One of the characteristics of divine revelation is that it often breaks through where you least expect. Grace invariably catches you unaware, a surprise. Frequently too the surprise is not a pleasant one for God shines brightly in our humiliations, unafraid to be embarrassed in this world.
Let me risk the following example: At age fifteen, Therese of Lisieux made the decision to enter a Carmelite monastery. She thought she had prepared herself fairly well for what she would meet there and indeed she had. She was under no illusion about what lay ahead for her, both in terms of the austerity of the life she was taking on as well as in terms of how some of the nuns would react towards her. She knew it would be hard: early rising, long hours in chapel, poor food, inadequate heating, a small cell with a straw mattress, days spent mainly in silence, hard menial work, rules forbidding her at times to talk to her own blood sisters, and little or nothing in the way of earthly compensation. She was even prepared for the fact that many of the nuns would react badly towards her – questioning her motivation, seeing her as a spoiled child, misunderstanding her vocation, treating her with coldness or, alternately, doting on her as the community baby. She had thought all of this through beforehand and felt ready for whatever met her in that monastery. Thus when she entered its gates, she was well-prepared, ready … for everything except what actually happened.
Shortly after she walked through the gates of that convent, her father, whom she had adored and who had loved her so purely and deeply and who had throughout her whole life radiated so much of the love and compassion of God, went insane. Moreover, his insanity (a form of mental illness not understood at the time) led him to do strange, humiliating things. He became as helpless as a child, constantly got lost, had inexplicable mood swings, grew silent, reacted angrily at times without cause, could not be trusted to be alone, did embarrassing things, and was once even caught carrying a revolver. Therese had so idealized this man and had been so proud of him. For her, until now, he had embodied God – as love, as stable, as predictable in goodness, and as utterly trustworthy. Initially, therefore, her father’s insanity shattered her world entirely (not just in terms of her family life but also, and especially, in her understanding of God). How could someone so trustworthy, good, stable, and loving suddenly become so different? Beyond that too, some of her relatives blamed her for her father’s illness, saying that her leaving him for the convent had broken his heart. It took a long time, a lot of pondering, and a much deeper understanding of God, before Therese was able to make her peace with all of this.
Eventually, however, she learned something from this experience that profoundly reshaped her spirituality. What she learned was this: to know God, one must begin to grasp the humiliation of God in this world. What is implied in this? Where do we see the humiliation of God in this world?
Whenever we see someone who is unable to protect herself or himself against pain, especially the type of pain that humbles and humiliates, we are witnessing the humiliation of God in the world and if we have the eyes of faith we are standing at that place where the deeper secrets of heaven are being revealed.
We see this clearly already when we look at little children. They are so helpless and needy that they cannot hide what needs to be hidden. Spittle, urine, mucus, feces, and tears are always in evidence around them. We see this too whenever we see anyone who, for whatever reason, is perceived by others as naive, unattractive, stupid, irrational, or in some other way is seen as an embarrassment to himself or herself, and we see it especially in those people who because of age or illness are being humiliated in their bodies. In an adult body ravaged by age, handicap, or terminal disease – unlike the case for babies where a stunning physical beauty and wholeness more than compensate for the embarrassment and even the smell of feces is sweet – there is real humiliation. Here the smell of feces is not sweet.
I recently visited a friend dying of cancer. Her fifty year-old body, once remarkably beautiful, was grossly disfigured, wasted, smelled of death, and, like the face of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, was as much an object of revulsion as of attraction. A proud spirit, she lay humble, embarrassed, humiliated in her body. And God lay with her in that humiliation, shining forth, revealing secrets, tearing the temple veil from top to bottom and revealing what was revealed on the cross, namely, that faith and understanding begin at that exact dark point where the world thinks they must end.