If we are to follow Saint Teresa’s Little Way of Spiritual Childhood we must be humble. In order to teach us this she takes us to the Gospels, and lights up for us anew the words of Our Lord: “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4) Now she is to lead us further, and to show us how humility can be fashioned only through humiliation. In order to do this she once again takes us to the Gospels, this time to teach us the secret of the Holy Face.
It is well known that from her earliest days Saint Teresa had a special devotion to the Holy Child, and that on her entrance into Carmel she was providentially given the name of “Teresa of the Child Jesus”; it is not so widely known that later on there was added to that name the further title, “and of the Holy Face”, on account of her’ particular devotion to the humiliation of the Passion. To Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face we now turn to learn what inspired this second devotion.
“I know that by humiliation alone can Saints be made.” Here Saint Teresa takes us right into the secret of sanctity. A readiness to acknowledge our faults is absolutely essential, but in order to remove our faults we must know them, and in order to know them we must be told them, either directly by Almighty God or by our fellow-men: we must submit to the humiliation of being told.
Why do we find this so difficult? Surely because it strikes at our self-love. It wounds our self-esteem because, in our fallen state, our own individual excellence is our most treasured fancy. Unwillingness to be told our faults is a sure symptom of that malady deep-set in every one of us.
Saint Teresa reminds us that we must do all in our power to eradicate it, and that a willing response to correction, or acceptance of what we really are, is a mark of holiness: in fact we can measure our sanctity by our willingness to be told our faults.
The road of humiliation was the path which Saint Teresa trod from the moment of her entrance into Carmel. “To begin with... Our Lord permitted that the Mother Prioress, Mother Mary Gonzaga, sometimes unconsciously, should treat me with much severity. She never met me without finding fault, and I remember on one occasion when I had left a cobweb in the cloister, she said to me before the whole community: ‘It is easy to see that our cloisters are swept by a child of fifteen! It is disgraceful! Go and sweep that cobweb away and be more careful in future.’ On the rare occasions when I went to her for spiritual direction, she seemed to scold me nearly all the time, and what troubled me more than anything was that I did not understand how to correct my faults, my slow ways for instance and my want of thoroughness... Yet, dear Mother, I thank God for having provided me with so sound and valuable a training; it was a priceless grace. What should I have become if, as the world outside believed, I had been made the pet of the community? Instead of seeing Our Lord in the person of my superior, I might have considered only the creature, and my heart, so carefully guarded in the world, would have been ensnared by human affection in the cloister. Happily I was preserved from such a disaster.”
Writing for Mother Gonzaga herself she thanked her for the humiliations she had imposed. “I thank you, Mother, for not having spared me: Jesus knew that His Little Flower was too weak to take root without the life-giving waters of humiliation, and it is to you that she owes that inestimable blessing. For some months the Divine Master has completely changed His method of cultivation. Finding, no doubt, that His Little Flower has been sufficiently watered, He allows her to grow up under the warm rays of a brilliant sun. He only smiles upon her now and it is you, dear Reverend Mother, who mirror His smile to me. The bright sunlight, far from withering her petals, fosters their growth in a marvellous way. Deep in her heart she treasures those precious drops of dew – the humiliations of other days – and they remind her always how frail she is. Were all creatures to draw near and pour out their flattery, no vain satisfaction would mingle with her joyful realisation that in God’s eyes she is a poor worthless thing and nothing more... I feel that I have nothing now to fear from praise, and can listen to it unmoved, attributing to God all that is good in me. If it pleases Him to make me appear better than I am, that does not concern me; He can act as He will.”
When she wrote those lines Saint Teresa had reached a high degree of perfection. She was fully conscious of her worthlessness apart from God, and willing to admit it. The acceptance of humiliation was one of the ways in which she did so. “When misunderstood and judged unfavourably, what benefit, do we derive from defending ourselves? Leave things as they are and say nothing. It is good to allow ourselves to be judged anyhow, rightly or wrongly.” She prefers to be rebuked unjustly in order that she may have something to offer to God. “I prefer to be rebuked unjustly because, having nothing to reproach myself with, I offer gladly this little injustice to God. Then, humbling myself, I think how easily I might have deserved the reproach.” Finally she turns it all into an instrument for the conversion of sinners. “Through compassion for sinners, to obtain their conversion, I beseech Thee, O my God, to permit that I may be well rebuked by the souls who are around me.”
But God can bring our faults home to us directly by a sudden flash of interior light, giving us a deeper realisation of the sort of person we really are; if taken the right way this is one of the greatest graces God can give us. “The Almighty has done great things for me, and the greatest is to show me my littleness and my helplessness for any good.”
It is by such means that Our Lord fashions and perfects those through whom he desires to draw others. “When Our Lord lavishes His gifts on a soul in order to draw yet other souls to Him, He humbles it inwardly, gently compelling it to recognise its utter nothingness and His almighty power.” Thus does Saint Teresa show us the purpose of humiliation. It frees the soul from pride and self-love so that it becomes a channel through which the love of Our Lord can pass to others.
It is often as difficult to correct as to be corrected, especially if we are to do it in a really impartial and supernatural way; the natural man in us leaps so readily to criticise, and few things do so much harm as a reproof given through personal feelings or prejudice. It is difficult enough to take a reproof when it is given solely from the motive of supernatural charity: given from partly natural motives it may be quite unbearable. Saint Teresa knew this. She tells us that when a reproof is given, it should involve pain for the one who gives it, no less than for the one who receives it. “I would prefer to receive a thousand reproofs rather than inflict one, yet I feel it necessary that the task should cause me some pain, for if I spoke through natural impulse only, the soul in fault would not understand that she was in the wrong, and would simply think: ‘The Sister in charge of me is annoyed about something, and vents her displeasure on me, although I am full of the best intentions’.” Again she says: “Before a reproof (to a novice) bears fruit, it must cost something and be free from the least trace of passion.’
It was not always so with Saint Teresa. She tells us how she had to learn this through her own experience. “Formerly when I saw a Sister doing something I did not like and seemingly contrary to our rule, I used to think how glad I should be if I could only warn her, and point out her mistake. But since the burden of Novice-Mistress has been laid upon me and it has become my duty to find fault, my ideas have undergone a change. Now when I see something wrong I heave a sigh of relief. I thank God that the guilty one is not a novice, and that it is not my business to correct her; then I do all I can to make excuses for her, and to credit her with the good intentions which she no doubt possesses.”
What wrought that change? Only those who understand the difficulty yet necessity of accepting humiliation can safely correct others. We must ourselves be trained in the willing acceptance of humiliation. There are various ways in which this willingness can be shown. The simplest and most obvious way is to accept with complete willingness every humiliation which comes to us from authority; but the best and surest way is to ask Our Lord to train us himself by showing us our faults in order to free us from self-love. She gives us the words with which we may do this: “Oh, that I might be humiliated to see if I really have humility of heart!” “I implore Thee, Jesus, to send me a humiliation whenever I try to set myself above others.”
What led Saint Teresa to understand so clearly the necessity and the blessedness of humiliation? What was it that led her to say: “I know that by humiliation alone can Saints be made?” It was surely contemplation of the Face of Our Lord in his Passion. In her own words: “The Little Flower gradually unfolded under the shadow of His Cross, having for refreshing dew His Tears and His Blood, and for its radiant sun His adorable Face.”
“For its radiant sun His adorable Face.” Those words give us the clue to Saint Teresa’s devotion to the Holy Face. How is it that the Holy Face, blindfolded, beaten, blood-stained and spat upon, is the radiant sun in whose warmth the soul expands and flowers? Saint Teresa explains this. She first learned the devotion from Mother Agnes. Speaking of her very first days in Carmel she says: “Until then I had not appreciated the beauties of the Holy Face, and it was you, my little Mother, who unveiled them to me. Just as you had been the first to leave our home for Carmel, so you too were the first to penetrate the mysteries of love hidden in the Face of our Divine Spouse. Having discovered them you showed them to me – and I understood. More than ever did it come to me in what true glory consists. He whose kingdom is not of this world taught me that the only kingdom worth coveting is the grace of being ‘unknown and esteemed as naught’, and the joy that comes from self-contempt. I wished that like the Face of Jesus, mine should be as it were hidden and despised, so that no one on earth should esteem me: I thirsted to suffer and to be forgotten.”
Here for the moment we will notice merely the two things which Saint Teresa specially mentions. First, the love of Our Lord who accepted such humiliation to teach us that this is the only way to heaven. Secondly, the response of her soul to that revelation. She would be like him, hidden and despised.
From that moment devotion to the Holy Face so took possession of her soul that she asked to have the title “and of the Holy Face” added to that of “the Child Jesus” which she already had. Her own sisters have said that it would be impossible to decide which was her greater devotion. We do know that from her earliest days in Carmel, devotion to the Holy Face played a very great part in determining her spirituality. Through all her nine years in Carmel she never wearied of it, and she had a picture of the Holy Face pinned to the curtain of her sick-bed, to be her support in the hour of her death. Adjuvabit eam Deus vultu suo.
This devotion is rooted in the Scriptures. “The confusion of my face hath covered me.” (Ps. 43:16) With those words the Psalmist foreshadows the humiliation of the Holy Face. In Isaiah the prophecy becomes more detailed. “I have given... my cheeks to them that plucked them: I have not turned away my face from them that rebuked me and spit upon me.” (Isaiah 1:6) When the same prophet gives us the supreme prophecy of the Passion of Our Lord, it is with a most striking description of the humiliation of the Holy Face that he opens it: “No beauty in him, nor comeliness... despised and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity.” (Isaiah 53:2-3)
But that humiliation is not merely negative; it results in the conversion of many souls to God, and in the triumph of the Divine Will. “He shall see a long-lived seed: and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:10)
When we turn to the Gospels, we find the humiliation of the Holy Face recorded in all its horror. The first occasion is in the presence of the chief priests and the council; the second in the presence of the soldiers. Of the council we read: “Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him. And others struck his face with the palms of their hands.” (Matthew 26:67) “And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him.” (Mark 14:65)
With the soldiers it is the same: “And spitting upon him, they took the reed and struck his head.” (Matthew 27:30) “And they struck his head with a reed, and they did spit on him.” (Mark 15:19)
The climax of humiliation is reached when Pilate brings out Our Lord with his Sacred Face bleeding, bruised, and spat upon, and introduces him to the crowd with the words: “Behold the Man.” (John 19:5)
Why did Our Lord accept such humiliation? To bring home to us our pride for which this is the payment, and by paying this price, to show us how much he loves us. But he accepted humiliation not only in reparation for our pride, but also as an example to us. We must share his humiliation if we are to be his members. We shall accept humiliation willingly only when we realise that we are sharing it with him and that it is really Our Lord who is suffering it again, in and through us, and giving our acceptance a divine value. Only so shall we attain to that supernatural sense of the blessedness of humiliation which will detach us from self-love, so that he can truly live in us and carry on the work he began during the Passion.
Saint Teresa’s devotion finds concise expression in the following lines:
“Thy Face, Lord, is my secret store:
No more I have, I ask no more:
Hidden continually there
Thy inward likeness let me share.
Trace in my soul the prints divine
Of all the sweetness that is thine –
Sweetness, that soon shall make of me
A Saint, to draw men’s hearts to thee.”
Let us study those lines carefully.
“Thy Face, Lord, is my secret store:
No more I have, I ask no more.”
In these words Saint Teresa tells us that in the spiritual life the Holy Face is everything to her. She has already told us this: “The Little Flower unfolded, having for refreshing dew His Tears and His Blood, and for its radiant sun His adorable Face.”
In the natural order the sun is the source of light; in the warmth of its rays spring forth the beauties of the natural world. In the spiritual order the Holy life of grace can blossom in the soul; for the divine Face is, to Saint Teresa, the sun under whose rays the humiliation alone can dispel pride with its spiritual darkness and death. Pride clouds our intellect, we do not know where to go nor how to get there, we stumble along helplessly in the dark. He who said: “I am the light of the world”, has shown us by his acceptance of humiliation how to dispel the darkness of our souls. “Domine, in lumine vultus tui ambulabunt.” (Ps. 88:16) By imitating him she found true joy, that “joy which comes, from self-contempt”. “Adimplebis me laetitia cum vultu tuo.” (Ps. 15:11)
“Face of the eternal God! At least these eyes,
Even through thy tears, thy beauty recognise:
How that veiled sight of thee
Has soothed my misery,
She longs to share it all with him, to respond to Our Lord’s love revealed in this mystery, to return love for love. “O Blessed Face, from Thy adorable lips we have heard Thy loving plaint: ‘I thirst’. Since we know that this thirst which consumes Thee is a thirst for love, to quench it we would wish to possess an infinite love. Dear Spouse of our souls, if we could love Thee with the love of all hearts, that love would be Thine... Give us, Lord, that love.” The next few lines of the stanza tell us how she will respond.
She desires to be conformed to him, one with him, as it were hidden in him.
“Where shall I hide me, Lord, but in thy face,
From the world’s noisy striving far away?
Grant me thy love, and keep me in thy grace,
No thought beyond today.”
Saint Teresa is but echoing the words of Scripture: Abscondes eos in abscondito faciei tuae, a conturbatione hominum.” (Ps. 30:20-21) We are “hidden with Christ in God”, as Saint Paul says, but here we are to be conformed to him as he was on earth, to Our Lord humiliated; and to learn that, we must often meditate on the Holy Face. The fruit of such meditation is a complete detachment from the praise and blame of the world, and a peace which allows Our Lord to transform us more easily into himself. These lines of Saint Teresa’s express it. In her prayer to the Holy Face, she prays for this: “O adorable Face of Jesus, sole beauty which ravishest my heart, vouchsafe to impress on my soul Thy divine likeness, so that it may not be possible for Thee to look at Thy spouse without beholding Thyself.” This peace does not lie in the feelings, but in a right relationship with Our Blessed Lord – union with him through a completely surrendered will – that rest of soul, in fact, which he promised to those who learn humility from him.
The last four lines of the stanza sum up her ideal.
Union with Our Lord in his humiliation will lead her to sanctity. “I know that by humiliation alone can Saints be made.” Wholly surrendered to Our Lord, she will share in his divine love and be able to quench his thirst for love at the same time; and by being an instrument in his hands she will draw other souls to him. It is in this way that her acceptance of humiliation in union with him can have a redemptive value.
Sometimes she describes this redemptive action as gathering the tears which fall from the Holy Face, and offering them for souls: “O blessed Face, more lovely than the lilies and the roses of the spring, Thou art not hidden from us. The tears which dim Thine eyes are as precious pearls which we delight to gather, that with them through their infinite value, we may purchase the souls of our brethren.”
At other times she likens it to the action of Saint Veronica in wiping the Sacred Face of Our Lord. To Celine she writes: “I send you a picture of the Holy Face. The contemplation of this adorable countenance seems to belong in a special way to my little sister, truly the sister of my soul. May she be another Veronica, and wipe away all the blood and tears of Jesus, her only Love! May she give Him souls!” In one of her poems we find the same thought:
“All my life love – to wipe they brow defiled
With outrage, and for sinners pardon claim.”
“Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.” (Matthew 11:29) There is nothing new in this, but it is a hard lesson to learn and we need to be continually reminded of it. Our Lord has, in our own time, raised up a Saint to remind us that unless we are converted and become humble like little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, for we must be as little children if we are to understand Christ’s humility in his Passion. The Saint chosen by Almighty God to remind us of this is Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face.