If someone asked how your spiritual practice has affected you, would you point to inner changes, possibly hidden from an observer? Or would you say that you have physically and obviously changed in some way?
To my mind, while spirituality feels private, even hidden, sanctity is actually palpable. I think our eyes can distinguish between the beauty of righteousness and the ugliness of immoral conduct. Our nose can smell the sweet scent of holiness or the stench of evil. Wholesome qualities we cultivate inwardly may appear outwardly as "mystical ornaments" on our body.
A medieval Indian story teaches that our true adornment in life is a regard for virtue. Just as trees are adorned with blossoms, and ponds with lotuses, human beings can adorn themselves with ethical qualities. They beautify us more than any fine jewelry, elegant clothing, or cosmetics can.
|An individual who conducts herself with virtue reflects the image of God in her face. As Job declared: "In my flesh I see God."|
When we describe someone as beautiful, generally we refer to certain physical attributes we find appealing. Yet it is equally true that the beauty we admire is more than skin-deep. It emanates from the person's character, like Silvia in Shakespeare's "The Two Gentleman of Verona." A song in the second scene of the fourth act describes the sought-after and praised maiden as "holy, fair, and wise." Then the singers ask, "Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness."
This is not surprising. The Hebrew word for face is panim, which is related to penim, signifying "inside, interior, within." In Judaism, someone reflects his or her inner state. When a Jew is sincere and straightforward, he is described as tocho kebaro, "his inside is like his outside." And the "Zohar" ("Book of Splendor"), a 13th-century Kabbalistic text, says: "Your frame of mind shows in your face."
It is said that tzaddikim ("righteous persons," or Hasidic rabbis) were able to read a person's mind by looking at his face. They believed that the forces of evil could mar the features of someone who is guilty of transgressing, that is, straying from God's path. But an individual who conducts herself with virtue reflects the image of God in her face. As Job declared: "In my flesh I see God." (Job 19:26).
Jesus had a similar experience. After he went up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, "his face became as dazzling as the sun, his clothes as radiant as light" (Matthew 17:1-2). This kind of luminosity is the most common of the "mystical adornments" characteristic of saintly beings in any religion. We talk about people who shine with integrity and good will, those who are translucent with goodness. The Dalai Lama's smiling face comes to mind; it is bright with humility and compassion.
The Buddha literally displayed his virtues on his body. As a young prince, he adorned himself with the precious jewels that befit his position. But as the Enlightened One, he wore the resplendent fruits of his morality, meditation, and wisdom. His body became a living symbol of his teachings and an inspiration to others seeking liberation.
We, too, can follow in the footsteps of the Catholic saints, the Jewish tzaddikim, the Buddha and bodhisattvas. As we cultivate generosity, kindness, compassion, friendliness, joy, and so many other virtues through our speech and bodily actions, we contribute not only to our own spiritual realization but also to others'. By attending to our inner beauty, we create an outer loveliness that "rubs off" on those around us.
In "The Sanctified Body," Patricia Treece gives many illustrations of Catholic sisters and brothers enveloped in light, illuminated--"like a block of alabaster lit from within." For example, when Sister Cairo unexpectedly saw Mother Frances Cabrini (1850-1917) praying in the middle of the night, the lampless room was flooded with light. As St. Jeanne Thouret (1765-1826) entered into an absorptive state with God through fervent prayer, her face took on a radiant beauty.
This all goes back to Genesis, where God created male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27)--imitatio Dei. This is the foundation of Jewish ethics: "To walk in the ways of the Lord" means we are capable of being like God. We are to manifest this essential nature by being gracious and merciful toward others, abundant in loving-kindness and faithfulness, aiding and comforting those in need. Through such virtuousness, we can draw closer to God. That closeness to God can reflect in our face as it did in the face of Moses. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking with God, the skin of his face was luminous (Exodus 34:29).
Though some religious had ascetic features and were pale, plain, old, or sickly, their mystical joy would completely transform them. When the Flemish Benedictine Francis (1824-1896), called Abbot Paul, talked about the love of God, suddenly he was rejuvenated, appearing no more than 30 years old, even though he was 64. And when Jean Edouard Lamy (1853-1931), a parish priest near Paris, became ecstatic when thinking, "O Mary," an observer remarked: "Old as he was, I saw him go young and handsome like a man of 30. I saw wrinkles disappear."
Treece also gives examples of the "perfume of sanctity." In a monastery chapel, a woman who knelt with an abbot suddenly perceived a perfume that was so delicious it distracted her. At first, she assumed that flowers had been brought into the chapel. But, when she opened her eyes and saw none, she realized the delightful scent of roses and other flowers that permeated the atmosphere was due to the priest's ecstasy. Others recount that Father Aloysius, a Claretian priest who worked in the Southwest and Los Angeles, also emitted a fragrant aroma that lingered in the chapel even after he left. It reminded one parishioner of flowers, but a 12-year-old girl thought it was "the wonderful smell you get when you walk into a bakery."