I have hiked to a nearby overlook and despite the expansive view, my attention is turned to a single tree. The odd upward sweep of its broken branch is easy to imagine as the head of a curious creature, poking defiantly out of a hole. Its beady eye glares at me.
And since I’m home this week, I decide to draw up what I see in my mind’s eye. I attempt to make it reminiscent of both a bird and some aquatic creature. Neither fish nor fowl, it is indeed strange. Should I be concerned that my imagination saw this?
Pareidolia, if you don’t know, is the scientific name for recognizing faces in things. I have a bad case of it. Nature often induces it in me through arboreal oddities.
(left: actual burl; right: tweaked in Photoshop)
But I’m just as likely to see them around my house, or in the doorway of a hotel ballroom.
A 2015 study in Japan concluded that those who regularly find faces in inanimate objects are likely to be neurotic. (Well, now I am worried.) But another, more recent study, goes deeper, revealing that we are hardwired to recognize faces. In it, researchers shone a triangle of three lights to third-trimester, unborn babies. With two dots at the top (mimicking a human face), babies turned to view it. Two lights at the bottom elicited no response.
We are always seeking faces.
I think this is because, like David, there is one we intrinsically long for.
You have said, “Seek my face.” my heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)
Let that soak in for a minute. The reason why we long for the Lord, why we turn toward him with the eyes of a child searching for her father’s smile, is because he desired it first.
Martin Luther, in his wonderful treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, says that because of all Christ has done for us, by faith we “may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to Him.” God turns a tender face toward us.
Luther goes on:
Whose heart would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ, a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid?
This, then, is my lesson from this quirky tree -- and from the beauty I encounter on my walk. Every moment of goodness in my day is an expression of the love of God made accessible through Christ. That should change me at the core of my being.
The true face that I seek is already smiling at me.
Your face, LORD, do we seek. And not because we worry that a frown may have appeared while we were looking away. Your Son’s work on the cross has forever ensured that you will welcome us to face time with you. Oh, Father, let that truth change our hearts.