MARY IN THE WOMB.
IT is well known that the history of our Blessed Lady, both interior and exterior, is not written for us in the records of Scripture, nor preserved for us by any authentic traditions of the Church. Many parts of it furnish us with one of the most beautiful instances that we possess of the working of the principle of development in matters of truth, as if it had been the purpose of our Lord to leave the children of the Church to find out, by their own diligent musings and considerations on the few facts revealed to them, what had been His dealings with this most beloved soul of His Mother, rather than to impose them as matters of faith and draw them out formally as revealed doctrines from the first. This may remind us of the manner in which He seems to have frequently dealt with the Blessed Mother herself, whose characteristic grace it was to ponder over the mysteries as they passed in a glorious procession before her eye, to compare one feature with another in the gradually unfolded series, and then to use the thoughts of her own heart, so full of Divine grace, to help her to conclusions as to the meaning and importance of what was thus made manifest, and of all that it implied which was not made specially manifest. Unless we are mistaken, we have in this truth the secret of the whole interior life of Mary, as far as that life consisted in her own cooperation with the graces and illuminations which she received.
The subject of the present chapter is one as to which we have no single word of direct information in Scripture, and yet we conclude with great confidence that, during the months which she spent in the womb of her mother, Mary's intelligence and heart were fully alive and immensely active, in praising and adoring God, in thanksgiving, in offering of herself for His service, and in other interior operations of the mind and the affections. That is, we suppose that by an unusual gift her mind and her heart were enriched thus early by the use of their powers, and that she was thus raised by grace to a condition in this respect like that of our Blessed Lord when He was in her womb. We learn this truth concerning Him, not by any statement in the Gospel history, but by drawing a reasonable conclusion from the theological facts concerning His Person, which is confirmed positively by some words of St. Paul. The reason why we assume it as to His Mother will be seen hereafter. But it may be well, once for all, to say first, a few words which may serve as an explanation of the method here followed, which is neither new nor in any way dangerous or suspicious to Christian piety. Let us say what is to be said by way of answer to the complaint that these things are not related to us in Holy Writ.
Fretting over the silence of Scripture
Men are always fretting over the silence of Scripture, because they do not understand that its purpose, in the Divine counsels, is not what they suppose it to be, and that, on the other hand, there may be many Divine reasons for its silence on certain points. The composition of the New Testament, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, did not leave room for the revelation in its pages of all the matters which our Christian curiosity might wish to find there. The four Gospels were written each with a definite purpose and object, and are more or less confined to the history of our Lord's Preaching and Passion. This history is almost entirely external. It records what men like the Evangelists and Apostles could see and hear. The Acts contain but the shortest, though most pregnant, sketch of the prominent features in the history of the teaching of the Apostles, especially with reference to the first great change which was made after the day of Pentecost, in the admission of the Gentiles and the abrogation of the Mosaic Law as of any obligation on the Church. The Epistles are all incidental and particular in their object and contents, and the Apocalypse, though it contains so many wonderful mysteries of the future, or of the early history of the Church, was not in tended to fill up any of the omissions of the rest of the Sacred Books with regard to the subject on which we are engaged. In one most signal instance, at least, it does fill up for us a blank as to our Blessed Lady, but this is not done in the form of a contribution to her history on earth. Another source from which we might have learnt- a great deal concerning our Lady's family and early life, was cut off when the traditions of the first Jewish Christianity were lost in the desolation of the Church of Jerusalem on the destruction of the national polity. But it may be well to pause awhile in order to dwell shortly on some considerations which may help to explain the silences of Scripture in general. We shall then be able to see how much there is to account to us for this particular silence of which we are here speaking.
We meet readily enough the objections which are brought by ordinary Protestants about the silence of Scripture on many matters which belong to the doc trine and discipline of the Church. It is not the way of Scripture to say twice what has already been sufficiently said once, and this answer applies to a number of subjects on which the Old Testament had been sufficiently explicit for all practical ends. Thus our Lord did not lay down in explicit terms the doctrine of the Resurrection of the dead as a new matter of revelation. He told the Sadducees that it was sufficiently proved by the words of God in the manifestation to Moses at the burning bush. In the same way we may account for the great silence of the Gospels as to the doctrine of Sacrifice. That doctrine has been universal among men from the first, and, moreover, it was taught to the Jews in the most precise and minute manner, descending even to the distinction of the various ends of Sacrifice, and the like, by the divinely authorized witness of the Temple services and the ritual obligations of the Law.
No New Testament authority for prayers for the dead
Again, we are told that there is no New Testament authority for prayers for the dead, which form a part, it may be said, even of natural religion. We answer that the truth about the departed was believed, and the corresponding practice already common, among the children of the elder dispensation. When we are challenged as to the hierarchical order of the Church, the number of sacraments, the duty of confession for the remission of sins by absolution, and the like, we answer either that the books of the New Testament were not meant to give a code on such subjects, which was already in practical existence among those for whom the New Testament was written, or that the truths in question are virtually in principle enounced by our Lord Himself, as is the case with the duty of confession. We say that the whole living system of Christian organization was a matter which did not fall within the scope of the several Gospels or Epistles, even if there had not been strong positive reasons why Scripture should not be made the authoritative and explicit record of these things.
The tendency on the part of heretics and rebels against authority to use the words of Scripture against the Church, must have been obvious from the first. As Scripture was to witness to the Church as to her authority, and as to her teaching in most of its details, it was not to write out that teaching for any one to misunderstand or misrepresent at will. Moreover the doctrine of the Church was to grow in the Divine manner appointed for its growth, and it was to take the whole lifetime of the Church on earth to unfold it with full explicitness, in all its parts and developments, the time for which was to arrive for each part in the order arranged by God. Thus the old universal truth was to be unfolded in all its fullness of inherent richness, sometimes by the process of conflict with the undying swarms of heresy, sometimes under the more gentle influence of the natural progress and instinct of Christian devotion. It would have been destructive of this provision if all had been set forth in full detail at once, before it could be understood. St. John says that the world could not have contained all the books which might be written about our Lord, and he is understood by some of the Christian writers to mean that if all had been written out at the very beginning, many facts and truths would have been proclaimed out of their due time, and when the world was not ripe for them, and would therefore have turned against them and rejected the whole system for the sake of them. Holy Scripture was to contain many things which were not to be seen in their full meaning till long after they were written, as the statement in Genesis on which St. Paul builds an argument for the doctrine of justification by faith and not by the works of the Law. But it was always also to have due regard to the minds and conditions of knowledge to those to whom it was immediately addressed, at least so far as not to put forward what they would take offence or scandal at, or what they might dangerously misunderstand.
There are two other reasons for many of the silences of Scripture which may be used here, as bearing more especially on the subjects which are now before us. The first lies in this, that it is the purpose of Sacred Scripture to leave many things unsaid, for a reason parallel to that which has been already mentioned in connection with such matters as prayers for the departed, which are hinted at in the New Testament rather than expressly enjoined. The doctrine in which that practice was founded was in full possession among the Jews, and as the New Testament does not formally enact the Ten Commandments, so neither does it formally enact prayer for the departed, or again, recourse to the intercession of the departed saints. Something of the same kind is to be found in the recognition in Scripture, and in the system of our Lord, of the use of what is called theological reason as an instrument of truth. Our Lord did not draw out all the inferences and conclusions which are involved in the principles and in the precepts which He promulgated. He even complained of the Apostles for not using their understanding on such points, and the occasion on which He made the complaint was not one when everything was plain at first sight. 1 He leaves many things to the enlightened Christian reason, working out its results under the guidance of the Church. The Church was to have her office as to truth, which was not to be anticipated even in the words of our Lord. An in stance of this may be found in His forbearance as to so much dogmatic teaching, which might have saved controversy in the Apostolic age with regard to the abrogation of the Mosaic Law. The conclusions of that question are, indeed, contained in the New Testament, because it embraces the history of the controversy and many of the arguments of St. Paul therein. But in those arguments we see the constant use of Christian theological reasoning. This is the beautiful and fruitful instrument by the use of which the great fabric of the Church's system of truth has been brought out and organized. And what was meant to be the fruit of one holy instrument in this matter, was not meant to be the fruit of another.
There are many conclusions concerning our Blessed Lady which seem purposely to have been left for this, and the silence of Scripture concerning her is a Divine provision for its working. It was not that Scripture could not have told us all that was involved in the dignity of the Mother of God, or, again, all the truths that are wrapt up in the single Greek word in which the Angel is recorded to have saluted her as full of grace, or all the principles on which theologians proceed when they argue that whatever grace belonged fitly to her position in God's Kingdom must have been hers, or that any grace that is to be found in other saints must have been in her in a higher measure of perfection, or how reasonable it is to suppose that she must have been as like as possible to our Lord, or that it is equally reasonable to suppose that she must have a wonderful insight into the thoughts and feelings and designs of the Sacred Heart, and so with other truths. Many of these things are naturally conveyed to us either by that other great part of the Word of God which is unwritten, and recorded in tradition, or they were to form the proper and natural sphere for another instrument by which truth was to be ascertained better than from Scripture. For Scripture was to be read by good and bad, friends and enemies of the Church alike, by the captious as well as the devout, the proud as well as the humble. The principles of which we speak are principles for the devout and pious use of the reason, working upon the facts and truths of faith. As to these things it is more blessed to know them in this way, than by direct teaching. As there are some that are blessed who have not seen, and yet have believed, so there are those of whom it might be said that they are blessed because they have not been told the truth, and yet have grasped it.
It is on this account that we shall use most freely in these considerations this instrument of theological reason for the elucidation of the history of our Blessed Lady, in all sobriety and reverence, under the guidance and according to the mind of the Catholic Church. But there is yet another reason for the silence of Scripture, on many points as to which we are inclined to crave for more full information, which is of a very different character. It is the reason which is implied in our Lord's answer to the question of St. Peter concerning St. John, "What is it to thee ? follow thou Me !" For however beautiful must have been the external details of the life of the Blessed Mother of God, at Nazareth or elsewhere, and however great may be the delight which we are to derive from the knowledge of her virtues and ways when we come to the blessed home of our rest in Heaven, there is a Divine wisdom in the ordinance of Providence by which we are left so much in the dark concerning these matters, as also of the details of the Life of our Lord Himself.
We have already said that many things are rightly left to Christian reason and thought in matters which relate to the principles and ways of the dealings of God and of the workings of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the saints. We have a large store of information as to these, the accumulation of many ages, and it is well that we should use them. They are illustrations of the workings of God in Mary, drawn from His workings in the souls of others. We call it a large store, but it is but a ten thousandth part of what there is to know. But for other matters, such as the details and incidents of life, belonging to a class of facts into which human curiosity loves to pry, it may fairly be said that they are not likely to feed the soul more profitably for the great work of the service of God than other matters of the like kind belonging to the lives of ordinary men. Our Lord spoke almost sternly to St. Peter on the occasion of that question, not certainly because the future career of St. John, if it had been revealed to his brother Apostle, could have contained anything either dis-edifying or discouraging, but because He knew so well the mischievous effect of curiosity in the soul, in dissipating, weakening, unfitting it for prayer and heavenly converse, even when its indulgence is not accompanied, as it is most generally accompanied in its ordinary manifestations, with a secret vanity, or pride, or censoriousness, or a tendency to rash judgments and foolish speculations. In nothing is the silence and calm reserve and self-control, so to say, of Sacred Scripture more eloquent and instructive, than in the constant rebuke which it deals out to curiosity.
We have here two classes of facts with regard to which we are thus losers, whether from the silence of the Scriptures or the absence of authentic traditions. It is well to distinguish these classes, because their respective importance is very different, and the means which we have of filling up the want are different also. What we should desire to know concerning our Blessed Lady, and also with regard to so much that concerns our Lord and His saints of the New Testament, comprises in the first place the external facts of the history, such as the details of the lives of the parents of the Blessed Mother, of the early years, in particular, both of our Lady and her Divine Child, and of St. Joseph, or, again, in the fact as to her life in the Church after the Ascension, and the influence which she exercised over the counsels of the Apostles, and the like. Nor have we any direct statement of the history of her passage out of this world. In another class altogether may be placed the dealings of God with the soul of His Mother, the successive enrichments of that soul from the treasury of His fullness of grace in the Sacred Humanity. The words of the Angel at the Annunciation tell us that she was already full of grace, before the Incarnation had taken place in her most chaste womb with her own deliberate consent. Yet these few words sum up, as we know, a whole marvellous history of Divine operations, in the results of which her own cooperation could not be without its part. As the history proceeds, it shows us incidentally the height of grace and perfection to which she must have been raised, but it gives only this incidental help in tracing it out. Notwithstanding this, the mind of the Church is full of conclusions and reasoning's concerning this part of the history of Mary, which are inexpressibly dear and profitable to her children. They are found in the books of the strictest theologians, and the tendency, as the Church grows older, is strong towards the further development of what is called the Marian theology.
As to the other class of facts, which may be considered as mainly or entirely historical, we find ourselves in presence of several venerable traditions, some of which have been so far adopted by the Church as is implied by her celebration of feasts and anniversaries connected with and founded upon them. Such, for instance, is the tradition about the dwelling of our Lady in the Temple after her solemn Presentation by her parents when she was three years of age. In the seventeenth century an attempt was made to expunge this feast from the calendar, on the ground that it had crept in without sufficient authority. But the feast was almost immediately restored, and a holy religious who had exerted him self very much to obtain this restoration by collecting ancient authorities which indicated its antiquity, had the happiness of being called away to his reward on the anniversary itself.
If we are thus left with far less authentic information than we could wish concerning this class of external facts in connection with our Blessed Lady, we may console ourselves with the reflection that these are not, after all, the facts of the highest importance that relate to her. It would aid us in our contemplations, and furnish us with many most holy examples and manifestations of the wisdom and goodness of God in the conduct of the lives of those most dear to Him, if we had all the facts of the history authentically established for us. But they might also have something of danger about them, and they are not so momentous as the interior history of the soul of this marvellous Queen. With regard to the interior history of Mary, it is not a subject that we have any right to pry into further than it has been revealed to us in Scripture, or as certain great out lines which belong to it are within the reach of the careful student of the ways of God in the sanctification of His servants. It is a subject which belongs to the theologian, and he can find in his favourite study more than one ray of light to guide him where all seems at first so dark. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception enables him to grasp with security the corollary to that doctrine, in the fact of the immense treasure of grace and spiritual gifts which was bestowed on her at the same time. The Life of our Lord shows us the truth that the highest homage that can be rendered to God by His intelligent creatures is that interior worship of the mind and heart, the will and affections, in adoration and oblation of oneself by way of sacrifice to His service. As it is reasonable to conclude that His Blessed Mother was to be like Him in everything possible, and as we have the instance of the anticipation of the use of the intelligence and will in the case of the unborn babe St. John, it becomes a matter of Christian reason that Mary also should have employed herself in the same holy exercises of 'prayer and contemplation with her Son.
But this, again, is not all we know. We must add to this the doctrine on which St. Bernardine insists so strongly in the case of St. Joseph, that whenever God calls one of His rational creatures to any special work in His Kingdom, He confers on that person so favoured the graces which are requisite and convenient for the faithful and honourable discharge of the duties imposed. Then we have no difficulty in seeing how very magnificent from the very beginning must have been the graces bestowed on her who was to be the Mother of the Incarnate God. If we add to ;his the truth of the immense value in the sight of God of the interior life of the soul glowing with light and burning with love for Him, we are already far on our way towards the understanding of the interior life of the Bleseed Mother from the first moment of her consciousness, and of her capacity to offer her self, her whole heart and life and being, to Him from Whom she had received them.
In all these stages, therefore, of the life of our Blessed Lady we know certain things and we do not mow others. We know what kind of life that must lave been which was now led by her, whether in the womb of her happy mother, or in the years of her earliest infancy, even before she was offered in the Temple, and left there to grow up like an olive tree In the House of the Lord. We know that her mind and heart must have been entirely given to God, that she was occupied with Him day and night, and that her homage and worship must have been in effably pleasing to Him, and the like. But we know none of the details of this interior life, this perpetual holocaust of love and prayer. It is the character and kind of occupation of the mind and heart in which she can be a model to us in our own interior life, and in the devotion of herself to such exercises .as the most pleasing possible to God. The subject matter of her prayers and self-oblation, the particulars of the heavenly converse which then began between God and her soul, are her secret for herself, and it would not have been according to the ordinary rules of His government of souls that these details should have been written for our benefit. Thus, to return for a moment to the subject of the positive Scriptural statements concerning our Blessed Lady, we see that they by no means exhaust the teaching of Scripture on the subject. Scripture contains many hints and much light which we must carefully use in application to her, though they do not occur in Scripture where it is directly speaking of her. And it must always be remembered that we have often to deal, in our meditations and contemplations on these subjects, with large ranges of facts which it was not the office of Scripture to record. It was not the business of the writers of the New Testament to chronicle interior facts, and to draw out in detail the wonderful history of the workings of the Holy Ghost in the Sacred Humanity, or with the souls of the Blessed Virgin or of the Saints.
1 See The Training of the Apostles, vol. iv. ch. xiii.