To Kiss the Face of Christ

I went on a silent retreat about a month ago, and while there I got the news that someone in the extended family had died. Geographical distance made it impossible for me to get there very soon to comfort or support those close to him, so I at first felt powerless to help. It then occurred to me that being on a retreat, with  lots of time to pray, was perhaps the best place I could be. So I and those on retreat with me prayed a lot for him and all those affected by his death. The priest leading the retreat was kind enough to ask if he could offer Mass on the extended family member’s behalf, as well as the latter’s family. It was a very consoling and powerful experience of being a loved member of the Body of Christ.

During the Mass, the priest’s homily on finding Christ in the poor hit me hard. He told the story of a devout woman in the Minneapolis area with whom he was privileged to spend part of his seminary training. Part of her ministry to the poor is literally to wash their feet: to get down on her knees, holding their smelly, or bleeding, or otherwise distasteful feet; to look up at them with love, and to wash them. The bishop from the retreat master’s diocese retired there to work with this woman and to wash feet. Not a pretty ministry, but beautiful. After his homily, I had to ask, “What, Lord, am I actually doing for the poor – directly? Show me how to love You in them.” He seemed to open something in my heart: the sense that face to face encounter with the poor was not an option, but a necessity if I was to encounter the heart of Christ.

Right after Communion, I had an unusual and completely unexpected experience: an interior vision in which I was kissing Jesus. But it was so painful, because the thorns on His head made it hard to get close; I wanted to stroke His face and hold His shoulders, but they were bloody and bruised and covered with welts; I wanted to touch His hair, but it was sticky with blood. It was an emotionally jarring yet profoundly moving and intimate encounter; unique in my experience.

When I met with the retreat master for spiritual direction, he commented, “Perhaps the vision of kissing the suffering Christ has to do with the poor. Loving the poor is not necessarily sweetness and light; it can be quite disturbing to encounter Christ in His ‘distressing disguise’ as one of His poor or broken ones.”

He was right on target. Shortly after the retreat, my wife and I each had a couple of distressing encounters with a different kind of poverty than I’d anticipated: the poverty of people who were suffering greatly, but who were most difficult to love in their suffering. These people had so pulled in to themselves, and were lashing out so at others. My normal reaction would have been anger – a basic “To heck with them!” But the encounter with the image of Christ suffering forced me to step back: here, indeed, were the poor ones He wanted me to kiss, to embrace, to love. “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that; even the pagans do that…” But, Lord, don’t I need to show them how wrong they are?” It would seem not.

It is so hard to love people who regard your love as trivial or don’t even notice that you’re trying to love them, much less express appreciation for it. It is harder still to love people who strike out at you for trying to love them; when their thorns prick your face, or their wounds and welts leave you a sticky mess. As a teaching assistant during my doctoral program, I used to joke, “I only want to work with people at the top of Maslow’s scale: people who are self-actualizing, having peak experiences, extraordinary in every way.” Was I entirely joking? People who aren’t at the top can be so much work. Dare I admit the periods in my own life when I was emphatically not at the top myself? When I myself was a bloody, sticky mess? Do I fear to kiss the leper because I was – sometimes still am – a leper myself? Dare I look back to the times when my own insecurities, anger, selfishness, or blindness repelled those who lovingly tried to kiss me?

St. Therese of Lisieux noted that, ironically, the sisters in her convent who were most showered with love and affirmation – the mature, balanced, pleasant, engaging ones – were the ones that least needed it. Conversely, the sisters who most needed love and affirmation – those who were immature, unhappy, difficult, frustrating – might be cordially or dutifully tolerated, but rarely were sought out or affirmed. Her resolve was to offer her love and friendship to these latter ones: the starving ones who sometimes seemed to do everything possible to repel her “kiss”. It was a “banquet”, she realized, that cost her nothing: a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, a loving presence; that she could give to these least ones.

It’s very easy. It’s very difficult. It’s doing baby steps. It opens the heart, a little bit at a time. It is a difficult, painful embrace. It is a life-giving, lovely embrace. I shrink from it; I need it desperately. It is the kiss of Christ.




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About admin

I am a Catholic clinical psychologist with a solo practice in Omaha, NE. In the Franciscan seminary, I completed about 2/3rd of an M.Div./MA in Scripture. In my 3rd year of temporary vows, I discerned a call to the married life. My lovely wife Mary and I have a son, Michael, as well as a number of children preceding us to Heaven through miscarriages. We are delighted to be in the Omaha archdiocese and love the Heartland.
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