WE have now before us a period of considerable length in the life of the Blessed Mother of God, reaching up to the time of her Espousals with St. Joseph. We must endeavour to gather some general idea of the chief features of this important stage in her preparation for her high office, and in this we may be guided very much by what we know must have been the life of the chosen maidens, who, as there is reason to believe, were brought up in a small community in the immediate neighbourhood of the sanctuary, very much as young girls were brought up in old days, and may still be brought up, in convents of nuns in the immediate neighbourhood of some famous shrine or place of pilgrimage. Besides these general considerations, we must always keep in mind the peculiar graces which our Lady had already received as the sequel to her Immaculate Conception, and for the especial purpose of her preparation for her unique position in the Kingdom of God. The ancient traditions will also come in to our help, and by the use of these means we may derive a fairly ample knowledge of what her life at this time must have been.
In the first place, it is evident that the life of a little community brought together in such a spot, and under such conditions, must have been well ordered and arranged, the hours carefully distributed for a succession of holy duties, under the care of some grave matrons, watched over by the priests of the Temple. Religion was far more exclusively the subject matter of education among the Jews than among modern Christians, and it would be natural that, while the maidens in the Temple were not left uninstructed in all that would be required of them in their future life as wives and mothers and mistresses of families, they would be trained especially in the knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and the Divine law. No happier lot could be conceived than that of these young maidens. The life which they led was holy in all its arrangements and spirit, and they had the most blessed opportunities for the exercise and development of their devotion to God and His sacred shrine. The Psalms, — particularly the fifteen beautiful songs which are called Gradual, and were connected with the services of the sanctuary,—show us something of the spirit of devotion which prevailed among the pious Jews, and especially they show us the intense love with which they regarded the Temple and everything that was connected with the national worship of the holy people. The Temple was to them the centre of all their holy affections, the dwelling-place of God upon earth, the antechamber of Heaven. When we consider the glowing words of the Psalms and other portions of the Old Testament concerning the house of God, and the love which those who used these sacred words bore to it, we are inclined to question whether the devotion of so many Christians for the far more highly favoured spots of Catholic worship either transcends the devotion of these ancient worshippers, or even comes up to it.
We have in our churches a far more Divine Presence than was to be found there. We have the only truly august and efficacious Sacrifice, and the effusion of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the faithful makes a Christian assembly gathered together for the worship of God, venerable and holy and pleasing in His sight, and so the occasion of immense graces to those who share in it, as well as extremely powerful and efficacious in its supplications to an extent which could not be under the elder dispensation. And yet we cannot certainly outdo the ancient saints in their love for the house of God. It is easy therefore to think that our Lady burned with the most intense love for the Temple and all its holy privileges, and that she derived immense benefits, in the way of increase of grace, from her devout sojourn there, a ripening and deepening in all graces and virtues in consequence of the sacredness of the place which she so well under stood, and which breathed a fresh and most powerful spirit of prayer into all who dwelt in or frequented its courts. And it is remarkable how this thought meets us again and again in the Psalms, and other such books, that the being "planted in the house of the Lord," in the courts of the house of the Lord our God, is the cause why the just shall flourish as a palm tree and shall be multiplied as a cedar of Libanus. A part of the advantages of such a condition of life must certainly have been the holy example and sweet conversation of the devout people who were constantly to be met with in the Temple, and who would communicate to one another their fervour, their hopes for good, and their objects of prayer and holy interests.
It is not surprising to find, among those who have contemplated this part of the life of our Blessed Lady, the thought that thus early in her career she may have been familiar with the heavenly citizens themselves visiting her during her prayers. We find that when St. Gabriel appeared to her, charged with the great message of the Incarnation, it was not at the appearance itself that our Lady took alarm. It was much more at the magnificence of the salutation that her humility took fright. But whether or not the holy Angels were in the habit of making themselves known to her, we may be sure that she was all this time the favoured temple of the Holy Ghost, the great Teacher and Master of prayer, and that her life became gradually more and more absorbed in God. As the Holy Ghost was to form in her womb the glorious Body which was to be taken as His own by the Son of God, it is not much to suppose that He was occupied during these years of preparation in forming in her mind and heart more and more perfectly the image and idea of Him Who was thus to become Incarnate. Under His guidance she would soon enrich her mind with a perfect acquaintance with the Sacred Scriptures, in the study of which she would be led most of all to dwell upon all that related most directly to the mystery of the Incarnation, the prophecies and types which foretold it and the like.
But it must not be supposed that the education of our Blessed Lady in the knowledge of the Scriptures was confined to any particular part of the Word of God, although all and every of its parts bore witness in some way or other to the mystery of the Incarnation. The treasures of Divine wisdom contained in the Sacred Volume could never have been more thoroughly understood and appreciated than by her. The great teachings about God's ways in His general and particular Providence, the historical unfolding of the principles of His dealings with nations and persons, the grand succession of saintly characters and examples, the moral doctrine of the Law and the Sapiential books, the lofty poetry of the prophets, the tender devotion of the Psalms, in which is revealed also in so marvellous a manner the beauty of His agencies in souls and His communications of His gifts and secrets to them—all these were constantly the food of her mind, and by them all her thoughts and judgments were coloured. It was the blessing of children well brought up that the Jews, even those of the dispersion, and in cases of mixed marriages, as we see in what St. Paul says of St. Timothy, that they were made to " know the Sacred Scriptures from infancy," 1 and if there was this devotion to the study of Holy Writ in devout families everywhere, it must have been far greater where the young were brought up under the shadow of the Temple. When the Angel addresses our Blessed Lady at the Annunciation, he does this in the words of Scripture. His whole salutation pre supposes in her the most perfect intelligence of and familiarity with the prophecies. When she breaks out in her own Canticle of praise, the thoughts and language are Scriptural all through. There are some of the Christian saints, as for instance St. Bernard, of whom it may almost be said that it is hard to be certain when they are not using the ideas and the language of the Vulgate. Something of the same kind might probably have been the case with the devout Jews of our Lord's time, and, therefore, pre eminently with His Blessed Mother. There was no literature but this for such as Mary.
Thus it is fair to conclude that during her stay in these holy precincts her mind and thoughts be came, so to say, saturated with Scripture, its views about God and man, this world and the next, the value of temporal things and of eternal things, what God had done for His people and what He was about to do. It is difficult to exaggerate the influence of such a knowledge of Sacred Scripture on good Catholic education, even in souls ordinarily good, virtuous, intelligent, and devout. But just as Scripture is so much more to a Catholic than to one who has not the key of the true doctrine of the Church to interpret it, just as, like all means of grace and stores of holy truth and strength, it imparts its grace and truth and light and strength and consolation and wisdom with far more efficacy and large-ness to those who are the best able to receive what it has to give, so it must be thought that the Divine Word, when taken into the illuminated mind of Mary, conveyed riches and secrets of the wisdom of God which others could hardly receive. It is so with the ordinary means of grace. They are far more to the saints than they are to ordinary Christians. And if even to us the study of and familiarity with Holy Writ gives a ripeness and fullness of intelligence, an elevation of thought, an intensity and delicacy of perception as to the things of God, which are wanting in those who are so foolish as to neglect these inexhaustible fountains, it may well be imagined that the profit which our Lady derived from this common blessing was in a degree almost inconceivable.
It may be remembered also that she was now in the constant use of another great means of grace in being able to assist, at least to a certain extent, at the public prayers and praises of God which w r ere continually offered in the sanctuary. Here again is a common benefit, which is open to all, at least, who have some command of their time. Until the majestic services of the Christian Church were made possible by the peace which she conquered by centuries of persecution, and the building and endowing of stately basilicas and the like, the world had never known anything more august, reverent, and worthy of the worship of God than the continual services of the Temple. Worship of this kind, again, has a great blessing attached to it, and it gives the peace, the confidence, the "princely spirit" of which the Psalm speaks, of those who feel themselves the fellow-citizens of the saints and of the household of God, and who occupy themselves in the same holy functions of adoration and praise which are continually taking place in Heaven. A practice such as this strengthens them against a thousand trials, and lifts them above the petty troubles and anxieties of life, while at the same time it accustoms them to the affections of adoration, self-oblation, praise, thanksgiving, and the like, which are the legitimate tribute and homage to God from the intelligent creatures whom He has had the mercy to bring into communion with Himself. This of itself has an immense effect even on ordinary characters, and it may well be thought that it lifted the Blessed Maiden who was to be the Queen of Angels to a rapture of adoration which they them selves did not surpass.
We may say the same of that large and stately service to God which consisted in the sacrifices, typical and material as they were. Her constant presence in the Temple would be a lesson which Mary of all others would most perfectly comprehend, as to the significance of all the sacrificial and ceremonial observances of which the service of God in the Temple was in so large a degree made up. As the early Christians seem to have frequented the Temple in the first days of the Church, reading, through the material veils of the sacrifices, the continual pleading before God of the one all-sufficient Sacrifice of the Immaculate Lamb, so before the Incarnation itself there must have been many worshippers there who _ have understood all the figures of the Law and its ceremonies as representations of the Sacrifice of the promised Redeemer, and in this exercise of spiritual discernment no one could have surpassed our Blessed Lady. And we cannot suppose but that the devotion thus called forth, even by those external rites, for the sake of that which they represented, pleaded, and applied, must have been rewarded by God with many great gifts of grace to such faithful and intelligent worshippers.
All these holy influences must have had their full and unimpeded effect upon this blessed soul, and they would certainly generate an ever-increasing love of God, especially in the mystery of the Incarnation and of the atonement for the world thereby, and also that which ever follows on an increasing love for God and for our Lord as Redeemer, namely, a great love of souls and zeal for their salvation and spiritual profit. This would also lead to the greatest possible circumspection and carefulness in her daily life, both in order that her prayers might be more perfectly acceptable to God, and also that she might be a help and in no case an offence or stumbling-block to others with whom she lived. These again are fruits of grace common to all good souls, but which must have produced in our Blessed Lady effects not attained in others.
It can only be a matter of conjecture at what time it was that the chosen Bride of Heaven conceived under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Divine counsel of chastity. Christian writers speak of this counsel as the special privilege of Mary, as one that had no precedent in the saints of the Old Testament, as if it were reserved for Mary herself to discern its beauty and acceptableness to God.
The chastity which had been in honour under the elder Law was the chastity of married life, purity before marriage and perfect unsullied faithfulness after marriage. Many had discerned the beauty of widowhood, the abstinence from second ties, but the loftiness of the life of perfect Virginity over the most perfect chastity of wives or of widows, had not been found out, at least it had not been set forth in any holy examples as worthy of honour and imitation beyond all other states.
Isaias had spoken of the everlasting name which was to be given to the eunuchs who are faithful in the observances of the law, a "name better than of sons and daughters," 2 and elsewhere there are words spoken about the beauty of the chaste generation. But it had not yet been brought out from the depths of Scripture that there was here a principle of perfection which, after the example of the Mother of God had once been given, was to become so wonder fully fertile in the Church of good and perfection of the highest kind. We can only know that at some stage of these marvellous ascents of Mary in the knowledge and intelligence of the ways of God, this great truth dawned upon and took possession of her heart, that although the happiness of maternity was then the natural ambition of all women of the holy nation, because of one of them was to be born the promised Messias, still it might be more pleasing to God and the rendering to Him of a more perfect and unalloyed service to remain His alone in the holy state of Virginity, and that in such a condition she might perhaps aspire to be, not the Mother of God, but the servant of the Mother of God. This does not imply that our Lady had not the intelligence of the prophecies which spoke of that most Blessed Mother as herself a Virgin. For to aspire to this unique and unparalleled dignity was far above her thoughts.
It could hardly be that a purpose such as this could form itself in the heart of our Blessed Lady without a consciousness on her part that it was something new, and therefore something that would require a particular grace and special external circumstances to secure its accomplishment. But holy desires that are inspired by the Holy Ghost have usually, either at first or in the course of their ripening into resolves, or issuing in execution, much difficulty to contend against, difficulty which requires fortitude and courage and perseverance and great trust in God in order to overcome it. The greater seemed the difficulty, the more need would there be of this solid and immoveable resolution. It is this which difficulties of this kind produce in hearts which are truly acting under holy inspirations, and well conscious that they have the will of God to support them in their holy designs. Thus it is natural to find that among the acquisitions which our Blessed Lady is thought to have gained during this important period of her training in the Temple, one of the most necessary was a certain resolute firmness in carrying out what she had learnt to be the will of God in this matter of her virginal purpose. Moreover, she is thought even at this time by some to have confirmed it by a solemn vow as far as her own liberty was to be concerned. For this may have been another of the heavenly instincts which rose up in that favoured soul, that a good purpose, especially one which it might be difficult to accomplish, is best secured as to its accomplishment, and is also made indefinitely more meritorious and pleasing to God, when it is made the subject of such a surrender of our will in the matter as to make it impossible for us ever to retract it. The words of our Lady at the Annunciation, in answer to the Angel, imply a vow rather than a simple resolution. She thus shows the holy instinct from which all such offerings to God by vow spring.
These, then, may have been some of the chief elements of the growth of Mary towards the height of perfect fitness for her office in the Incarnation, gained during her residence in the sanctuary. As she grew in years she grew in grace. We can well imagine that there is much truth about the traditions or imaginations which represent her to us as most wonderfully attractive in personal beauty of a most heavenly and spiritual kind, such as to inspire in all who saw her the love of the ineffable purity which dwelt in her. Such a wonderful sweetness and charm in her external appearance was but the outward reflection of the interior beauties, of her mind and soul. It may be that when this weary time of degradation and struggle has passed away, and we behold the souls of saints in their glorified bodies in Heaven, we shall see that the beauties of the soul are meant to be reflected in the body, which is to be a perfectly fitting temple and tabernacle for the spirit which dwells within it, not then as in a prison-house or at best in a disguise, but as in a home which is a part of itself, and answers most perfectly to every thought and emotion and affection and to all the individual traits of the character of each. But, as has been said, Mary was moulded by the hands of God both in soul and in body to be the perfect resemblance, as far as was possible, of the Sacred Humanity of her Son, and this is enough to prepare us in her for some very transcendent degree of sweetness and attractiveness. For our Lord became Incarnate that He might win the hearts of men, and thus everything about Him always breathed, to those who could take it in, this design of God that He should be in all respects winning and sweet.
1. 2 Tim. iii. 15 ; see also i. 5. The two passages taken together give us a picture of a Jewish family, living in a heathen land. Lois had married her daughter Eunice to a Gentile, but the child of this-marriage had been named Timotheus, aid had been most carefully brought up in his mother's faith
2 Isaias Ivi. 5.