As my husband and kids exit our minivan, I remain in my seat. I flip open my lipstick case and peer into the tiny mirror. Have I absent-mindedly brushed my hand against my mouth on the way to church? By adjusting the mirror, I also check to see if I have put on my Sunday-best visage. Like Prufrock, I found the “time/ to prepare a face to meet the faces that [I] meet.” I let out a deep sigh and scurry to catch up with my family. Walking down the hall to the chapel, I try to compose a stance for interacting with the women in my ward. Should I walk with my chin high, or should I stoop over? Over the last few months, I’ve had some odd encounters.
On the Sunday closest to the Relief Society birthday, I tried to sing “As Sisters in Zion” in sacrament meeting with twenty or so others. I started to cry because I did not feel as though I could achieve the ideal expressed in the lyrics. To hide my tear-strewn face from the congregation, I stepped behind the sister singing next to me. As I struggled to stifle my sobs, another sister standing in the row behind me placed her hand on my shoulder. Her soft-yet-firm touch conveyed her love and concern for me. When the Relief Society choir finished, everyone moved out of place quickly. I never put that hand with a face. Not knowing who reached out to comfort me, I vowed to respond with warmth to every sister at church.
Just a couple of months later, my husband handed me two letters mailed to me, each lacking a return address. They arrived on different days, and neither one was signed. One thanked me for the talk I delivered on Mother’s Day; the other called me a hypocrite for giving the same talk. If the same act provoked two opposite responses, how could I feel confident when participating at church? Now the composite woman representing the Relief Society had a name and a more complex identity: I go to church with Sister Janus.
My first response after meeting Sister Janus was to hold everyone at arm’s length and scrutinize each sister. “Are you the nice face of Janus, or the mean one?” In western culture, the Roman god Janus initially represented portals of opportunity. January contains this two-faced god’s name because the month faces two directions. But Shakespeare and other authors have stretched the image of Janus to convey duplicity. Can I trust others with my feelings and vulnerabilities? Will my fellow saints use proximity to wound me? Will Sister Janus stand in my doorway, embracing me while also harboring ill thoughts about me? To protect myself, will I only show her my Eleanor Rigby face, the one I keep in a jar by the door?
On another Sunday, I’m in the seminary room before sacrament, and a teen is upset at me for challenging her behavior at a party at my house the night before. Another week, I’m in the Relief Society room during Gospel Doctrine, and a woman is crying because I suggested that her children practice better reverence. And another week, I’m walking out of Primary room because I cannot multitask as a new counselor when it’s my turn to conduct. I take refuge in the driver’s seat of my minivan. My eye catches my reflection in the rearview mirror. I can see that I once again, I have brought Sister Janus to church with me.
Apparently, I challenge the other sisters each week as they, too, wonder: “Which Karen are we getting today? “ If I want them to show patience with me as I work out my salvation before the Lord with fear and trembling, I need to afford them the same measure of compassion I desire. Before me is a challenging task. How am I going to fix myself while at the same time learning to withstand—or even accept–the inconstancy of others?
I love the invitation in Alma 5:14 to receive Christ’s image in my countenance. At times I see a divine image flicker in the mirror and in the faces of the sisters at church. It’s difficult to maintain this degree of spiritual character as a human being living in a fallen state. Paul warns us in 1 Cor. 13:12 that “for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” On my better days, I enter the gate. I hold onto hope while I walk into the church building—not with my nose in the air or my eyes at my feet—but with a steady smile as I greet my sisters face-to-face at the doorways.