“Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face.” (St. Therese, Story of a Soul)
St. Therese’s name in Carmel is Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. I have always focused on the Child of Jesus part of her spirituality and have never quite connected with her devotion to the Holy Face. Recently though I have wondered more about it. I can’t really explain why except that having to wear a mask on my face and to see other people wearing a covering over their mouth and nose has bothered me very much. There is something so beautiful and God-like about the “face” and covering it seems so dehumanizing. We are not meant to have on a mask.
Devotion to the Holy Face focuses on the Incarnation. God became a man like us with a human face. As Carmelites, we love to contemplate, and St. Therese, through her devotion to the Holy Face, reminds us of the beauty that lies hidden in the face of Jesus. The Holy Face is a human face, even though a hidden face. The Holy Face is hidden in the face of others, hidden even under the disfigured face of sin.
The human face identifies that person. Just think of someone that you love. It is their face that identifies that person and expresses who that person is. We all love to gaze on the face of a baby. How long and lovingly Mary and St. Joseph must have gazed on the face of the infant Jesus. They were the first to adore His wonderful face. Then came the shepherds, the Magi, and later the Apostles and other disciples became admirers of His teachings, wisdom, and loving care – all impressed upon them by His Holy Face. Looking upon His face they saw expressions of tenderness towards little children, glory on Mount Tabor, and anguish during His Passion.
We need to see peoples’ faces, and for them to see ours. So much communication happens when looking at someone’s face. When you look at someone’s face you get cues as to whether that person is happy, sad, or confused. A mask hides this and even muffles the voice! So much is lost when trying to hear someone talk to you through a mask. The distorted sounds and the inability to see the lips move is especially challenging for the elderly and hard of hearing. Interestingly, the word “person” is rooted in the Latin word that means “mask” and the Greek word for “face”.
Some background on the Holy Face devotion is necessary before I move on. The devotion began in Tours, France with a Carmelite nun, Sister Marie de Saint Pierre, during the mid-1800s. Sister Marie received visions from the Lord telling her that those who would contemplate His face on earth would contemplate His radiant face in heaven. The purpose of the devotion was to make reparation for sins against God, His Holy name, and the profanation of Sundays. In another sense, devotion to the Holy Face is to become like St. Veronica, who took pity on Jesus when He carried His cross and wiped the sweat from His Face with her veil. This veil bears the impression of His Holy Face to this day. St. Veronica did this act of kindness to comfort Jesus. The devotion calls us to do as she did and comfort Jesus for the wounds and sins that are still inflicted on Him today through the lack of reverence, sacrilege, and blasphemy that men commit. This devotion, based on the life and writings of Sister Marie, was approved by Pope Leo XIII. Mister Martin, St. Therese’s father, along with his daughters, enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Face, most likely after Pauline, her sister, had suggested they do so. It was Pauline who introduced St. Therese to this devotion; however, St. Therese puts a different twist on this devotion regarding the Face of Jesus.
In the Story of a Soul, St. Therese describes the beginnings of her devotion to the Holy Face that began after her entry into the convent. She writes, “Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face.” Locked away in the cloister she desired that like the Face of Jesus, her “face be truly hidden that no one on earth” would know her. St. Therese “thirsted after suffering” and “longed to be forgotten.” She knew that the face of the child in the manger was also the face of the man on the cross. Her desire to “be unknown and counted as nothing” was her way of drawing close to the suffering Christ. For St. Therese, contemplating the Face of Jesus was more about imitation and remaining hidden than about reparation.
St. Therese had to obtained permission to add the title “of the Holy Face” to her name. Her devotion to the Holy Face is rooted in the words from the prophet Isaiah, and it was from these words that St. Therese came to desire that she also would “be without splendor, without beauty, to tread alone the wine in the press, unknown by every creature.” She wrote of Jesus regarding the words of the Old Testament prophet, “ ‘He was without splendor, without beauty, His Face was hidden, as it were, and His person was not acknowledged’; one finds in them the whole foundation of my devotion to the Holy Face, or to say it better, the foundation of all my piety. I also desire myself to be without splendor, without beauty, to tread alone the wine in the press, unknown by every creature.” (Story of a Soul) She longed to be forgotten and to suffer. How unlike many of us today who want to be seen and known and famous! Only to now have to cover our faces with a cloth.
St. Therese also longed to see the Face of Jesus as evident in her poetry. In her poem, “What I’ll Soon See for the First Time” (PN 33) these lines reveal her desire to see His face:
I am still on the other shore,
But sensing eternal happiness,
Oh! I would already like to leave this earth
And gaze on the wonders of Heaven….
When I dream of the joys of the other life,
I no longer feel the weight of my exile,
Since soon toward my only Homeland
I’ll fly for the first time!…
Ah! Jesus, give me white wings
That I may take flight to you.
I want to fly to the eternal Shores.
I want to see you, O my Divine Treasure!
I want to fly into the arms of Mary
To rest on that choice throne
And receive from my dear Mother
A sweet Kiss for the first time!….
My Beloved, let me soon catch a glimpse
Of the sweetness of your first smile,
And let me, in my divine delirium,
Ah! let me hide in your Heart!…
Oh! what a moment! what ineffable happiness
When I’ll hear the sweet sound of your voice,
When I’ll see the divine brilliance
Of your Adorable Face for the first time!…
You know well, Sacred Heart of Jesus,
My only martyrdom is your love.
If my soul sighs for your beautiful Heaven,
It’s to love you, to love you more and more!…
In Heaven, always intoxicated with tenderness,
I’ll love you without limit and without law,
And my happiness will unceasingly seem
As new as the first time!!!…
The poem, “Heaven for Me” (PN 32), written on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1896, reveals that she wants Jesus to see her face.
To bear the exile of this valley of tears
I need the glance of my Divine Savior.
This glance full of love has revealed its charms to me.
It has made me sense the happiness of Heaven.
My Jesus smiles at me when I sigh to Him.
Then I no longer feel my trial of faith.
My God’s Glance, his ravishing Smile,
That is Heaven for me!..
Heaven for me is to be able to draw down on souls,
On the Church my mother and on all my sisters
Jesus’ graces and his Divine flames
That can enkindle and rejoice hearts.
I can obtain everything when mysteriously
I speak heart to heart with my Divine King.
That sweet prayer so near the Sanctuary,
That is Heaven for me!…
Heaven for me is hidden in a little Host
Where Jesus, my Spouse, is veiled for love.
I go to that Divine Furnace to draw out life,
And there my Sweet Savior listens to me night and day.
“Oh! what a happy moment when in your tenderness
You come, my Beloved, to transform me into yourself.
That union of love, that ineffable intoxication,
That is Heaven for me!”…
Heaven for me is feeling within myself the resemblance
Of the God who created me with his Powerful Breath.
Heaven for me is remaining always in his presence, Calling him my Father and being his child.
In his Divine arms, I don’t fear the storm.
Total abandonment is my only law.
Sleeping on his Heart, right next to his Face,
That is Heaven for me!…
I’ve found my Heaven in the Blessed Trinity
That dwells in my heart, my prisoner of love.
There, contemplating my God, I fearlessly tell him
That I want to serve him and love him forever.
Heaven for me is smiling at this God whom I adore
When He wants to hide to try my faith.
To suffer while waiting for him to look at me again
That is Heaven for me!…
In these and other parts of her writings, we can comprehend more of her devotion to the Holy Face. The Holy Face is one that she longs to see and gaze upon. It is a face that also glances at her in an intimate and beautiful exchange of love. It is a face that is also one she wants to imitate in being hidden. Because of the Incarnation Christ’s face is now on Earth though hidden in the Blessed Sacrament and veiled under the appearance of bread. We can sit before the Blessed Sacrament and look upon Him while He looks upon us!
St. Teresa of Jesus, spiritual mother, and reformer of the Carmelite Order, advises in the Way of Perfection that we should represent Jesus as close to us when we pray; to speak to Him face to face as Moses did. Just as you would speak with a friend, speak with Jesus who is at your side and sees you. St. Teresa writes, “I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me, and that was my way of prayer… I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him… He is always looking at you; can you not turn the eyes of your soul to look at Him?” No doubt the Holy Mother of Carmel influenced our young St. Therese in her devotion to the Holy Face. Let us let Him look at our faces. Imagine our faces with no mask of pretending on. Set our faces towards Him and let Him delight in us and pray as Moses did face to face.
St. Thérèse also wrote many prayers expressing her devotion to the Holy Face. She wrote on a small card the words, ”Make me resemble you, Jesus!” (Pr 11). In another prayer, she desires to make reparation to the Holy Face disfigured in His Passion by the sins of men. Behind His disfigured appearance she sees love and wants to spread that love to everyone, to save souls, and to bear His image so that she can see Him in heaven.
O Jesus, who in Thy bitter Passion didst become “the most abject of men, a man of sorrows”, I venerate Thy Sacred Face whereon there once did shine the beauty and sweetness of the Godhead; but now it has become for me as if it were the face of a leper! Nevertheless, under those disfigured features, I recognize Thy infinite Love and I am consumed with the desire to love Thee and make Thee loved by all men.
The tears that thou hast shed so abundantly appear to me as so many precious pearls that I love to gather up, in order to purchase the souls of poor sinners by means of their infinite value.
O Jesus, whose adorable Face ravishes my heart, I implore Thee to fix deep within me Thy Divine Image, to set me on fire with Thy Love, and to make me worthy to contemplate in Heaven Thy glorious Face.
It is important for us to love and to let Jesus love us. Then being consumed by Love we can soon attain the vision of Jesus setting our eyes on His face and His glory in heaven.
So let us turn our eyes away from our false self, that person we are pretending to be. Casting off the falseness of sin and pride and without pretense humbly sit before Him. And since the love Jesus has for us is a love that suffers, let us imitate Him. He loves those who do not love. He also loves those who do not deserve to be loved.