From The Way of the Cross
Now, while Simon labors under the cross with Jesus, while Mary, his mother, follows behind him in the crowd, someone – a woman – forces her way through the rabble, even through the guard of Roman soldiers surrounding him, and comes face-to-face with Christ. She is driven by compassion.
The face that the Lord turns to her is terrible to look on; it is difficult to believe that it is the face of the Son of God. It is difficult even for those who have once seen his face shining with the brilliance of a fire of snow upon Tabor to believe in him now. Two of them have fled from him, just as those others have done though they have seen him command the wind and the waves and raise the dead.
Now that face of infinite majesty and compelling beauty is unrecognizable. The eyes which could see into the secret places of men’s souls are blinded, swollen from the long sleepless night of trials and judgment and filled with sweat and blood. The cheeks are bruised and dirty, the mouth swollen, the hair “like ripe corn” is tangled by the crown of thorns and matted with blood. Certainly there is no sign now of the beauty that could win a man’s heart by a single glance, or of the power that can rule the tempests and give life to the dead. On the contrary, here is a man who is the very personification of humiliation, who is ugly with wounds and suffering, who is in the hands of other men who have bound him and are leading him out to die, and who is not even able to carry his own Cross alone.
It is all this, from which his close friends have fled, which drives this woman to him. It is the ugliness and the helplessness, which frightened those whom he called his “own” away, that draws her to him; it is her compassion that gives her the courage to come close to him.
She comes with a veil in her hands, a cloth on which to wipe the poor disfigured face. She kneels as we kneel to wipe the tears from the faces of little children. Gratefully the head bowing over her sinks into the clean linen cloth and for a brief moment is covered by it. Then he raises his head, and she kneeling there, her own face lifted, sees the face of Christ looking down at her, and behind it the great beam of the cross. The two are together within the shadow of the cross on the street, Veronica and Christ.
She sees the majesty that was hidden, for now she has wiped away what she can of the blood and sweat and tears, she sees that they hid a face that is serene in its suffering, calm, majestic, infinitely tender. The swollen mouth smiles; the exhausted eyes are full of gentleness; the expression, after all, is not one of defeat and despair but of triumph and joy.
The power of Christ is able to control fiercer storms than those of the wind and the sea. It is able to still the torrents of evil of the whole world in the stillness of his own heart. It is the power which enables him to command the floods of all the sorrow in the world and hold them within his peace. It is the power which can not only give life back to the dead, but can change death itself to life. It is the power of divine love.
So for a moment, a vision more wonderful than Tabor is granted to the woman whose compassion drove her to discover Christ in a suffering man. Then Christ passes on, on the way of sorrows, leaving her with the veil in her hands, and on it the imprint of that face of suffering that hid the beauty of God, the only impression of his face which Christ himself gave to us on Earth, the only one that he has given to remain with us through time.
In Christ burying his face in that woman’s veil on the Via Crucis, we are looking at the many children of today whom war has twisted and tortured out of the pattern of childhood, who are already seared and vitiated by fear, persecution, homelessness, and hunger.
We see grown-up people who have been maimed or disfigured, those whom chronic illness or infirmity has embittered. We see, too, those most tragic ones among old people, those who are not loved and are not wanted by their own, those in whom the ugliness, not the beauty, of old age is visible. We see the tragic ones who are cut off from all but the very few, the Veronicas of the world, by mental illness. We see too many who are dying, who with Christ are coming to the end of their Via Crucis, yet sometimes without realizing that Christ is suffering for and in them.
Suffering is not something to sentimentalize. It can obliterate even the beauty of childhood. It can ennoble but it can also degrade; it can enlarge a man’s heart, but it can also contract and shrink it. To the sufferer who does not know that he is in-dwelt by Christ, his pain of mind and body, his humiliation and lonelieness, are baffling. He can see no purpose in his suffering; he is embittered by it, and his bitterness sets up a barrier between himself and others, imprisoning him in his own loneliness. Outwardly he shows only the ugliness of the world’s sorrow, suffering, and all the effects of sin.
It is the Veronicas of today who wipe away this ugliness from the face of Christ living on in man. The Veronicas of today are all those in whom compassion overcomes fear and repulsion, all those who seek and find the lost and the forsaken, the downtrodden and the lonely. Those who seek the maladjusted, broken children of our wars and our slums, who go on their knees to wipe the tears from their eyes.
They are the nurses who comfort the dying in hospitals, who wipe the sweat of death from their faces. They are the sisters of mercy who go into the homes of the sick and poor to serve them. They are all those who befriend the friendless in our mental hospitals. They are those who, in their own families, tend and comfort the old and infirm in their last days.
They are, too, those priests who minister to the dying, and who go into the prisons to absolve the prisoners and restore Christ in their souls; those priests who follow men to the scaffold, cleansing them with the spiritual waters of absolution.
It is not only the physical wounds that the Veronicas of today tend and cleanse; it is, by that same act of tender compassion, the mental and spiritual wounds, the emotional wounds that corrode and fester in the spirit, almost obliterating the image and likeness of Christ. It is not only the sweat that blinds the eyes of the dying that they wipe away, but that which blinds the soul: ignorance of Christ, ignorance of their own supreme destiny of being “other Christs,” misunderstanding of suffering and its ugliness, that ugliness so resented by those who cannot see beneath it.
Until someone comes to reveal the secret of Christ indwelling the sufferer’s soul to him, he cannot see any purpose in his pain. There is only one way to reveal Christ living on in the human heart to those who are ignorant concerning it. That is Veronica’s way, through showing Christ’s love. When someone comes – maybe a stranger, maybe someone close at home but whose compassion was not guessed before – and reveals Christ’s own pity in herself, the hard crust that has contracted the sufferer’s heart melts away, and looking into the gentle face of this Veronica of today, the sufferer looks, as it were, into a mirror in which he sees the beauty of Christ reflected at last from his own soul.
Until Veronica came to him on his way to Calvary, Christ was blinded by blood and sweat and tears. The merciful hands of Veronica wiped the blindness from his eyes; looking into her face, he saw his own beauty reflected in it. He saw his own eyes looking back at him from hers. She had done this thing in the power in which alone she could do it, the power of Christ’s own love.
In the compassion on her lifted face, Christ saw, in the hour of his extreme dereliction, the triumph of his own love for men. He saw his love, radiant, triumphant in her, and in all the Veronicas to come through all time, in them and in those sufferers in whom his own divine beauty would be restored by their compassion.
Savior of the world,
take my heart,
from the stark realism
and ugliness of suffering,
and expand it with your love.
Open it wide
with the fire of your love,
as a rose is opened
by the heat of the sun.
Drive me by the strength
of your tenderness
to come close to human pain.
Give me hands
that are hardened by pity,
that will dip into any water
and bathe any wound
Give me your hands,
hands that heal the blind
by their touch,
hands that raise the dead
and are nailed to the cross;
give me your hands
to tend the wounds of the body
and the wounds of the mind.
Give me your eyes
to discern the beauty of your face,
hidden under the world’s sorrow.
Give me the grace
to be a Veronica;
to wipe away
the ugliness of sin
from the human face,
and to see
your smile on the mouth of pain,
your majesty on the face of dereliction,
and in the bound and helpless,
the power of your infinite love.
Lord, take my heart
and give me yours.