These richly destined souls, more than all
others, escape every kind of determinism:
they radiate, they shine with a dazzling freedom.
∼ George Bernanos, “Our Friends the Saints”
It is no easy thing to write about sanctity. Nor should anyone wish it to be so, since glibness is the last thing we need when confronting the mysteries of grace. This is particularly the case when the writer himself has so little to boast of in the way of sanctity. But, then, not even the great Bernanos, whose voice gave expression to the soul of Catholic France, could escape the limitations imposed by that fact. On being invited to lecture a group of nuns—all devout daughters of the martyred Charles de Foucauld—on the subject of sanctity, he confessed his complete inadequacy, telling his audience how “rash” it was of him “to speak about a country in which I have never set foot…” And although, by his own admission, he was “a seasoned traveler” along the many byways of the Catholic world, he readily admitted that he had “never met a single true inhabitant of this country, a single native….”
The risk, of course, of appearing completely ridiculous, of finding oneself totally out of one’s depth, is all the more obvious in the case of those truly extraordinary specimens of sanctity. For example, the sheer holiness of Saint Joseph’s life we rightly judge to have been higher than that of any other mortal being. Excepting, to be sure, Our Blessed Lord and his Holy and Immaculate Mother, who were far more blessed than even he could aspire to become. How off-putting that must have been for the poor man, finding himself sandwiched day after day between the Incarnate Word and the Immaculate Conception! Is it any wonder he was at a loss for words? That reticence remained his calling card?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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On the other hand, was Joseph ever a chatterbox? Silence surely must have been his strong suit throughout his entire life. Even after the angel appeared to advise him in a dream not to refuse to allow Mary to live in his home, because the child she bore was the Son of the living God, who had come down out of heaven to “save his people from their sins,” Joseph still does not speak. Instead he acts, and with the most admirable and amazing alacrity, too. But it could hardly have been an easy thing for him to do. Nevertheless, in biting that particular bullet, he reveals a most just and resolute heart. Indeed, in his readiness to serve the woman he loves, rather than expose her to the law, we see the grandeur of the man, his life seared with the memory of an ancient promise delivered to God’s people, which he as a true son of David longs to see fulfilled. And who will shortly see, amid the most prosaic details of a perfectly ordinary life, hidden away all those years in Nazareth, all that had been promised by God between a Mother and her Child—whom he, Joseph, is being asked to preserve and protect with his very life.
Why else would the Church apply all those titles to one as obscure and unassuming as Joseph? There is no other in the heavenly pantheon whose patronage includes both the Domestic and Universal Church. Or to whom those who labor, or are about to die, may turn with the utmost confidence because he is their patron? It is only Joseph whom we are asked by the Church to honor as model of Fortitude and Perfection, or to regard as Father to all who call upon him.
And yet for all that his own part in the incredible story of our salvation looms so large in the telling, he will not tell it. Proving an eloquence of humility greater than words. What drove him, I wonder, to such an extremity of oblation, in which his whole life and every instant of it were spent in perfect and unremitting devotion to Mary and the mysterious Child she bore? An acquiescence, let us not forget, he was in no way obliged to undergo?
Father Jacques Philippe, in a wonderful little book called Interior Freedom, reminds us that very often the experience of genuine freedom requires acceptance of that which we simply cannot change. He calls it “the paradoxical law of human life,” which grows out of the recognition that “one cannot be truly free unless one accepts not always being free.” In other words, the moments when we are most likely to mature as human beings—enlarging the scope of our own sanctity, as it were—are precisely the times when room to maneuver and master the situation do not exist. But that since life is primarily a gift, why should it matter that we’re unable to manage things?
How piercing the light of that paradox falls upon the life of St. Joseph. Could he, for instance, have imagined a situation in which he was outwardly less free than the one resulting from the fact that his intended bore him a child that did not belong to him? To submit to a situation not of own making? Speaking lines of a script he hadn’t himself written? Had he no other options? Fr. Philippe tells us that when faced with circumstances we do not choose, especially when they appear dangerous and intrusive, there are three possibilities that present themselves to us. There is, to begin with, the option of rebellion, of brazen refusal and revolt in the face of a summons we did not solicit and are loath to welcome. To recoil from the reality before us, says Fr. Philippe, “is often our first, spontaneous reaction to difficulty or suffering. But it has never solved anything.”
Then there is the posture of resignation, which amounts to “a declaration of powerlessness that goes no further. It may be a necessary stage,” he adds, “but if one stops there it also is sterile.”
That leaves option number three, which is an attitude of receptivity leading to real and lasting assent. “We say yes to a reality we initially saw as negative, because we realize that something positive may arise from it.” And the quality of hope hidden in the gesture, as in the willingness of Joseph to extend himself in trust, becomes the grace that ultimately saves. Fr. Philippe is most adamant about the point, assuring us that “the most important thing in our lives is not so much what we can do as leaving room for what God can do. The great secret of all spiritual fruitfulness and growth is learning to let God act.”
How very steep and swift is the learning curve of Joseph’s life. He must learn to let go of his life in order to let God take charge of that life. And he must do it at once; then, over and over again. There are not many prepared to surrender that much of themselves. Instead, like Eliot’s Prufrock, they prefer a life “measured out in coffee spoons.” Joseph was not like that. His was the true mark of sanctity. To resolve to empty out everything, because nothing less will do. “Most people,” says Bernanos, “engage only the feeblest part of themselves in life, a ridiculously tiny part of their being, like those wealthy misers who will spend only the interest their income earns. A saint doesn’t live on the interest of his income, or even on his income; he lives on his capital, he gives all of his soul… To engage one’s soul! O, that is not merely a literary image.”
And so Joseph, sustained by a faith given him by God, will set sail in complete darkness. And while he may not see the harbor whose warmth and safety beckon him, he is yet buoyed by the grace of hope in his very longing to reach that other shore. Like the voice in Eliot’s Four Quartets, he will say to his soul, “be still… / For … there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the