On my desk are two images.
One is the Rembrandt “Head of Christ” (1648), which hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In it, Christ is pensive, with long dark hair, a soft moustache, and beard. His eyes are cast downward and to the side. He looks as if he has been regarding our wounded, conflicted, fearful, yearning hearts with utter love for all eternity. He looks like he might have looked in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating his crucifixion.
The second is a small black-and-white photo of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She’s gazing straight into the camera with a look that combines clear-eyed, intense suffering with the merest shadow of a smile.
Both faces are deeply, vitally, uniquely alive. Both are fully, achingly human. They’re complex. They “contain multitudes,” to use Walt Whitman’s phrase. As members of the Mystical Body, we all do.
Those faces convict me — in a good way.
They say, “Really? You’re going to be that petty?”
But they do way more than convict.
There’s an old-school Catholic instruction cautioning us to maintain custody of the eyes, ears, and tongue.
To keep visual reminders of our faith around our living space is one way constantly to draw our hearts and minds to God. Obviously, the Church has an almost bottomless treasury of first-rate sculptures, paintings, drawings, textiles, frescoes, and icons. But we needn’t spend a lot of money.
The image of the Rembrandt painting that I’ve had on my desk for years is one I cut out from the front cover of an old Magnificat magazine.
Together those images say that holiness does not consist in airbrushed piety, perfect consistency, or never getting upset. Christ got mad (the barren fig tree; the money-changers in the temple). He changed his mind (the parable of the Canaanite woman who was willing to eat the crumbs thrown to the dogs). He was neither impassive nor stoic. He wept. He hungered, thirsted, was tired, loved a good meal and a good party. He sweated tears of blood, such was his anxiety the night before he died.
Rembrandt painted more than one “Head of Christ.” I once made a special pilgrimage to the Philadelphia Museum of Art simply to see the one I especially love up close.
It was way smaller than I’d imagined, and in the far corner of the gallery. Tears sprang to my eyes. Even though I wasn’t in church, I instinctively genuflected: partly to honor Rembrandt’s genius and life of suffering, and partly for love of Our Lord.
“Oh Father,” Christ seemed to be saying. “This? Let this chalice pass from me.” I could imagine that in his fully human state he perhaps hovered, just for a second, on the edge of reproach, of self-pity, of departing from the yes his mother had made to the angel Gabriel 33 years before.
At the same time, the painting somehow also conveys that in the end, he bowed his head and said, “But Thy will, not mine, be done.”
Christ had a soft spot for people who stepped out from the crowd: the one leper out of 10 who said thank you, the blind man who cried, “Have pity on me!”, Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree.
St. Thérèse — who also became well-acquainted with the Garden at Gethsemane — was one such follower. While obeying the teachings of the Church and the rules of her Carmelite convent to the letter, she broke out of the straitjacket that can bind many of us: the idea that we need to learn Christ’s love by grim self-sacrifice.
While almost preternaturally spiritually mature for her age — for any age — she was all about throwing ourselves into the arms of the Father as if we were infants. Picture the little child at the bottom of the stairs, she suggested, who does not yet know how to walk.
“Wanting absolutely to climb to the top of the stairs to find her mother again, she lifts her little foot to finally climb the first step. Useless labor! She always falls without making any advance. … Consent to be this little child. Through practicing all the virtues, keep lifting up your little foot in order to clamber up the stairs of holiness.”
She died of tuberculosis at 24: her intestines gangrened, without pain medication, crying, “I love him!” So intense was her agony in the weeks preceding that, had the means been near, she confessed in her writings, she would have considered suicide.
The photo that has looked me in the eyes for so long is the front of a workaday prayer card. The back reads:
“Everything is a grace… Everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love, difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs, Everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weaknesses. Everything is a grace, because Everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character or life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.”