There is a story told, a legend perhaps, about St. Theresa of Avila. One day the devil appeared to her, disguised as Christ. Theresa wasn’t fooled for even a second. She immediately dismissed him. Before leaving, however, the devil asked her: “How did you know? How could you be so sure I wasn’t Christ?” Her answer: “You didn’t have any wounds! Christ has wounds.”
Christ has wounds! So does anyone who stands where he stands. This is spiritual wisdom. To teach anything else is a sham. John of the Cross, the great mystical doctor of the soul, once laid out a series of spiritual counsels which, if followed, he believed, would lead to deeper intimacy with Christ. The first three of those counsels work this way:
Number one, study the life of Christ. We cannot move into deeper communion with Christ without first knowing who he is. Hence initially we must study his life, particularly as it is spelled out in the Gospels. Next, strive actively to imitate Christ. For John of the Cross, imitation is not a matter of trying to somehow mimic what we think Jesus might have looked like (as the “Jesus people” tried to do with their flowing-beards and white albs) or of trying to parallel what Jesus actually did (he taught, healed, and fed people; thus I will be a teacher, a nurse, or a social worker). All of these miss the point. For John of the Cross, imitating Jesus means trying to have the same motivation he had, trying to feel like he felt, and trying to do things for the same reason the did them.
His next counsel, however, has a strange sound to it. It reads this way: Endeavour to be inclined always: not to the easiest, but to the most difficult; not to the most delightful, but to the harshest; not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant; not to what means rest for you, but to hard work; not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling; not to the most, but to the least; not tot he highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised; not to wanting something; but to wanting nothing; do not go about looking for the best of temporal things, but for the worst, and desire to enter for Christ into complete nudity, emptiness, and poverty in everything in the world. (Ascent to Mount Carmel, Bk. I. Chapter 13)
Taken literally, this counsel contains all the elements for spiritual masochism (“Always choose what is more painful and distasteful”) but that is not what John is teaching. What is he trying to say? First of all, unlike the first two counsels, this one is not a question of actively choosing anything. John doesn’t say “choose” what is more difficult, but “endeavor to be inclined towards it”. It is rather a counsel for discernment. Ultimately what it is saying is that we know that we are actually imitating Christ (and not featherbedding our own agendas in his name) when humilation, the lowest place, emptiness, the unpleasant, pain, and wound actually enter into our lives. Reversely stated, if we are perennially standing on the side of glamour and success, admired, without wound and humiliation, we are probably not really following Christ – who is marked, first of all, by wounds – but are probably serving ourselves in his name. It is not incidental that, in Christianity, we worship the humiliated one.
This is a critical insight. Too often we think exactly in reverse. We look at pain, exclusion, humiliation, and shame as signs of not being blessed, as indications that a person is doing something wrong. And this isn’t abstract: It’s what we spontaneously think when we see anyone who, in our culture’s eyes, bears a certain humiliation because he or she is too fat, too short, not sexually attractive enough, has emotional problems, or has bad teeth or bad hair, isn’t in fashion, isn’t attuned enough to be politically correct, or for whatever reason stands outside of the circle of popularity, fashion, and acceptance. Our culture quickly identifies lack of physical, emotional, or social wholeness with lack of blessing. We identify Christ more with the unmarked body of youth (still taking more life than giving it) than with the stretch marks and middle-aged fat of life-giving adults. Thus, our real symbol for what constitutes life and blessing is a perfect body of a (ever-younger) Hollywood star, still unmarked by anything that might somehow humiliate it, rather than a stretched, misshapen body which has been scarred and made to sag by actually giving life. But the body of Christ is the humiliated body, permanently wounded by giving life.
When Jesus rose from the dead the first thing he did was to show his disciples his wounds, glorified now, but extremely humiliating to him before he died. To become as spiritually astute as was Theresa of Avila we must begin to understand what that means. Christ is ultimately recognized in his wounds.