Recently, I was on the NYC subway system, returning from Manhattan to the Bronx. It was early rush hour. The subway car wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t empty either. By the time I got into the car, there were few seats left. I saw one, but as I approached it, a young man sat down in it. I was quite disappointed. Since, the car was filling up behind me and in front of me I was forced to stand by this young man. He saw me and then put his shades on. The disappointing part was the fact that I had my left pant leg rolled up revealing my prosthetic leg. What his eyes could have revealed to me I will never know because he chose to hide them behind the shades. So, after a tiring day, I was forced to stand for the entire forty-minute subway ride, followed by another ten-minute minute walk home.
After reading my experience, you may feel anger rising in your heart, and I can tell you that you are not alone in that. I was seriously angry at this young man. I wanted to curse him, but before my heart could utter something untoward, even in its own silence, a whisper came into my mind. That whisper told me simply: “I love him.” The “I” of that statement was from Another: God loved this young man. He was His son and my brother, and I felt bad that I was about to curse a person God loves – all because I was inconvenienced. I didn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t get what I thought was “owed” to me as someone living with a disability. In fact, that desire to curse arose from the ego because my self-love felt put upon.
No doubt, I was using my disability to self-justify what I felt was owed to me to the point that I made my soul blind to a moment of love that was laid before me. God loved that young man. As God has poured His blessing upon me in that silent whisper, so also He blessed that young man. Instead of loving the young man, as Abel loved God when he made his sacrifice, I wanted to curse my brother.
This means that, through a curse, I wanted to continue the cycle of hatred and death – started by Cain – by denying that I am my brother’s keeper. As a keeper, I am called to love and tend to my brother’s needs. On that day, I forgot the wisdom of my brother in Carmel, St. John of the Cross, who said, “A soul that is hard because of self-love grows harder” (Sayings of Light and Love #30). The self-love in me that sought its own comfort not only blinded my eyes but made my heart stonier and unable to face its Lord, as He revealed himself through that young man.
An important verse for modern Carmelite Spirituality that came out of the Holy Face devotion in the Order was Psalm 80:3 “Restore us, O God; let thy face shine, that we may be saved.” This verse reveals a threefold truth of our discipleship that has taken form in the Holy Face Devotion: humanity is in need of restoration; restoration is through the light of God’s Face; and salvation comes about through this work of God and us.
Purification: A Means of Restoration
Something is off with humanity. We know this as a condition of our fallen nature that tends towards sin. This fallen reality was not meant for us. It is something we created for ourselves. How did this come about? As the event in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) shows, our first parents chose to turn in on themselves and to love themselves to the point of wanting to make themselves into God. This is our story too.
Love, as shown through God’s act of Creation, is a love that goes out of itself. Self-love makes us blind because we lose the ability to focus our heart on the Being who has loved us first, the Being that made it possible for us to love. That Being is, of course God, who has made it possible to be free from this unfocused heart.
God, in the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, has come to purify us in the flames of love restoring that original focus that was given up in the Garden of Eden. Purification isn’t merely about a cleanliness of the body – though this view of cleanliness is important – but is an over-simplification that plagues our modern/postmodern times. That over-simplification has led to the abandonment of the term on a societal level.
A clean (pure) body is one that conforms to the will of God. Purity is the necessary ground work for the gift of freedom to be realized in the individual’s life, so a person who prays with both his soul and body can truly be in harmony with the petition of the Our Father, “Thy will be done.” In this understanding of purity, we can begin to sense the beauty that Jesus noted in one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Renunciation: Freedom in His Light
As the living flame of love, the Holy Spirit, works to purify our hearts, His presence makes a demand of us. We are the temple of the Spirit. As the Spirit illumines His temple, we must make the choice to renounce what once filled it with clutter. So St. John of the Cross wrote that “… this divine fire of love… is wounding the soul and destroying and consuming in it the imperfections of its bad habits …” (Living Flame of Love 1, 19).
The purification of the heart brought about by the Holy Spirit returns to the soul the freedom the Father desires for it. In that freedom we renounce what in our lives turns the focus of our hearts away from Christ’s gaze of love offered to us from the Cross. It is in this freedom that the words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane become our words also: “… not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22: 42b). By renouncing the things we once sought for our own pleasure, self-love and fulfillment, we are now transformed in the Spirit to focus on Him who has won for us life eternal.
Detachment: The Salvation of our Heart
Salvation is the threshold through which we begin to taste and enter eternal life. As we continue through this pilgrim life, this gift of salvation is first realized in our hearts. It is through Christ’s Sacred and pierced Heart that salvation has begun to flood the world.
As the Spirit’s purification restores the focus of the human heart, so through renunciation it can help us begin to journey on our Lord’s way of freedom. Detachment keeps the heart on this pathway of Christ. Again, we turn to St. John of the Cross: “Be interiorly detached from all things and do not seek pleasure in any temporal thing, and your soul will concentrate on goods you do not know” (Sayings of Light and Love, #96).
A detached heart, freed from earthly pleasures, is predisposed to the fruit of the Spirit that blooms during the lifetime of a soul rooted in Christ. The soul does not control when the fruit grows: it can merely be prepared to discover, reap, and share it. Through securing the innermost recesses of the heart by the work of detachment, the heart becomes fortified to withstand the storms that assault our senses that seek to drive us off the narrow pathway of Christ. Detachment as a way of journeying is a means, and a grace, to help us live out the wisdom of St. Paul when he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13).
St. Paul reminds us, finally, about the gift of salvation: “God Our Savior, desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Jesus is our Savior who wants to save each human person, like that young man in the subway car. Yet, He will not go against the human heart. His salvation is through love. Love can never force itself upon another. The journey of our heart is thus a journey of love, love that is always transformative. It is a transformation that moves the heart away from its own internally made prison toward a gate that is always open for it, a gate revealed in Christ’s pierced Heart.
Along this journey of love that takes one from heart to Heart, the free and loving gaze of Christ upon the Cross becomes known to us. It is so that His love can be revealed through us to others who have not known the hallowed place prepared for them at the foot of the Cross.
This way of life contains very little business and bustling and demands mortification of the will more than knowledge. The less one takes of things and pleasures the farther one advances along this way. ~ St. John of the Cross (Sayings of Light and Love, #58)