The Blessed Virgin Mary was presented in the Temple of Jerusalem at the age of three years, there to dedicate herself totally to God until she was espoused to St. Joseph. Together with many other young virgins, she served the needs of the Temple and was employed in weaving, sewing, embroidering, preparing the oil for lamps and incense for religious services. But what was her life in the Temple like?
1. Mary had a rule during the years she passed in the Temple. God is infinite harmony; He is, in truth, order itself. All that is of God, is in order, says St. Paul to the Romans. Mary was entirely of God; she was His most pure image, formed to His likeness, reflecting His perfections, exhaling His perfumes: hence, marvelously regulated in all her being, she could not fail to regulate her life. She imposed on herself certain laws, so as to order well the sacred gifts that had been given to her, and thereby to insure their divine development.
We read in the Mystical City of God, by Bl. Mary of Agreda, that the prophetess Anna -- the same who gave glory to God at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple -- was assigned to be the Child Mary's superior during her residence there, and that it was she who prescribed a rule of life for this most sweet and benign Child, having conferred with the high-priest beforehand.
What more worthy of the notice of God than a soul, which, in view of its eternal destiny, and for the love of Him who has deigned to make that destiny so bright, regulates willingly and wisely her days, her hours, even every instant of her existence, so as to be enabled to offer a continual sacrifice to the Lord -- each duty accomplished being an oblation presented to God without intermission?
Some regard a rule or daily schedule a sign of weakness; others see it as a burden. But they forget that God is essentially free, because He is absolute Master of Himself and of His acts; therefore, the more a man, aided by grace, arrives at self-dominion, and makes himself master of his passions, inclinations, and desires, the more is he like God, and the more true liberty does he acquire. A rule of life is one of the most powerful means of attaining this end, since it comprehends in itself all virtues. God ordinarily gives His special graces to those souls who by constant vigilance over themselves, and by a constant succession of acts, have entered the true way of renunciation and Christian abnegation -- and what is a rule, but a constant renunciation of one's own will?
If the youthful Mary in the Temple subjected herself to the holy rule there established for virgins, let us imitate her example, and never substitute the caprices and whims of a moment in place of a holy exactness to rule. If we already have a rule imposed upon us by obedience or by sound spiritual direction, let us resolve to be more faithful to it; let us frequently review it and examine ourselves as to its observance. If we do not have a rule, or at least a general schedule to govern each day, let us strive to make one at once, with the guidance of our lawful superiors.
2. Mary gave her heart to God every morning upon waking. As soon as a rational creature, awaking, resumes a consciousness of his existence, he ought to offer the first-fruits to his Creator and Lord. It is that most important act which from early Christian childhood we are taught to call so justly -- giving the heart to God. Why does our heart, after being so often offered to God, remain so lukewarm? Why is it that idle and evil thoughts so soon resume their tyrannical sway? It is because we are not careful and zealous to recommence life every morning, by mounting fervently to God and reposing in Him.
We must, if we are true Christians, long for God: He must be in our thoughts, sentiments, affections, works. This is the Christian life -- carrying God everywhere, causing all to be penetrated with the spirit of God. Often God seems to withdraw from us; then our life becomes entirely natural and human. It is self, with all its miseries and weaknesses, that lives and rules in us. It is then that we must reach out to God by the aspiration of our soul, by efforts of the will seeking to be united to its Supreme Good. This duty is badly comprehended; it is neglected, perhaps often altogether omitted. We learn by the Child Mary in the Temple to unite our weak human life to the Divine life, in order thereby to derive strength, warmth and life. Mary sleeps, but her heart sleeps not; it watches, it is in the presence of God. In the moment immediately following sleep, Mary awakened to a sense of life, which she found to be more lively and more intense, and at once she produced an act similar to that which followed her Immaculate Conception. This act consisted in adoring her Creator, and entirely losing herself in the Divine Will.
"O God, my God, to Thee do I watch at break of day. For Thee my soul hath thirsted...O how many ways! (Psalm 62) Such were the sentiments in which the most pure Mary began each day, while modestly and diligently accomplishing the preliminary duties of life, so as to insure that order, in and around her, which would permit her to commence, with perfect recollection, her morning prayer. Thus, on the return of day, she offered before all her acts of religion, a purity and love which ravished the Heart of God, and made Him already cast a look of infinite complacency on the earth.
Thus it was that in a solitary cell of the Temple, a young and Immaculate Virgin offered to God a true morning sacrifice, of which the priests at the same time offered but an imperfect figure on the altar of holocausts, in the outer enclosure. What must have been the fresh beauty of Mary's soul, when, at the dawn of day, she aroused herself to sentiments of adoration and love of God!
3. Mary knew how to insure the holiness of awaking, by falling asleep with holy thoughts. We are not allowed to pretend to this holiness of sleeping and waking, which, by the abundance of grace given to this Immaculate Child, partook more of Heaven than of earth; as in our case, we succumb under the weight of our daily labors, and are weighed down by this sinful flesh. Our sleep is the image of death. It is heavy, and the soul is torpid. But if the humiliating depth of our sluggishness renders more difficult the lively and holy acts, which ought to be impressed on the moment we awake, it renders them more necessary at the same time. We must expect the assistance of God, and exert ourselves with courage to sanctify our awaking. Generally, the day depends on it, as God gives His blessing to the day in proportion to the fervor which commences it. The harvest corresponds with the first-fruits: a thousand thoughtless acts, which desolate our interior, and offend God, have their source in the slothfulness of our awaking. Above all, children should be very early accustomed to these practical acts of virtue.
We cannot express the strength which this practice imparted to the soul of the most Holy Virgin. But it behooves us to imitate Mary, who is placed before us as a model, taking suitable means to insure the success of our resolution. What was it she did to obtain an awaking which might be in keeping with her respect and her love for God? In order to think only of God on awaking, Mary thought only of Him before closing her eyes. Recollected by her interior conversation with her Lord and Master before her sleep, when she resumed, on awaking, the course of her affections, her heart rose naturally to Him -- she renewed with God the conversation, which had hardly been interrupted.
It goes without saying that the Child Mary had perfect order reigning in her little cell, where there was nothing superfluous, and everything was in its place. In the midst of such simple and beautiful order, it seems as if one awakes in order; and as order makes the soul tend to her last end, the heart naturally rises toward Heaven.
4. Prayer was to Mary the morning aspiration of her Immaculate Heart. We have just been contemplating Mary at her waking; let us follow her in her morning prayer. In the morning, after having given her heart to God, and having arranged her vesture and everything around her in perfect order, Mary went, with diligence and recollection, to that retreat which God provides every morning for the soul He loves; that retreat which is called, in the language of religious souls, Morning Prayer. Prayer of the morning! When the burden of the previous day has been thrown off by sleep, and that of the coming day has not yet weighed on our soul -- is there in the entire day so precious a time? The soul has already found her God by the first aspirations of her love; she has given Him her heart. But this brief morning offering suffices not. Two friends, after an absence, are not content with shaking hands and embracing; they sit down side by side, they gaze, they contemplate; they recount their thoughts and sorrows since last they met; they disclose their sentiments in conversation, the more prolonged as they love the more. The soul deeply touched by the grace of God, as soon as she awakes longs to seek for God and to stop Him, so to speak, in order to converse intimately with Him.
Such it is with Mary at her awaking; her first thought is God: the thought of God pursues her. Where can she find Him? Where will she be permitted to prostrate herself at His feet, to offer Him the homage of her heart? Blessed moment, thou art come! Hark, the signal for the young daughters of Sion to go to the sacred porticoes, there to chant the praises of the Lord God!
Why do we not imitate Mary? Why is it that our heart, after having been given to its sovereign Master, is so soon filled with the remembrance of creatures? Alas! a few instants have hardly elapsed after our waking, when foreign thoughts distract our soul!
Faithful observer of the Mosaic law, Mary recited a part of the Psalms together with her companions -- those same Psalms which, according to the traditions of Holy Church, we have the happiness of reciting. There is hardly anything that could render them more sweet, or inspire us with a more tender piety, when we recite them, than the remembrance that they were often on the lips of our Immaculate Mother. We should repeat each word of the Psalms with transports of love; or, at least, endeavor to gather from each of them the inexpressible merits that the Virgin of virgins has left for those who in succeeding ages should know how to unite with her in prayer.
The most pure Child is kneeling in one of the reserved porticoes, whence she has a full view of the interior of the Temple. Her hands are joined, and her virginal body is humbly bowed down before the Divine Majesty, rendering to the Most High, in perfect sentiments of religion, the homage and exterior worship that are due to Him. Let us listen to her youthful voice, whose accents at this instant break the mysterious silence of that sacred place:
...So in the sanctuary have I come before Thee, to see Thy power and Thy glory...
5. After prayer, Mary served God faithfully by her work. We cannot doubt that the Child Mary joined a period of mental prayer to the recitation of the Psalms. More resplendent each morning, she came forth from her prayer to act exteriorly, as God came forth from His eternal repose to create the universe. What peace, what harmony reigned throughout the Immaculate being of the most Holy Child! Perfectly recollected in God, united to Him with all the energy of her powers, she came forth from prayer with prerogatives entirely new. But in leaving her formal prayer, she does not cease to serve the Lord God. She is like the "valiant woman" whom she humbly proposes to imitate. She reflects carefully on her duties, before reducing to practice that which she wished to realize by her prayer. With these two ideas ever in mind: duty -- the more perfect, she considers, deliberates, and finally chooses. From time to time, she stops her employment of the day to offer it to the Lord.
What blessings our mornings would draw upon the hours that follow, if we returned from prayer to our daily duty with that newness, simplicity, unction, vigor, heavenly youthfulness, that an intimate and profound conversation with God gives to the soul! If in this sweet light we regulated the actions destined to fill the outline of the whole day, we would accomplish everything in its time (that is, according to God's will -- not our own); such a life will soon become the perfume of eternal life. This is the divine aroma that exhaled from all the actions of the Virgin of Israel. She thereby embalmed the Temple with a truly heavenly incense.
But behold the most pure Child who passes before our view; modest and recollected, she goes with diligence to the place where duty calls her. Diligence is the regular gait of a soul acting under the impulse of the Holy Ghost; it is the manner in which love acts. Nothing is further removed from indolence, nothing less like purely natural eagerness. The spirit of diligence is full of light; the heart is free, the will active, the intention simple. It goes swiftly because it goes to God, and tends not to any other thing.
6. Mary bore tribulations and persecutions patiently. We must not imagine that Mary's life in the Temple was wholly without crosses and obstacles, and that therefore we are not able to imitate her; that her life was all sweetness and light, while ours is full of distractions, contradictions and troubles stirred up by our neighbor. On the contrary, we read in The Mystical City of God by Bl. Mary of Agreda, that Satan was offended beyond all expression by the purity and holiness of the Child Mary. He wished to engage her in combats by means of creatures; and to accomplish this purpose, he scattered some sparks of envy against her in the hearts of her companions. They became persuaded that the shining virtues of the most pure Mary cast them into obscurity. This slight displeasure kindled into indignation, and soon blazed forth.
As their temptation increased, they treated Mary with haughtiness, saying the most cruel things against her, and desired to drive her from the Temple. Mary practised heroic acts of charity and humility in their regard, rendering good for evil, benedictions for maledictions. Eventually, the Lord softened the ill-humor of these virgins by staying the fury of the demon which had excited it, and peace was once more restored.
Devotion to the youthful Mary will in itself be a powerful spiritual help, since it gives an entrance into the Immaculate Heart of the Mother of God, that mystical temple built by God Himself to the glory of the Eternal Word. To consider by meditation the structure and ornaments of this divine edifice, to taste in contemplation the calm and celestial peace which reigns in this holy place, is already for the soul a sure and lightsome way which transports it to a sphere where everything inclines the soul to make its abode on high, leaving all which would ensnare or sully the heart.
PRAYER: THE CHIEF DUTY OF THE CHRISTIAN
The Ascetical Doctrine of St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori
One of the errors of Pelagianism was the assertion that prayer is not necessary for salvation. Pelagius, the impious author of that heresy, said that man would only be damned if he neglected to learn the truths necessary for him to know. What an incredible blunder! St. Augustine said: "Pelagius discussed everything except how to pray", (De Nat. et Grat. c.17) although, as the saint held and taught, prayer is the only means of acquiring the science of the saints; according to the text of St. James: "If any of you is wanting in wisdom, let him ask it of God, Who giveth abundantly to all men, and upbraideth not." (James 1:5) The Scriptures are clear enough in pointing out how necessary it is to pray, if we would be saved. "We ought always to pray, and not to faint." (Luke 18:1) "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." (Matt. 26:41) "Ask, and it shall be given you." (Matt. 7:7) The words "we ought", "pray", and "ask", according to the general consent of theologians, impose the precept, and denote -- the necessity of prayer. Wickliffe said, that these texts are not to be understood precisely of prayer, but only of the necessity of good works, for in his heretical system prayer was merely a "good work", but this was precisely his error, and it was expressly condemned by the Church. Hence Lessius wrote that it is heresy to deny that prayer is necessary for salvation in adults; as it evidently appears from Scripture that prayer is indeed the means of salvation, without which we cannot obtain the help necessary to be saved. (De just. lib. 2, c.37, d.3)
The reason for this is obvious. Without the assistance of God's grace we cannot do even a single good thing: "Without Me, you can do nothing."(John 15:5) St. Augustine remarks that Our Lord did not say, "Without Me, you can complete nothing", but "without Me, you can do nothing"; (Contra ep. Pel. 1.2 c.8) giving us to understand that without grace we cannot even begin to do a good thing. Even more, St. Paul writes that of ourselves we cannot even have the wish to do good. "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." (2 Cor. 3:5) If we cannot even think a good thing, much less can we wish it. The same thing is taught in many other passages of Scripture: "God worketh all in all." (1 Cor. 12:6) "I will cause you to walk in My commandments, and to keep My judgments, and do them." (Ezech. 36:27) So that, as St. Leo I says, "Man does no good thing, except that which God, by His grace, enables him to do", (Conc. Araus. 2 cap. 20) and hence the Council of Trent says: "If any one shall assert, that without the previous inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and His assistance, man can believe, hope, love, or repent, as he ought, in order to obtain the grace of justification, let him be anathema." (Sess. 6, can. 3)
The author of the Opus Imperfectum says, that God has given to some animals swiftness, to others claws, to others wings, for the preservation of their life; but he has so formed man, that God Himself is his only strength." (Hom. 18) So that man is completely unable to provide for his own safety, since God has willed that whatever he has, or can have, should come entirely from the assistance of His grace.
However, this grace is not given in God's ordinary Providence, except to those who pray for it, according to the celebrated saying of Gennadius: "We believe that no one approaches to be saved, except by the help of God; and that no one merits this help, unless he prays." (De Eccl. Dogm. c.26) From these two premises, on the one hand, that we can do nothing without the assistance of grace; and on the other, that this assistance is ordinarily only given by God to the man that prays, who cannot see the consequence that follows, that prayer is absolutely necessary to us for salvation?! And although our first graces, such as the initial call to faith or to penance, come to us without any cooperation on our part, according to St. Augustine, and are granted by God even to those who have not yet prayed; yet the saint considers it certain that subsequent graces, and specially the grace of perseverance, are not granted except in answer to prayer: "God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, He has only provided for those who pray." (De dono pers. c.16)
Hence it is that the majority of theologians, following the authority of St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and other Fathers, teach that prayer is necessary to adults, not only because God has commanded it -- the obligation of the precept, as they call it -- but because it is necessary as an essential means of salvation. That is to say, in the ordinary course of Providence, it is impossible for a Christian to be saved without recommending himself to God, and asking for the graces necessary to salvation. St. Thomas teaches the same: "After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to man, in order that he may enter Heaven; for though by Baptism our sins are remitted, there still remain concupiscence to assail us from within, and the world and the Devil to assail us from without." (P.3, q.39, a.5) Briefly then, the reason which convinces us of the necessity of prayer is this: in order to be saved we must fight and conquer: "He that striveth for the mastery is not crowned except he strive lawfully."(2 Tim. 2:5) But without the Divine assistance it is impossible for us to resist the assaults of so many and such powerful spiritual enemies. And since this assistance is only granted through prayer, therefore, without prayer there is no salvation.
Moreover, St. Thomas proves even more distinctly that prayer is the only ordinary means of receiving the Divine gifts when he says, that whatever graces God has from all eternity determined to give us, He will only give them if we pray for them. St. Gregory says the same thing: "Man by prayer merits to receive that which God had from all eternity determined to give him." (Dial. 1.1, c.8) Not that prayer is necessary in order that God may know our necessities, says St. Thomas, but in order that we may know the necessity of having recourse to God to obtain the help necessary for our salvation, and may thus acknowledge Him to be the author of all our good. (Loco cit. ad 1 et 2) As it is God's law, therefore, that we should provide ourselves with bread by sowing corn, and with wine by planting vines; so has He ordained that we should receive the graces necessary to salvation by means of prayer: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find." (Matt. 7:7)
In a word, we are merely beggars, who have nothing but what God bestows on us as alms: "But I am a beggar and poor." (Ps. 39:18) The Lord our God, says St. Augustine, desires and wills to pour forth His graces upon us, but will not give them except to him who prays. "God wishes to give, but only gives to him who asks." (In Ps. 102) This is declared in the words, "Seek and it shall be given to you." Whence it follows, says St. Teresa, that he who fails to seek, does not receive anything. As moisture is necessary for the life of plants to prevent them from drying up, even so, says St. John Chrysostom, is prayer necessary for our salvation. Or as he puts it in another place, prayer gives life to the soul, just as the soul gives life to the body. "As the body without the soul cannot live, so the soul without prayer is dead and emits an offensive odor." (De Orat. Dei. 1.1) He uses these words because the man who omits to recommend himself to God begins at once to be defiled with sin. Prayer is also called the food of the soul, because the body cannot be supported without food; nor can the soul, says St. Augustine, be kept alive without prayer: "As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers." (De Sal. Doc. c.28) All these comparisons used by the holy Fathers are intended by them to teach the absolute necessity of prayer for the salvation of everyone.
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