this new threat. Periodically, that anxiety was soothed by stories of communities coming together to support the vulnerable among us. In recent days, however, I have watched in disappointment as our collective trauma and fatigue have devolved into fighting about whether we should wear face coverings for the protection of others and ourselves. Barring certain medical conditions which preclude mask-wearing, the objections to wearing masks are ideological and emotional.
The word “sheep” has been thrown around as an insult to those of us who do choose to cover our faces out of care and respect for those around us. I have also seen and heard Christian brothers and sisters decrying what they view as an infringement on personal liberty. I certainly believe we should approach any potential infringement on freedom with caution and skepticism, but if I am labeled a “sheep” for caring for the welfare of my neighbor, I’ll consider it a badge of honor. I am a follower of the Good Shepherd, after all.
The face mask debate among Christ followers amid a devasting global pandemic demands that we think deeply about what outward signs signify about inward spiritual grace. As human beings, one of the ways we express ourselves is through our attire. Employed persons wear clothing appropriate to their occupations, be it a suit, uniform, coveralls, apron or scrubs. Even gang members show their affiliation with their clothing choices. We communicate our identities with our haircuts, piercings and tattoos. We express ourselves with our appearance and in turn make judgments about other people’s identities based on their appearance.
“Choosing to wear a mask as a spiritual practice has deepened my faith and increased my commitment to my neighbors during this time of pandemic.”
As a trained mental health professional, I can’t help but notice the psychological roots of the aversion to mask-wearing. Hiding one’s face immediately creates suspicion in others. With a mask on, we can’t see the person’s facial expressions in order to assess whether they are friend or foe. We can’t even assess their identity. That’s why we wear masks on Halloween – to change our perceived identity for a night.
When we combine that psychological discomfort with our cultural traditions of face covering, we encounter even more hurdles to accepting mask-wearing. In American culture, we associate wearing a mask with people who wish us harm. When I think of face coverings, my mind jumps immediately to the bandana-wearing bank robbers in the westerns I used to watch with my grandfather. I think of ski masks that kidnappers wear in movies or television shows. And I think of the racist reactions to face coverings worn by Muslim women.
In every culture, people adorn themselves with religious symbols to signal to others their devotion to a faith tradition. The Muslim head covering is one example, but there are countless others. In Christianity, we have clerical robes and stoles, habits for monastic orders, cross necklaces, head coverings in some denominations, tee shirts with religious themes and even tattoos. All of these are spiritual symbols that can both signify and deepen our faith.
In these extraordinary days, I have come to view wearing a protective mask while in public as a spiritual practice. Here are some of the ways this practice is deepening my faith.
Mask-wearing is an exercise in the spiritual practice of love of neighbor. I wear my mask as a sign of my love and care for others, especially those who are most at risk. Jesus tells us that when we care for “the least of these,” we are really serving him. I believe that by caring for the most vulnerable among us, I am following Christ’s example.
Wearing a mask is increasing my understanding of humility. It is humbling to wear a protective mask, especially in communities where doing so is unpopular and even ridiculed. Some people look at me with questions in their eyes or make comments that imply that I am over-reacting. I remember that no matter how much scorn I bear, the Christ I follow endured more.
Listening comes along with humility. No matter how comfortable the mask is, talking through a mask is difficult. I feel the cloth suck into my mouth when I inhale, and I am aware of the muffled sound of my voice as I attempt to communicate. However, I also find myself speaking less and listening more when my face is covered. I am resolved to listen more consciously and intentionally whenever I’m wearing my mask. Not surprisingly, this practice has also extended into my non-mask wearing time.
I have several different handmade cloth masks. When I wear them, I remember that I am loved. My mother-in-law made every member of our family beautiful face coverings, and whenever I wear mine, I remember how thankful I am that she is in our lives. I think about the effort she put into choosing the weight of the fabric to assure adequate protection, while also choosing prints to suit the personality of each member of the family, and then spent time creating each mask in our size. When I wear a mask made by a beloved church member, I remember the care and love she and the rest of the church have consistently shown to my family.
“It is humbling to wear a protective mask, especially in communities where doing so is unpopular and even ridiculed.”
In this time of such intense isolation, wearing my mask reminds me that I am not alone, and that I am enveloped in love.
Above all, wearing a mask reminds me that my identity is found in my relationship with God. When I wear a mask, my features are hidden, and my facial expressions are impossible to decipher. It’s sometimes hard to feel understood when you are aware that those around you cannot recognize your face or understand your emotions. When other people are not wearing a mask, it can make your visible difference uncomfortably obvious. When I wear my mask, my intention is to show that I am a Christ follower who cares for my neighbor above myself. Whether or not other people understand that is less important than whether God understands my heart.
I have found that choosing to wear a mask as a spiritual practice has deepened my faith and increased my commitment to my neighbors during this time of pandemic. I hope and pray for the time when protective face masks are no longer necessary. But I also hope that the lessons God is teaching through this practice remain an integral part of my life of faith.
Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic: