Nearly one hundred years ago as Therese of Lisieux lay dying she told her sister, Pauline, that the entire foundation of her spirituality came from her contemplation of the face of the suffering Christ (“the Holy Face”, she called it). She described to her sister how she was always struck by the Good Friday texts (from Isaiah and from the gospels) that describe the face of God’s suffering servant on earth, how that face is marred, unattractive, and either ignored or despised by those who see it.
Therese (whose real religious name, incidentally, was “Sister Therese of the Holy Face, and not “the little flower” or “Therese of the Child Jesus”) then tells Pauline: “One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of his divine hands. I felt a pang of great sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone’s hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive its dew.” (Story of a Soul, p. 99). In a later conversation, she adds: “I don’t want this precious blood to be lost. I shall spend my life gathering it up for the good of souls. … for “to live from love is to dry Your Face “Vivre d’Amour, c’est essuyer ta Face.” (Last Conversations, pp. 126 & 134).
This metaphor – noticing the preciousness of Christ’s blood, gathering it up, and gently drying the face of the suffering Christ – is the metaphor Therese uses to describe her entire vocation. It’s this that constitutes the deep foundation upon which she grounds the other elements of her spirituality.
For her, Christ is still bleeding in the sufferings of persons on this earth, in our sufferings, yours and mine. And, as was the case with Jesus, this blood is, mostly, dripping unnoticed, unvalued, and often to the tune of another’s indifference and ridicule. Therese’s sensitivity (which was born out of her own suffering, her deep prayer, and from the unique way she was loved and valued and made to feel precious as a small child) alerted her to preciousness that was seemingly being wasted. Like a sensitive artist watching a masterpiece being heartlessly defaced and destroyed, the sight tore at her heart and so baptized and displaced her so that her whole life became nothing else than an attempt to do something about it.
Before dying, Therese promised that she would even spend her eternity, heaven, coming back to earth to continue to gather these unnoticed drops of blood and to continue to dry the sufferer’s face.
What a powerful and fruitful image this could be for contemporary spirituality as we struggle to bring together the demands of piety and private morality with the demands of social justice and committed action in the world. Martyr’s blood is still flowing; Christ’s blood is still flowing, the suffering servant of God is still being ridiculed on this earth … both in the poor of the world (the victims of injustice) and in the workplaces and homes of the not so poor (which is, perhaps, the main reason why this latter group so easily and blindly places the role of victimizer).
Christ’s suffering is still going on, the cost of living charity, joy, peace, justice, patience, mildness, and chastity, is evident in faces everywhere. Tragically, we are not inundated with spiritual artists who notice that something precious beyond words is being defaced and destroyed. Nobody seems too bent on “hastening to gather up” that blood, nobody seems to notice how uniquely precious it is, and nobody seems to have the fully discriminating insight, Therese’s insight, into Christ’s suffering face.
If Christ’s suffering face was truly understood we would see the coming together of private morality and social justice, of circles of piety and social action … for social justice circles would recognize the preciousness, importance, and utter non-negotiability of the tiniest private moral, psychological, or spiritual action and circles of piety would begin, immediately, to make the preferential option for the poor since they would immediately see that in the lives of the poor something precious beyond words is being defaced and destroyed – and nobody is noticing or caring!
Beyond that, once we would start saying to each other, “to live from love is to dry your face”, our habitual propensity for anger, self-pitying, self-righteousness, and giving up in despair would give way to a resurrection of, precisely, charity, joy, peace, justice, patience, mildness, and chastity in our lives. Why? Because the faith of Christ is always built upon the blood of the martyrs.
What’s needed, both in social justice and piety circles, are more persons with the insight of Therese of Lisieux, more persons who notice where Christ’s blood is being spilt today and who say: “I don’t want this precious blood to be lost. I shall spend my life gathering it up.”