St. Elijah and Contemplation

Seeking the Face of God in Prayer

Icon of St. Elijah written by Patricia Enk

There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. Then the Lord said: “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord willl be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord–but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake–but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire–but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?” He replied, “I have been most jealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts.” (1 Kings 19)

Fixing our eyes on God

Pope St. Gregory explains why Elijah is described as standing at the mouth of the cave (“where we direct our mental gaze, there we may be said to stand.”) and veiling his face when he heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him: “…as soon as the voice of heavenly understanding enters the mind through the grace of contemplation, the whole man is no longer within the cave, for his soul is no longer taken up with matters of the flesh: intent on leaving the bounds of mortality, he stands at the cave’s mouth.”

Humility and Detachment – the keys to contemplation

“But if a man stands at the mouth of the cave and hears the word of God with his heart’s ear, he must veil his face. For when heavenly grace leads us to the understanding of higher things, the rarer the heights to which we are raised, the more we should abase ourselves in our own estimation by humility: we must not try to know ‘more than is fitting; we must know as it befits us to know.’ Otherwise, through over-familiarity with the invisible, we wish going astray; and we might perhaps look for material light in what is immaterial. For to cover the face while listening with the ear means hearing with our mind the voice of Him who is within us, yet averting the eyes of the heart from every bodily appearance. If we do this, there will be no risk of our spirit interpreting as something corporeal that which is everywhere in its entirety and everywhere  uncircumscribed…while our feet stand within the walls of His holy Church, let us keep our eyes turned toward the door; let us mentally turn our backs on the corruption of this temporal life; let us keep our hearts facing toward the freedom of our heavenly fatherland.”

Almighty, ever-living God, your prophet Elijah, our Father, lived always in your presence and was jealous for the honor due to your name. May we, your servants, always seek your Face and bear witness to your love. We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

— Pope St. Gregory

Proof of Love

“Il Volto Santo” The Holy Face of Manoppello. (Photo by Paul Badde/EWTN)

The first thing I noticed, the very first time that I saw the Holy Face of Manoppello, was Jesus’s eyes filled with love and His Face covered with blood. The Precious Blood on His Holy Face from the strikes, blows, and thorns, and from His beard cruelly torn and ripped out. Like the image of the Holy Face on the Shroud of Turin, the sight affected me very deeply. Here is the proof of His love on His Face, and the “price of our salvation.”

“You were not redeemed with corruptible things as of gold or silver… but with the Precious Blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.”

(1 Peter 1:18)

What should be the response of the soul to our God who has given such costly proof of His love? The answer is: our devotion. Fr. John Hardon, S.J. wrote, “Devotion is a composite of three elements: It is first, veneration, it is secondly, invocation, and it is thirdly, imitation.” Veneration, he says, is “a composite of knowledge, love, and adoration.” By veneration we understand when we gaze on His Face what our sins have done. When a man’s name is reviled it is reflected on his face. The indignities suffered by Our Lord in His Passion represent the sins against the first three Commandments. Blasphemy, the disrespect of God and sacred things, atheism, and the profanation of the Holy Name and the Holy Day of Sunday are the greatest sins against God and are reflected in the Holy Face of Jesus Christ, stained, bloody, bruised, covered with filth, dirt, and spittle. As we look upon His Face, we are moved to console Him. “Whoever gazes on Me, already consoles Me.” — Our Lord to Bl. Mother Maria Pierina De Micheli

Next, devotion is manifested through invocations and prayers by which we give God the praise that is due Him, making reparation, and asking God’s help.

“Who is like God?” St. Michael holding high the Face of Jesus (Sculpture by Cody Swanson, which stands at the side of Old St. Patricks Catholic Church in New Orleans.) Photo: Patricia Enk
Ryan Matherne, OCDS, prepares for Holy Face Devotions

Devotional invocations and prayers may of course be private, but it should also, in some way, be public — because the sins against Our Lord were public. Although Holy Face Devotions had been held since the Discalced Carmelite nuns had founded their first monastery here in New Orleans, the regular public devotion had been interrupted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ryan Matherne, President of the Secular Discalced Carmelites in New Orleans, moved by a strong desire to reinstate the public devotion to the Holy Face, led the way to making it possible for the devotions to be held for the first time since 2005 on Sunday, June 27th, 2021. They will continue to be held every fourth Sunday of the month, following the noon Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in New Orleans. Other new groups have sprung up here in the United States and around the world. Fr. Lawrence Carney, founder of the League of St. Martin, was also moved by his deep love and devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus, and “in response to the growing crisis in the Church,” has been encouraging and organizing groups to hold public devotions.

“Oh Savior Jesus, who didst will that reparation should be as public and universal as had been the offense, penetrate us with the true spirit of reparation.  Give us the grace to love Thy Divine Face, to make it known and loved by the whole world, in order that it may be to us a source of light and means of salvation.  Amen. ” 

— Blessed Mother Maria Pierina De Micheli
Holy Face image at Sacred Heart side altar, Old St. Patrick’s Photo: Sally Vlosich, OCDS

Finally, as Fr. Hardon reminds us, devotion means imitation. We are able to show our love for Jesus by giving proof of our love through imitation of Jesus — in pain, humiliation, suffering, and by the shedding of His blood. “That is what the Church means when she has us say that when Christ offers Himself daily on the altar in the Sacrifice of the Mass, we are told to identify with that sacrifice. His and ours. He, the Head of the Mystical Body, can no longer suffer, but thank God, we can!” –Fr. John Hardon, S.J. We can offer any sufferings that will inevitably come to us in this life, in union with Jesus’s sacrifice, in imitation of Him, as a proof of our love, and in gratitude to the “Lamb who was slain for our salvation.”