A Novice's Sermon to his Fellow-Novices about their Blessed Mother.
(This is given exactly as it was spoken as a literary and devotional exercise in the refectory of a Jesuit Novitiate, on the i6th of August, 1853, seven years before my ordination. No attempt is made to cut off exuberant epithets, as the youthfulness of the tone will not be distasteful to youthful readers, and perhaps some others.)
After all, it is not easy to get to heaven, my Brothers. Many things stand in our way. The world, the flesh, and the devil are hard, and very hard, to conquer. The concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life are terrible foes to fight against. The powers of darkness are very cunning, very stubborn, very subtle, very strong. We have a fierce war to wage, all our lives long. No treaty of peace, no truce, no breathing-space— the battle always raging, and defeat and death looming over us often. Even the mere continual strain itself—the having to keep up the contest ever, never blenching, never flinching an inch— wastes our strength and dulls our spirit sadly. What should become of us if we were fighting all alone ? But—blessed be the mercy of God !— we have something to cheer us in the heat of the struggle, Mary is our strong Helper through all; our hope is in the prayers and patronage of the ever-glorious Virgin. When we are growing disheartened, when our vigour is failing, when we are sorely tempted to fling our arms aside and take to cowardly flight—one glimpse of Mary's serene smile nerves our arm, and braces our courage, and gives us fresh heart, and we fight on bravely again. Yes, Mary is our hope and our sweetest comfort, for Mary is our Mother, and Mary is Mother of God.
But is there any cold, unfilial soul among us that lacks in her regard the due measure of love and worship ? Oh ! God forbid, my Brothers. No, no ! Here at least, Mary is Queen and served with the generous, unstinted service of loyal, loving hearts. We are hers on many titles. For which of us, looking back, cannot trace her benignant influence along all the stream of his life, gilding its surface over as with luminous ripples of sunshine ? But to our allegiance the Queen of the Society of Jesus has a much more special right. Perhaps, too, some of us have even to thank this dear Mother for being where we are, safe in this holy and happy nook, guided into the very surest road to the City of God, and helped and cheered on our journey thither with unwearied tenderness and watchful skill; hedged round with blessed restraints and safeguards, which, excluding sloth and vague, self-willed caprice, make us live full days in the gay liberty of holy Obedience; screened securely against all our foes, except alas ! our first and fiercest, Self ; the devil able only to scowl at us from a distance, as it were, in impotent rage, and the world shut out utterly with all its pleasures and all its cares— cares so cruelly harassing, so inexorably engrossing—pleasures so brief, so bad, so unsatisfying, yet ah ! so terribly seducing ; God's graces, all the while. His best and rarest, showered down upon us ceaselessly, and, along with these various aids and countless others, traditions of the Saints and heroes who were once what we are, shaming even us, by the memory of the great things that they did and suffered, into humble bravery of purpose to try with God's help to be not too ridiculously unworthy of such splendid lineage. Oh! happy we, dear Brothers, the special favourites of God's kind providence—pet lambs in the flock of the Good Shepherd, Unam petii a Domino, banc requiram, ut inhabitem in domo Domini omnibus diebus vitae meae' ut videam voluptatem Domini et visitem templum ejus (Ps, xxvi. 4).— " One thing I have asked of the Lord, this will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may see the delight of the Lord and may visit His temple."
And shall we, then, forget her to whom we owe so much of all this happiness and all this honour ? Ah ! we could not, if we would, be unmindful or ungrateful here. The very spirit of the place would not suffer us. Here Mary must needs be ever on our lips and in our hearts, for here her beautiful presence haunts us everywhere and always. Thus, to remind you of some of these graceful artifices for enticing us into thinking incessantly of our heavenly Mother, the image of the Regina Novitiorum Societatis Jesu is the first to catch our eye in coming in, the last to greet us going out. The same motherly face smiles down at us meekly from more than one niche and picture frame. Our willing lips, also, are taught to delight in murmuring Hail Marys all day long, whether strung together into Rosaries or sown thickly throughout our day at the beginning and end of almost every duty. Then, again, that magnificent mingling of supplication and praise, so sublime in its direct simplicity—that prayer or string of prayers, in which the Church has, for century upon century, given vent to the devotion that throbs within her mighty heart—the beautiful Litany of Loretto—how often each day do we invoke our Queen under all that variety of titles which piety has, with, such exhaustless ingenuity, devised, and with such affectionate prodigality lavished upon her ! And you remember, too, how, when Mary's own sweet month came round, we used this her canonised Litany as a golden thread to guide us through the vast, bewildering labyrinth of her graces and her glories; whilst to me it fell, under the inspiration of the title Mater Admirabilis to try and set Mary before you as the most admirable wonder of God. And now that the very gayest of our Lady's Festivals has but just gladdened the Church of God, the whole world over, rejoicing all Catholic hearts with its own bright and beautiful spirit, I know well you will be nothing loth to listen to the same old story once again; for never, surely, can Mary's praise grow tiresome to you, dear Brothers.
Time works wonders, and man, his powers developed by time and ripened by patient experience, has wrought wonders manifold. Yet what, after all, are the most stupendous of man's achievements save petty combinations of the materials which God has given ready-made into his hands, only wonderful to the short-sighted pride of human ignorance ? God, God alone, is the true Thaumaturgus—God is the sole great Wonder-worker. For the glorious Universe is God's with all its hosts of suns and stars. Nay, this poor little planet of ours—does it not stun the most gigantic intellect of the sons of men to ponder even on some tiny fragment of its wonders ? But look at Nature in her grander aspects. Magnificent mountain ranges, forests, rivers, seas, snow-storms and the strong winds—the infinite varieties of flowers, plants, trees—the multitudinous tribes of living things that range the earth or dwell in the cold heart of the waters : from all creation, inanimate and irrational, rings up to the Maker one mighty inarticulate cry, God alone is great and the Doer of great things.
But for this voiceless Te Deum words were wanted. Then God said : "Let Us make man to Our image and likeness ; " and God set man over all the visible works of His hands. But men, with all their splendid endowments of nature and of grace, are not yet like unto the Angels; and God made the Angels, too. Have we yet reached the highest height of created greatness, beyond which dwelleth only the Three in unity of light inaccessible ? No, we are still far below the throne of her who reigns over all the realms of nature, grace, and glory, of her who is the Queen of men and angels—Mary.
But why this rapid upward glance along the rising scale of God's creations ? In order to get a notion of Mary's admirable pre-eminence from the interminable road we have to travel before coming even within sight of her; for Mary is far above them, far beyond them all. Rightly, then, is Mary styled "Mother most Admirable" and rightly may those words of Wisdom (viii. ii) be put into her mouth : In conspectu potentium admirabilis ero, et facies principum mirabuntur. — " In the sight of the mighty I shall be wonderful, and the faces of princes shall wonder at me."
Men often admire at second-hand. "This must be a most admirable painting : for such a one pronounces it admirable, and he is an excellent judge." Let us in all reverence thus form a judgment of the Great Master's most admirable masterpiece. What does God Himself think of Mary ? What place does Mary hold in the Infinite Mind ? Looking forward out of the depths of the Eternal Years, the Three in One singled out Mary for the Mother of the Word Incarnate. The Eternal Father elected her for His dearest Daughter, His First-born among creatures, the Queen and crown of all His fair creations. The Eternal Son chose to be her Son, to take flesh in her virginal womb, to be her little Babe in Bethlehem, to nestle in her arms, to be fed at her breast, to slumber on her lap, to grow up under her adoring gaze, tenderly ruled and guarded, to obey her and the meek old man, Joseph, for thirty out of His three-and-thirty years, sharing all the toil and hardship of their lowly lot. And the Third Adorable Person selected Mary out of all the daughters of men to be His chaste spouse, '' and the virtue of the Most High overshadowed her, and she conceived of the H0ly Ghost." Now what manner of being should she be who was thus the eternal choice of the Adorable Trinity, the Almighty, the All-wise, the All-good ? First of all, was it not at least meet that never for one moment, nor even before ever moments were, should she who was to be the Mother of God be aught else than the object of God's sweetest, most intense complacencies ? It was indeed but meet that it should be so ; and so it was. Sin had never anything to do with Mary, but simply to pass her by. By the most singularly admirable of privileges, by the most triumphant exercise of Christ's redeeming grace, this sole sinless daughter of Eve was conceived Immaculate.
All the rest accords with this beginning. As Mary was admirable before her birth, so was she admirable more and more each year and day and minute that she lived. Admirable in her vowed virginity, so new and magnanimous in a Hebrew maiden—admirable, thrice admirable in the Divine Maternity and in all her relations, so ineffably intimate and tender, with the Incarnate God. Admirable in her griefs no less than in her glories—admirable for her virtues more than for her privileges—admirable in all her life and admirable In her death, if that can be called death which was but a fragrant momentary slumber, out of which the pomp and pageant of the Assumption were at once to wake her.
It is over. Mary's lifelong martyrdom of patience, her fifteen years of pining absence after her Son's departure, are at an end at last. The Mother has joined her Son once more. Jesus has taken Mary to Himself. Let us with hushed hearts pause here awhile and think within ourselves what Mary must be now. We saw how she began. In natural gifts, first among all creatures, and no one second; in the order of grace, most perfect of all that have been or that shall be—not that the Creator could not give more, but that creature could not take more.
S0 perfect, so pure, and of gifts such a store
That even Omnipotence will not do more.
What beauty, what wisdom, what power, what majestic grasp of intellect! Nature has done her uttermost for her. But the good of a single grace is, according to St. Thomas, greater than the natural good of the entire Universe. What, then, is Mary ?—beginning with immeasurably-larger stock of grace than the hoary-headed saint ends with after fighting out the terrible fight for his century of weary years, and that original store increasing inconceivably through Mary's perfect correspondence in every second of those three-score years and three during which God was good enough to spare His Beloved out of heaven, that she might consecrate the earth for ever with the holiness and beauty of her most queenly presence. Oh ! ponder with awe on the exuberant rapidity of the Blessed Virgin's growth in grace and merit in God's sight from the first great act of perfect love of her Immaculate Heart till that time of transcendent merit when " there stood by the Cross of Jesus His Mother," and when a miracle of strength and resignation was needed to hinder Mary's broken heart from being her death ; and thence on till that last happy moment when she sweetly died away of love. If we could measure the very uttermost extent of God's communicable excellencies, we might then have some standard for measuring Mary's greatness; for the high spring-tide of Grace Divine rushed in upon her with its fullest flood, and overflowed even her capacious soul.
But for Mary, too, the time of meriting has ceased at length. She has lived and died, and been assumed into the Kingdom of her Son, Who has enthroned and crowned her there, its Queen. Regina coeli, laetare. But now that she is wrapped up into the everlasting blessedness of heaven, is hers a merely passive glory, as it were ? No, she acts still; and her beneficent activity will not let ns forget that we on earth have an Admirable Mother in heaven. And in nothing is Mary more admirable than in her power; for she is omnipotent with the meek omnipotence of a mother's prayer. What wonders, far beyond knowing, farther beyond telling, has this Admirable Mother wrought on earth and in heaven ! What wonders is she every day working in her children and for them ! Just think how many of the saints are specially Mary's saints. Look at our own most glorious brotherhood of saints— Ignatius, Xavier, Borgia, Francis Regis, Francis Jerome, and then those bright young saints, angels rather than saints, Stanislaus, Aloysius, Berchmans. (Forgive the too fond devotion that dares to shp in that dear Venerable name among the canonised. - - Beatified and canonised since then.) How much, how much has Mary done for everyone of these our Fathers and our Brothers ! and oh, how lovingly they are, this minute, praising and thanking her for all, mingling doubtless with their thanks and praises many an earnest prayer to her for us. Yes, we, too, shall yet (please God !) be saints with them and saints through Mary.
But Mary's Sinners —ah ! they, best of all, best of all, show that she is in very truth an Admirable Mother. For Mary the Sinless is the saving Refuge of Sinners. Among them Hes her merciful mission. To foil the Tempter when sure of his prey, to snatch the lost sinner out of the devil's greedy clutches, to bring the poor despairing wretch to God—that is Mary's special forte, her favourite work, her own peculiar province. They tell us of a king of the old pagan times, who, to repeople the desolate streets of his capital which some bloody struggle had depopulated, bethought himself of erecting a magnificent temple to Diana, in order that criminals, seeking an asylum from the pursuer within the shadow of her shrine, might in time sober down into honest citizens, and so swell the thinned ranks of his subjects. To some such merciful stratagem would the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem seem to have resorted to fill up the vacant places which the apostate Angels left behind them in the courts of His fair city. Mary's altar is the shrine of safety to which the hunted fugitive pants for refuge at the last. Many an outlaw from God, under the ban of heaven, has, in his utter hopelessness, been caught by Mary's compassionate gaze ; and Mary has saved the perishing outcast after all, and sent him to be one among the rapturous crowds that throng the New Jerusalem. We have now gone together, dear Brothers, over some of the more prominently admirable aspects of Our Lady's life and character, naming them rather than describing them, and stealing at the end one look of wistful love up to her glorious throne in heaven. We have had, of course, to glance but hastily, lightly, where one would fain gaze lovingly and long. Yet even this glimpse must needs have suggested motives for admiration the most intense and for the tenderest love.
Love—love ! Aye, you see it comes to that at last. I have tried hard to keep to admiration, for it was agreed at the beginning that our praises were to be confined to the Mater Admirabilis. But does not the Church herself, with exquisite feeling, call Our Lady amiable and admirable in one breath, as if all admiration of our Admirable Mother should quickly melt away into love ? And indeed in the strict idea of mere admiration there is some tinge of fear, of distant, unfamiliar awe, hardly in keeping with that childlike, trustful tenderness which is the heart's first spontaneous feeling when it thinks of Mary—Mary that kindest and most affectionate of mothers, that perfect image of all that is graceful and amiable and soothing and beautiful, in whom is nothing austere or terrible, but all grace and sweet attractiveness and tender pity. How true is that fine saying of Canova's : " There is no sublimity without the Catholic religion, and no beauty without the Madonna." Oh ! the heavenly beauty of the one true Catholic Church, and the grand and holy faith she proposes to us, and the sweet Mother she gives us.
And now let us end by turning to this marvellous Mother herself, so amiable, so admirable, and telling her once again what we have told her before so often, that, with God's blessing and her own, we will, till death, be her children faithful and dutiful, all of us. Till deaths did I say ? Till death, and for eternities of bliss unutterable beyond it. In heaven, after kind death has joined us, we shall but begin to be really Mary's children, cherished and ah ! so lovingly caressed : here in this dying life we are banished exiles only, pining after our Home which is far away. Home—home ! Aye, heaven is the only Home. Heaven is our true and real Home : for our brothers and sisters, the Saints, are there, and our own meek and gentle Mother is there, and Thou, Our Father, Who art in heaven. Mary, our Mother, sweetest and best of mothers, ah ! take us home. We are out here in the cold and the dark, shivering, hungry, and naked. Open to us, let us in. O Mother ! take us home. You are our dear Mother, and you are in heaven, and heaven is our home ; we are orphans here without you, poor, homeless, motherless orphans—O Mother ! take us home. Yes, dearest Mother, you will. We trust to you that you will bring us all home to yourself at last, each in God's own good time—safe home to that happy home where we shall still indeed call you our Admirable Mother, as we are calling you to-day, but where we shall have no longer any need to cry, as we do now, "O Mother most admirable ! pray for us."