Turn your face toward the mountains – St. John of the Cross

photo: Paul Badde
photo: Paul Badde

“Hide yourself, my love; turn your face toward the mountains, and do not speak; but look at those companions going with her through strange islands.”–Stanza 19, Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross

The great mystical Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, wrote a beautiful commentary on Stanza 19 of his Spiritual Canticle, on prayer–the desire of the soul to communicate with God, the need of silence on the part of the soul, and the darkness or obscurity of faith in the soul who is seeking God’s Face.

  St. John says that the bride-soul asks four things of the Bridegroom (Christ): First, that He “communicate very inwardly” in the hidden place of the soul. Second, that He inform and “shine on her faculties” with His glory. Third, “that this communication be so sublime and profound that she may neither desire nor know how to give a description of it…” Fourth, that He be enamored of the graces and virtues He has placed in her.” 

“Hide yourself, my love;”

St. John says this means to ask God “to communicate Yourself in secret, manifest Your hidden wonders, alien to every mortal eye.”

“turn your face toward the mountains”

“The ‘Face’ of God is the divinity and the ‘mountains’ are the soul’s faculties  (memory, intellect, and will).” The verse is saying: “Let your divinity shine on my intellect by giving divine knowledge, and on my will by imparting to it divine love, and on my memory with the divine possession of glory.” The soul, St. John writes, “can only be satisfied with God’s Face.”

“and do not speak”

The communication God grants to the soul are too high and deep to be apprehended by the senses. “Let the depth of the hiding place, which is spiritual union, be of such a kind that the senses will be unable to feel or speak of it…,” says St. John of the Cross.

“but look at those companions”

When God looks, He loves and grants favors.  And the companions whom the soul tells God to look at are the many virtues, gifts, perfections, and other spiritual riches He has placed in her as the pledges, tokens, and jewels of betrothal.” This verse, says St. John is like saying, “But, Beloved, first turn to the interior of my soul, and be enamored of the company–the riches–You have placed there, so that loving the soul and through them You may dwell and hide in her.  For, indeed, even though they are Yours, since You gave them to her, they also belong to her.

“going with her through strange islands.”

Here the soul is saying, “Since I go to you through a spiritual knowledge strange and foreign to the senses, let Your communication be so interior and sublime as to be foreign to all of them.”

To “seek God’s Face” is to seek Him in prayer; to “look at Him” is to take the time to contemplate Him. When we do this, St. John of the Cross tells us, God is doing great things in our soul…He shines His Face upon us!

Drawing by St. John of the Cross of his vision of the Crucifixion of Jesus from above.
Drawing of vision of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross, Feast: December 14

The Lord is the Spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:17-18)

“Blessed is she who believed” – Mary’s veil of faith

The Virgin of the Grapes by Pierre Mignard
The Virgin of the Grapes by Pierre Mignard

The word “veil” can have many meanings. A veil can cover the face, the head, or an object; it can cover, conceal, or separate. In ancient Jewish tradition a veil in the Holy of Holies in the Temple separated sinful man from the presence of God dwelling in the midst of His People. The holiness of God was not to be taken lightly. The blinding light of the purity and glory of the Face of God could not be looked upon by sinful eyes.

But when God chose Mary to be the Mother of His Son He created her to be all-pure and sinless from the moment of her conception through the merits of her Son, Jesus. In Matthew 5:8 we read, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” What was to prevent Mary, the Immaculate Conception, who was free from all sin, from seeing the Face of God in all His glory even while she was still here on earth? The answer is, in a word, a veil.

When the Word of God became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the Incarnation, Mary became His Tabernacle. Jesus’ human flesh was His veil: “by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is His flesh” (Heb. 10:20). The Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God.  But Mary, though “full of grace” and all-pure, would only gaze upon the human face of her child and upon the Face of her God through the veil of faith.

Elizabeth bore witness to Mary’s faith when “filled with the Holy Spirit” she greeted Mary with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:45). As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater, “Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the full submission of intellect and will…this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with ‘the grace of God that precedes and assists’ and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts.”

Veil of Veronica C. 1618-22 National Gallery
Veil of Veronica C. 1618-22 National Gallery

In a truly heroic manner, in poverty and suffering, on her whole pilgrimage or journey towards God, Mary believed, in faith, though everything happening around her seemed to contradict God’s words to her: That “the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David.” And that “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Mary believed these invisible truths about her Son, even as Jesus, suffered and died, hanging on the Cross. What was visible on an earthly level did not reflect the heavenly reality. Mary did not necessarily see her Son radiant in glory or angels ministering to Him in His Passion.  At the foot of the Cross she saw His bruised and bloodied suffering Face.

Pope St. John Paul II tells us in Redemptoris Mater that “faith is contact with the mystery of God. Every day Mary is in constant contact with the ineffable mystery of God made-man, a mystery that surpasses everything revealed in the Old Covenant… Mary is in contact with the truth about her Son only in faith and through faith!” Though all-pure, she could not see, except through faith. “Blessed is she who believed” is a key, he says, which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary. Mary’s all-pure eyes looked on the glory of her Son through a veil of faith, “a dark night,” to use the words of St. John of the Cross, that feeling of darkness or emptiness when a soul draws near to the brightness and glory of God. Pope St. John Paul II writes in Redemptoris Mater that Mary’s faith is: “a kind of a veil though which one has to draw near to the Invisible One and to live in intimacy with the mystery.”

In this earthly pilgrimage of faith a veil lies over our hearts, as St. Paul writes: “To this day, in fact…a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed… All of us, with unveiled face gazing on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 4:15-16, 18) As members of the Church, we can “look at” Jesus through Mary’s eyes of faith, in the Eucharist, in our neighbor; believing in His Word and following her example in our pilgrimage towards the Father until that time when the “veil” of faith will be finally lifted.

“Blessed is she who believed!”

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

 

“The face of evil bares itself more and more…”

“The Lord has always revealed to mortals the treasures of His Wisdom and His Spirit, but now that the face of evil bares itself more and more, so does the Lord bare His treasures more and more.”  — St. John of the Cross

Drawing by Sr. Genevieve of the Holy Face (Celine Martin, the sister of St. Therese)
Drawing by Sr. Genevieve of the Holy Face (Celine Martin, the sister of St. Therese)*

A blindness has descended upon the world–a spiritual blindness.  Society as a whole seems unable to distinguish what is good and true from evil and lies.  Like Pontius Pilate, few can recognize Truth even when He (Jesus) is standing before them.  The importance of being able to distinguish the Face of God from the face of Satan couldn’t be more serious; it is a matter of life and death for us.

Satan, first appearing as an angel of light, and proudly confident of his victory over mankind, now bares his “face of evil more and more,” but, “so does the Lord bare His treasures more and more.”  God’s greatest treasures are hidden in His Holy Face. (To name a few: the virtues of humility, detachment, love of suffering, self sacrifice and love–the treasures of the Holy Face are infinite.) Perhaps that is why, in this crucial point in history, St. Pope John Paul II dedicated the millennium to the Holy Face of Christ; and why Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called upon us to contemplate and shine the light of the Face of Christ on every human being through evangelization; and why Pope Francis holds out to mankind the Merciful Face of Jesus Christ.  Mankind must turn back to the Face of God or perish!

But, in order to turn back to the Face of God, we must be capable of recognizing Him, in our neighbor, in the Scriptures, in the Holy Eucharist and in the Person of Jesus Christ who was born, suffered, died, and rose again for our sake.  If we do not recognize Jesus, neither will we be able to recognize the face of Satan, who seeks to destroy us.

Scripture seems to contradict itself in describing Jesus Christ:  “You are the fairest of the children of men, and graciousness is poured out upon you lips.” (Ps. 45) “He was transfigured before their eyes, His Face became as dazzling as the sun, His clothes as radiant as light.” (Mt. 17:2) “There was in Him no stately bearing to make us look at Him, no appearance that would attract us to Him. He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity.  One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned and we held Him in no esteem. (Isaiah 53:2-3)   It is not always easy to recognize Jesus, He may also be hidden in the poor, the suffering, the young the old. To truly recognize Jesus, we need to ask God for eyes of faith and the light of the Holy Spirit.  As Pope Benedict XVI had said,“The Holy Spirit illuminates the reciprocity:  Jesus has divine dignity and God has the human Face of Jesus.  God shows Himself in Jesus and by doing so gives us the truth about ourselves.”  The truth that He is God, Eternal Wisdom, Power, and Merciful Love… and we are not.  We have nothing that does not first come from God. So, to recognize the Face of God we must be able to distinguish it from the face of the enemy.  

So, how then do we recognize “the face of evil,” especially when Satan may appear as an angel of light?  When he announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also recommended the reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy as a spiritual preparation. There is a relevant passage in Canto 34 of Dante’s The Inferno that contains keen insights that can help us to recognize the face of Satan… or rather faces, as Dante gives Satan three faces in mimicry of the Blessed Trinity.

Gustav Dore's illustration of Canto 34 of Dante's Inferno
Gustav Dore’s illustration of Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno
If once
He was as fair as he is ugly now, 
and raised his brow against his Maker still, 
he well is made the source of every woe. 
But when I saw three faces in his head, 
how great a marvel it appeared to me! 
One face in front, and it was ruddy red; 
the other two were joined to it upon 
the middle of the shoulder on each side, 
and joined above, where the cock sports his crown;
and the right was a kind of yellowish white, 
and where the Nile comes rolling to the plains, 
men’s faces are the color on the left. 
Beneath each face extended two huge wings, 
large enough to suffice for such a bird. 
I never saw a sail at sea so broad.
They had no feathers, but were black and scaled
like a bat’s wings, and those he flapped, and flapped, 
and from his flapping raised three gales that swept 
Cocytus, and reduced it all to ice. 
With his six eyes he wept, and down three chins
dribbled his tears and slaver slick with blood. 
Anthony Esolen writes in his excellent commentary on The Divine Comedy: “At the center of evil there is nothing but a small, hard, cold kernel of self, transcendentally small, a something just this side of emptiness. Despite his apparent power in the world, that is what Lucifer finally is, and despite his threatening size, that is how Dante has portrayed him. That he flaps his wings everlastingly only underscores his impotence. He is the ‘evil worm’ who ‘gnaws a whole into the world.’ For Dante, escape from sin is escape from that tight little hole, to breathe the air of freedom and humanity, and to look upon those vast realms above–realms meant for the fire of love, and therefore also meant for man.”
….”Satan is an anti-Trinity. The power, wisdom, and love of God are inverted here into impotence, ignorance, and hate. The colors of the faces seem to correspond with the colors of the men of the three continents Dante knew: ruddy, (European), yellowish (Asian), and dusky (African).” 
. . . “Satan’s action locks him in place. What should be a symbol of freedom–the flapping of wings–is the engine of his imprisonment. He who would be free of God is bound by his own will and shackled into a dumb, mechanical dullness.” 
Satan’s face will always be always be one of impotence, ignorance, and hate and God’s Face will always be one of Divine Power, Wisdom and Love.  One wonders how the world persists in blindness; how it calls good “evil” and evil “good” in failing to recognize either the Face of God or the face of Satan.  We must pray for the “eyes of faith” and the light of the Holy Spirit for ourselves and the world.  We must pray too, that as “evil bares it’s face more and more” that God will reveal the treasures of the Divine Power, Wisdom, and Merciful Love of His Holy Face more and more so that mankind will return to the Merciful Face of God!
************
Young Celine (left) and St. Therese (right) 1881
Young Celine (left) and St. Therese (right) 1881

*The drawing above is by Sr. Genevieve of the Holy Face (Celine Martin) the sister of St. Therese of The Child Jesus and the Holy Face.  One year after the Saint’s death in 1898, the photographer Secondo Pia took the first photographs of the Shroud of Turin.  He was shocked when on the photographic negatives, the “positive” image of a man who had endured terrible suffering appeared.  While Celine was reading a book on the amazing discovery, she heard the voice of her sister St. Therese speak these words, “Paint Him, paint a new Holy Face, paint Him as He was!”  In 1904, after praying and meditating hours before a print of the Holy Face on the Shroud of Turin she  executed the charcoal drawing.

 

Celine has written this about St. Therese’s devotion to the Holy Face:  “Devotion to the Holy Face was, for Therese, the crown and compliment of her love for the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord.  This Blessed Face was the mirror wherein she beheld the Heart and Soul of her Well-Beloved.  Just as the picture of a loved one serves to bring the whole person before us, so in the Holy Face of Christ, Therese beheld the entire Humanity of Jesus.  We can say unequivocally that this devotion was the burning inspiration of the Saint’s life.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
St. Therese herself said, “Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face... I understood what real glory was.  He whose kingdom is not of this world (John 13:36) showed me that true wisdom consists in ‘desiring to be unknown and counted on as nothing’ (Imitation of Christ 1,2-3) ‘in placing one’s joys in the contempt of self.’Ah! I thirsted after suffering and I longed to be forgotten.”  —The Last Conversations