Richard Harter’s World
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November 2009

The Face In The Mirror

Once upon a time there was a little baby boy. His parents named him after a famous relative, Dorian Gray, in hopes of a little patronage. It was a faint hope, for the connection was remote. Gray, however, was flattered and regularly visited his namesake. The boy’s parents thought it strange that such a man should find pleasure in playing with an innocent child.

They asked him about it once and he replied that the boy looked just like himself when he was a child. He thanked them for ensuring that the world would still be favored with a handsome Dorian Gray when he was old and gray.

Dorian Gray’s visits lasted until the boy was six. On his last visit he called young Dorian aside and told him that he would no longer be visiting. Some day, he said, you will understand why.

Before I leave, he said, I want to give you a gift to remember me by. Here it is. It is a magic mirror. Most mirrors show you how the world sees you. This mirror shows you as you truly are.

The boy gravely inspected the mirror. He objected that there was nothing magic about the mirror. He looked the same in the magic mirror as he did in any other mirror. Dorian Gray laughed and said, that’s because you are an innocent child. You are what you seem to be.

Just then the boy turned the mirror towards Dorian Gray. Oh look, he said, it is a magic mirror; you look very different in the mirror. Dorian said, well yes, I do. That’s because I am an adult and have been about in the world. Now put the mirror in its case and put it away. Keep it safe. Some day you will look in it and remember me. With that Dorian made his goodbyes and walked out the door, never to return.

Young Dorian Gray quickly forgot about the mirror. It lay safely within a velvet lined case that had a secure latch. The case was within the clutter of his room, ignored along with a host of forgotten playthings. He would have forgotten it entirely, save that he remembered it when he went away to school. He thought it might be useful for shaving, so he packed it with his other things when he set off for the university.

In all those years he had never looked at the mirror. When he was packing he remembered that old Dorian Gray had told him that it was a magic mirror that would show him as he truly. Intrigued, he took it out of its case and looked at himself in the mirror. He was disappointed; he looked just the same as he did in any other mirror. Perhaps, he thought, the whole story was something he had made up as a child.

Dorian did well in the university. With his good looks he was popular, and he fell in with a clique. The boys in the clique believed themselves to be an elite, and as so often happens, others thought the same for no better reason than that they believed it themselves.

Like many such cliques, the boys in the clique were snobs and were cruel in depressing the pretensions of would be hangers on. Dorian was not naturally cruel. None-the-less he picked up the style of his fellows and quickly became adept at making cutting remarks to and about his inferiors. He didn’t even notice that he was doing it.

One evening he was preparing to go out on the town for the evening. He opened the case and took out the mirror to check his appearance. When he looked in the mirror he was surprised to see a dusty blotch on his right cheek. He rubbed at it but it wouldn’t come off. He went to the bathroom where there was better light and a larger mirror. There he could wash off whatever it was on his face.

He got a shock. When he looked in the mirror in the loo there wasn’t any blotch on his face. He looked again in the mirror from his childhood. The blotch was there. Puzzled he looked back and forth. And then he remembered. This was supposed to be a magic mirror that showed him as he truly was.

He remembered something else. He remembered that old Dorian Gray had looked like a monster in the mirror. Old Dorian had been handsome, almost beautiful, but there had been a lot of scandal around him. He had killed himself under mysterious circumstances, and there were a lot strange rumors about his death.

Maybe, just maybe, there was something to it. He asked himself, was there anything that he had done recently, anything that made him less of a good person than he had been, anything bad. He thought about what he had been doing recently. Was there anything he had done that he shouldn’t have? He couldn’t think of anything. Was there anything he had done that wasn’t nice? All of a sudden he thought of something cutting he had said to one of the unpopular boys. The boy had almost cried, and Dorian and another boy in the clique had laughed at him. He remembered the look on the boy’s face and felt ashamed of himself.

He resolved to do better, not to be cruel, and to think more of the feelings of others. So he did – for a day or so. Then, quite without him noticing, he slipped back into the ways of the clique. It happened naturally enough. Good intentions only prevail when attention is upon them, whereas habit is always there. However habit’s rule is no certainty while conscience still lives.

Conscience has a way of speaking unexpectantly at unexpected times. When it speaks it does not speak in words; conscience speaks to the soul.

On one bright and sunny day Dorian was walking across the quad, thinking of nothing in particular, just taking pleasure in the play of sunlight on the green grass and the leaves of the trees. As he walked he became uneasy. Conscience was speaking to him. All of a sudden he became aware of what he had been doing. He remembered the cutting and cruel remarks. He remembered the affectations, the pride, and the insolence. He was ashamed.

What am I to do, he thought. What have I become? Alarmed, he turned and went back to his rooms and sought the mirror. He was actually shaking when he removed it from its case. He looked. The blotch was still there. It was larger, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. He cried out, Oh God, what am I to do?

And then he thought, of course, I must ask God what to do. That sounded simple enough and yet it wasn’t. He had prayed all his life as a matter of course. Somehow all those prayers meant nothing now. In all those prayers he had never really talked to God, and as far as he knew, God had never talked to him.

When he thought about it, he had the feeling that it was all a lot more comfortable that way. He felt uncomfortable about getting involved with the God thing. Still, he had to do something, so he decided to talk to the house chaplain.

Father Anders was a round faced man. He wasn’t corpulent – gluttony is a sin – but he was a well fed man. His eyes twinkled and his manner was smooth and reassuring. Over the years he had guided many a young man through many a crisis of the soul. His door was always open for those in need. Dorian was in need.

He poured out his soul to Father Anders. He had been a good boy, he said, and now he was becoming something else. As he spoke he realized that he had never been good for its own sake. It had been expected of him. People in his family’s circle were good because that what was expected of them. It had been pleasant being good. Now he discovered that it felt good to be mean, proud, and cruel. It was as though he had no character of his own, that he took on the character of those around him, that he was no more than a moral chameleon.

Father Anders listened to Dorian’s outpourings with a keen ear. Over the years he had listened to many young men struggling with their consciences and their fumbling beginnings of a spiritual awareness. He heard all of that from Dorian, but there was something different about this young man. There was something important that he was talking about.

As he listened, Father Anders offered sage advice and hinted delicately that he wanted to hear more. Finally Dorian admitted that there was something else.

Dorian nervously explained that what he was about to talk about was strange and that he wasn’t even sure that he should talk about it. Father Anders assured him that the things you don’t feel like talking about are just the things that you had better talk about.

Dorian stumbled out with it. He told about being named after Dorian Gray, about his namesake’s visits, about the mirror, about what he had seen in the mirror, and about the rumors about his namesake’s death. Father Anders listened quietly as it all poured out. Finally Dorian looked at him and asked in a quiet scared voice, Am I crazy?

Father Anders mused a bit. Perhaps, he said, but I don’t think so. Why don’t we have a look at this mirror of yours. Do you have it with you?


Well bring it out.

Dorian brought the mirror’s case, opened it up, and brought out the mirror. He asked, what if you look in it and you don’t see what I see? What then?

Why don’t we see what we see first. Hand me the mirror and let’s see what I look like.

Dorian handed the mirror to him. Father Anders looked at himself in the mirror. Nothing, he said. I look the same as I always have. Let’s see what you look like in the mirror.

Dorian took back the mirror and looked at his reflection. Father Anders looked at the boy before him. He was handsome, his face was perfectly oval, his skin was flawless, and his golden locks were impeccably groomed. The face of the boy was perfection. The face in the mirror … was not.

Dorian asked, rather shakily, well?

Father Anders shook his head. I really am surprised, he said. I didn’t expect to see what you see in the mirror.

And if you hadn’t? Would you have thought I was crazy?

Of course not. After all, it’s a magic mirror. Magic mirrors make their own rules. I was surprised that it let me see you. What I am concerned about is that you have a magic mirror. Such things are dangerous. Let me think.

After a moment Father Anders continued. There is a legend that we heard in the seminary. I always thought it was just a legend but maybe there is something to it. The story goes that there is a mirror like yours in Heaven. Those who look into the mirror see themselves as they truly are. When the dead come before God for Judgement they must first look in the mirror. They cannot pass on to Judgement until they recognize themselves in the mirror.

Mind you, it’s just a legend. Still it tells us what such mirrors are good for. They prepare you to be worthy of the Judgement of God. That is a boon denied to the rest of us. Those of us without such mirrors never see fully ourselves as we truly are; we live within the moral fog of the material world.

I must warn you, though, that there is a curse with this mirror. I do not know what it is, but I know that it is there. That is the way of things of magic, they are both boon and curse. I do not think that you can destroy it or forget it; you became bound to it when you first used it. The only advice I can give you is this: Do not trust the mirror. Trust God instead, for God is your only surety.

From that moment on Dorian’s life changed. He gradually disengaged from the clique and instead became an active Christian. His time was spent in the chapel and the choir, in religious reading, and in prayer. He felt that he was doing the right thing. The mirror told him that he was doing the right thing. And yet he was not content. Finally he returned to Father Anders.

Father, he said, I have a question that I must ask. Can one truly be good if one does not do good. I pray, and I participate in Christian fellowship, and I am part of the church, but I feel that it is not enough. All of what I do is about doing good for me. I feel that I will not be complete unless I do good for others. Help me, Father. Be my guide.

Dorian, I will do what I can, but please remember that Christ is the only true guide. I can’t answer your question generally. Men have been arguing about faith versus deeds for thousands of years. For you, however, the answer is clear enough. God and your conscience are telling you to go out in the world and do good.

I am glad that you came to me for there is something else that I have wanted to talk to you about. I am worrying about your health. When first we met you were the picture of health. Over the past few months you have become a bit haggard and you look as though you’ve lost weight. I am glad that you have found a religious vocation, but I fear you are working too hard at it. Many are tempted to neglect their bodies. Do not go there. The body is a temple for the soul; it must be treated with respect.

Dorian thanked him and said that he thought he would volunteer for the soup line. Father Anders thought that would be good, but that Dorian should be aware of the opportunities to do good for others in little ways. They are always there, he said. We are not all given to do great deeds. God does not ask that of us. God asks us to do the good that is before us.

Dorian took Father Anders’s advice. Too often, he realized, he walked about in the fog of his own thoughts, quite unaware of the world around him, and unaware of the opportunities for helping others. Doing good for others was a comfort to him. Still, he needed to do more than opening doors for people with arms full of books so he volunteered to work in a soup kitchen.

Working in the soup kitchen was a real enlightenment. Dorian had never known poverty. His family was not wealthy but they were comfortable. More than that they lived in a neighbourhood where everyone lived comfortably. He had never known anyone who was truly poor. On the soup line he saw people without enough to eat, people dressed in rags, people crippled and unable to work, people without hope. Seeing people who really were in need was a shock.

This, he realized, was where he belonged. This was where he was needed. This is what he needed. He became engaged in the little world of the soup kitchen. His fellow volunteers became his world and his social life. His attendance in classes became sporadic and soon ceased entirely. His correspondence with his parents had been a model of regularity. It too faded away. His rooms at the university were inconveniently far away so he took a shabby room in a neighbourhood near the kitchen. It was as though he were having a love affair with sainthood.

The honeymoon did not last. His parents became alarmed when letters from him ceased and theirs remained unanswered. His father came to the university to see what was happening. He didn’t find Dorian at his rooms. Alarmed he sought out Father Anders. Together they went to the soup kitchen where they found Dorian ladling out soup.

They were disturbed by what they saw. Dorian was gaunt. His clothes had become shabby as though he hadn’t bothered to take care of them. It was as though he had taken on the patina of those he serviced.

His father bluntly informed him that either he was going to his classes or he was coming home. Father Anders was gentler but firmer. He pointed out to Dorian that he was not free to do just as he wanted, that he would never be free to do just as he wanted. He had duties and obligations to his school, to his parents, to his fellows around him, to his country, and to God. Helping others was part of being good, that was true, but meeting his duties and obligations was an important part of helping others.

At the end Father Anders asked Dorian if he had looked in his mirror recently and what he had seen when he looked. Dorian rather shame-facedly confessed that he hadn’t looked at it in months. It was, he thought, in his rooms in a corner but he wasn’t even sure about that. He seemed nervous and unwilling to look at it, but Father Anders insisted.

Father Anders and Dorian made a trip to Dorian’s rooms and located the velvet lined case. They opened it and brought out the mirror. Dorian faced the mirror, and he and Father Anders looked at his image. In the mirror he was as handsome as ever – perhaps even more so – but there was a curious thing about the image – it seemed smaller, as though it were distant and far away. Father Anders said nothing about the appearance of the image and what it signified, but he was disturbed. Did it mean anything or was it just a fancy on his part?

Dorian and his father and Father Anders made an agreement. Dorian would return to school and do his best in school. He could, if he liked, spend one afternoon a week at the soup kitchen. There would be no shabby little rooms off campus. He would write regularly to his parents, and he would participate in school affairs. He gave his word, and in this his word was his bond.

The next three years passed by quietly. Dorian conscientiously spent one afternoon a week at the soup kitchen. However it was different. There was no thrill, no passion. It was just a duty that he had assumed. In church and in school he became one of those quiet people who are always there, who can always be counted on, who always lends a helping hand, and whom no one notices. No one, that is, except for a perceptive few. His grades were good. He had every prospect of being one of the anonymous grinds who graduate with honors.

He had no quarrel with the clique nor they with him. Indeed, they forgot about him completely and never noticed him. As a group they were brilliant. One of them went on to become Prime Minister. Several made fortunes in the City. One repented and found God in the Congo. Three were hung. No doubt some of the others should have been too.

One reason they did not notice him was that Dorian no longer was that graceful, golden youth that he had been when he had arrived at the university. Then he had dressed fashionably; now he dressed respectably in clothes that did not call attention to himself. Then he had been preternaturally graceful; now his movements, while not graceful, excited no awe. Then his skin had been smooth and incredibly fair; now it was merely skin. What once had been hair of gold now was merely hair of flax.

However the face in the mirror shone as brilliantly as ever.

And then tragedy struck. Two months before graduation his parents fell victim to a virulent strain of flu. First his mother was swept away and then, a few days later, his father. He did not even have the chance to go home to be with them before they died.

The next two months passed in a blur. For three years he had been self possessed and self contained. He sought no high place because he had found his high place within himself. And then all his certainties and all his self possession were gone, vanished beneath two grave stones. He wept. The university had its demands; there were tests to take and rituals to partake in. There were lawyers arranging the final affairs of his parents and the passage of the estate. There was a joint funeral and decisions about their burial. All of this fell upon him.

And yet, all of these were burdens that he could bear. There were questions that were greater than he was. Why had this happened? Why had his parents had to suffer and die. Why had a good God done this to him and to his parents?

One evening he repaired to the chapel and knelt there to pray. He was alone. All had gone home to bed. As the night passed he prayed for guidance and for understanding and for the strength to bear these burdens. And then in the still of the night a great calm came over him. He had a revelation. There is good within every time and every place for God has placed it there. It is not given to Man to know with certainty that which is evil and hat which is good, for God is the only Judge who can truly judge between good and evil. Man can only do his imperfect best to do good; for judgement he must trust in God. With that his questioning came to an end, for God is the answer to all questions.

In its own right graduation meant nothing to him – diplomas and degrees were not part of what he was about. What it was was a boundary. Behind him lay one life; ahead of him lay an entirely different life. Now was the time of choices. Father Anders had wanted him to go into orders, but he was certain that orders were not for him. He thought briefly of missionary work and decided that it too was not for him. It wasn’t that he was too good for such work or not good enough for it; it was just that he was too different.

He had an inheritance and an income for life. He had to decide what to do with it. He thought of giving it all away and decided not too. If he left himself with nothing he would have to work for a living. He had never worked for a living and suspected that he wouldn’t be very good at it. Besides, living was his work. Instead he decided to keep a small income for himself, enough for his modest needs. The rest of it could go to charity. He set the lawyers to handling the details.

That settled, he had but one decision to make. What was he to do with the rest of his life? And if that was too hard, whatever was he to do now? After much thought he realized that he simply didn’t know. Perhaps it was not yet time to make that decision. For lack of anything better to do he started working at the soup kitchen full time.

This time he didn’t feel it was what he was meant to do; it just was what he was meant to do right now. As before he built up friendships with the other volunteers. That was comforting. In his university years he hadn’t many friends. People there knew who he was, but they weren’t friends, just faces making social noises as they passed by.

He found another shabby room and settled in. It had no mirror. He had no need of another mirror; he had the only mirror he would ever need. The face in the mirror told him all that he really needed to know.

Or so he thought. His mirror told him of the state of his soul. It told him nothing of his body. Habit ensured that he bathed and kept his clothes reasonably clean. Inevitably living in a cold water flat meant that nothing about him was really clean. His room was poorly heated; he didn’t care. He was as indifferent as he could be to his physical comfort. In his first winter he suffered several bad colds. The numerous cuts and abrasions he gathered healed less and less well. In the second winter he had a bad bout of flu.

When he had recovered the people who ran the soup kitchen called him in and regretfully told him that he couldn’t work with food handling any more. He simply had too many infectious ailments. They were very sorry about telling him that. They admired him; they loved him; but they couldn’t have him making other people.

Dorian accepted this with good grace; he accepted everything with good grace. For a while he worked in back unloading boxes from lorries. It didn’t last. His strength wasn’t what it had been and he was unaccountably clumsy where he had once been graceful. There were accidents. The last and worst broke his leg.

The people at the soup kitchen forced him to see a doctor. The doctor set his leg, put on a cast, and gave him a long lecture about hygiene. Dorian listened, but it was clear that it didn’t penetrate. Still, he rested and let his leg heal. He was pleased when he could take the cast off. The doctor declared him healed but it wasn’t quite right. From then on Dorian walked with a limp.

Dorian didn’t know what to do. He had started working again at the soup kitchen with the thought he would eventually decide what he really wanted to do. He never decided. He never thought about it even once. Once he settled in at the soup kitchen he simply began doing the same thing over and over again. Now he had to decide what to do and he had no idea how to even think about deciding.

For a while he simply sat in his room moping. If you had asked him what he was doing he would have told you that he was thinking about what he might want to do next. It wasn’t so. He told himself that that was what he was doing, but he wasn’t really thinking about anything. He was simply moping. He might have continued were it not for his mirror. One day he looked in it and was shocked. There were shadows under his eyes! He knew that he must do something.

For lack of anything else he began wandering the streets looking for people to help. Quite to his surprise he found many when he looked for them. Like so many good people doing good, Dorian had become so caught up in the good deeds that he was doing that he did not notice the need and suffering of others passing by.

There were simple deeds. A woman carrying an armful of bundles dropped one. He picked it up for her. Another had too much to carry. He helped carry her load. He helped the sick and fallen get up. He gave directions to the lost. He listened to the angry and to the bereaved. He kept an eye on children as they played in the street. When drunks fell and couldn’t get up he helped them up.

He didn’t judge who was deserving and who was not. He didn’t judge at all. He had a keen eye for people’s needs that he could meet. He did what he could and that was enough.

In truth there was little he could do. He dwelt in the midst of a great slum. He had no power to provide well paid employment. He could not provide good clothes, nor grocery stores where fresh vegetables and meat could be bought inexpensively. He could not patch walls with holes in them nor provide good heat and hot water. He could not provide good educations to all. He was no doctor and he had no great store of medicines. All of this was needed, but those who could provide such things did nothing, so he did what he could. He took to wearing a great coat in all seasons. His great coat was lined with pockets. Within them were packets of food for the hungry, medicines for the sick, and salves for the wounded.

With time he became even more indifferent to his appearance. He stopped shaving and let his hair grow wild. His limp became more pronounced and he started walking with a cane. His skin was coarse and weathered. His posture failed; he began to walk bent over as though he were a hunch back.

No one cared. The people in the neighbourhood recognized him and were used to his appearance. They thought him odd, but there were many odd people about. Beyond all that, they sensed his goodness. Days, even years, passed without remark.

Until the children.

Dorian had never paid much attention to children. Some of the older children would follow him about and mock him, but he cared nothing for their taunting and they would give it up and turn to easier prey. Other than that he didn’t think about the children. He had never married, never had children, and had no family left. He was not involved with the cycle of life, birth, and death.

One day he passed a little girl who was sitting on the curb and crying. He stopped and asked what the trouble was. She replied that her shoe was untied and she couldn’t get it tied. That’s no problem, he said, and he proceeded to tie her shoe for her. That would have been that, save that she said,

Tell me a story.

That stopped him. No one had ever asked that of him – ever. If he had been more experienced with children he might have brushed her off. He was not and he did not. He had to think a bit to produce a story. Fortunately he had had a classical education and had an intimate knowledge of Greek Mythology. He told her one of Aesop’s fables. She was delighted and insisted that he tell her another. This went on for several stories until her mother called her in. So it began.

The next day she was there waiting for him, waiting for another story. And it wasn’t just her, there were other small children who wanted to hear stories. It was always the small children. Older children are eager to prove themselves grown up, so they distance themselves from childhood. Each afternoon he would come to the same spot. Each afternoon the children would gather around him and listen raptly as he told stories.

Dorian mined the education he had left behind. He told all of the good old stories from the bible. He told stories from Greek and Roman mythology – at least the stories he thought were fit for little children. He dissected Shakespeare into little pieces. He told stories over again and discovered that little children liked to hear their stories more than once.

It was a good time. He discovered the sheer joy that little children bring. Along the way he had lost touch with ordinary humanity. The children were teaching to be what he had forgotten to be. It was a good time, but it wasn’t meant to last.

Parents worry about their children. They worry when strange men spend time with little children. They were familiar with Dorian and they knew he was a good man. Still, he was strange and he had started hanging out with little children. Talk started. There are always people whose mouths are filled with spiteful gossip.

Passions rise easily in slums. In the pubs men muttered and the more reckless said darkly that something should be done. One hot summer evening something was done. A mob boiled out of a pub and sought him out. They shouted at him, demanding to know what he was doing to the children. Nothing, he said, only telling them stories. They didn’t believe him and shouted him down.

No one knows who threw the first stone. No one ever admitted to it, but a stone was thrown, first one and then another, and then many. One caught him in the temple and he fell against the curb. As he fell the pocket holding his precious mirror met the edge of curb. The case broke and the mirror cracked. Dorian’s head smashed against the pavement and he died.

The mob went suddenly silent. They stared at the body as though just suddenly realizing that they had done a terrible thing. As they stared the air about it shimmered like a great mirage in the desert. When the shimmering vanished they no longer saw the monster they thought they had slain. Instead they saw a handsome young man lying there. He was fashionably dressed and impeccably groomed. His golden locks glistened in the sun. And his face …

His face was the face of an angel.

This page was last updated November 14, 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard Harter

Richard Harter’s World
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November 2009