In the times in which we find ourselves, with its restrictions upon social interaction, sacramental participation and communal worship, it is not difficult to see why some have succumbed to anxiety or worse.
Anxieties come in many forms. Whether it is concern about the unknown, fears over financial or material security, or, the prospect of being detached from social networks upon which we have come to depend. Each has the potential to hold us hostage to our emotions and prompt us to try all the more, to regain control achieve security, maintain contact and so on. But, can such anxieties serve a positive purpose? Might they alert us to areas of spiritual weakness, misplaced emotional dependence or, more fundamentally, the absence of trust? Put simply: whether regarded as anxiety or fear, can our anxieties or agitation be considered symptomatic of an absence of trust in the Divine? If so, might they be received as indicators of those areas of our spiritual life which are in need of fortification or, reconstruction.
Within the Rule of St Benedict, the postulant is presented with a stark stage of initiation: the novitiate. It is in the novitiate that the candidate is provided with the opportunity to come to terms with himself in order that he may more authentically dedicate himself to service of the Lord. It is an irreplaceable component in the conversion of manners which culminates in a single hearted dedication to God. By this means, the candidate is called to be "at home in the desert" in order that he might be "effective" in the marketplace. St Benedict is, of course, pointing to the attainment of a disposition of concern for, but detachment from, the things of this world. Expressed slightly differently, it is the cultivation of a wholly spiritual perspective which sees the events of the world, and the relationships in which we participate as members of a community of faith, through the lens of faith. In short: fulfilment of the first and second commandment through being.
Ven. Fulton Sheen once famously spoke of those who had 'become used' to priesthood. They had, he said, been induced to believe that the attitudes of the world (e.g. manner of dress, acceptability of certain forms of conduct etc) were capable of accommodation and adoption in order to attract and retain the interest of all those whom the Church wished to serve. The folly of this proposition ought to be too obvious to state. After all, one would not set about treating an addict by furthering the addiction. But, Fulton Sheen was adverting to a more subtle issue. Like St Benedict, he recognised that Christ must reign in our hearts if we are to be faithful to His sacrifice for us. If He is to do so, we must share in a singularity of purpose and hold within us a determination to do His will in our lives. This remains the case, whether priest, religious, or lay; no matter what our condition of life. Our willingness to do so requires us to pass from the comfort of the familiar to the solitude of the desert. Like Christ himself, it is in the desert that we find both consolation and trial; most particularly, the trial of confronting oneself and coming to terms with those things which we have, through our choices, acts and omissions, permitted to deflect us from the will of God. It is a necessary form of isolation; one which, if embraced, leads to the consolation of solitude and an affirmation of purpose.
Yesterday, the Church celebrated the Feast of St Joseph. In contrast to the annunciation, we have no detailed narrative of the call of St Joseph or the exchange which provided him with the resolve to maintain his betrothal to Our Blessed Mother and assume the responsibility of spiritual father and temporal carer to the Son of God. His fortitude and dedication are evidenced in the numerous titles which the Church has conferred upon him. Popes and Saints throughout the ages have looked to him as an icon of protection and the personification of that inner resolve which was prepared to assume what would, to human thought, be impossible: the parenting of Christ. Yet, his was a silent fiat; evidenced by his actions.
His actions were from first to last, the protection of the person and dignity of Christ and Our Blessed Mother. We cannot lose sight of the fact that in the discharge of this responsibility he was required to protect Our Lady from immediate scandal with the certain rejection and destitution which would ensue. He was required to protect Our Blessed Lord and Saviour from the real and immediate mortal danger of Herod's slaughter. He was required to provide them both with shelter and care when his means of doing so by drawing upon his own home, village, family etc, were denied him. To the secular eye, these burdens were spectacular and, even with the distance of time, leave one in no doubt that they ought to have been beyond the abilities of a carpenter who was too poor to make the proper offering at the temple at the time of the presentation. All of those resources to which the secular mindset attaches importance (e.g. money, status, position, social connections) were beyond his reach. And yet, he achieved his purpose. How? By what means?
It could only have been Trust which prompted him to maintain his betrothal. This same Trust fortified his decision to take wife and newborn child to Egypt. The flight into Egypt cannot be considered as obvious. After all, Egypt was quite literally a foreign land to Joseph. A land which- as any Jew would know-was a place of former Jewish persecution. Once this is recognised, it becomes clear that the flight into Egypt was not the product of human reasoning but divine intervention and prompting. This single episode attests to a more profound reality: Joseph's courage.
This is not the courage depicted on screens in our modern age; the hallmark of which is reckless self-sacrifice. St Joseph was not afforded the luxury of self-indulgence. Rather, his courage was of an altogether different character. It was seasoned by grace. A grace which recognised that his responsibility was primarily spiritual. Being spiritual, it was a duty which was owed to God in the fulfilment of His Divine Will. It was this reality which enabled St Joseph to embrace the truth of the irreversible promise of God. That is, the promise made by God to His people that He - and He alone- would provide for their needs. Needs are not of course, the same as wants. Put simply, St Joseph recognised that the duty with which he was entrusted by God required one thing alone from him: a willing heart. As to when, how and by what means, the responsibilities of that duty would be fulfilled; these were for the Lord God Himself and Him alone. St Jospeh knew and understood nonetheless, that the burden of this duty was not his, but was for God Himself to address. God's request of St Joseph which required his fiat -was to be fulfilled in a single act of dedication and Trust. Admittedly, a Trust which called for affirmation each day. But, all else came from God Himself.
In the words of St Frances de Sales:
"To be just is to be perfectly united to the Divine Will, and to be always confirmed to it in all sorts of events, whether prosperous or adverse. That St Joseph was this, no one can doubt."
During these days, the Lord has in His abundant Divine Mercy, provided us with an opportunity. It is an opportunity to identify within our anxieties a prompt. The prompt to look again to the dependencies which we have cultivated and reconfigure ourselves, in trust, upon the promise of God Our Father. Such a counter cultural self-examination requires both endurance and patience. In the month of March dedicated to St Joseph, we may call upon his assistance as Protector of the Church, Mirror of Patience and Lover of Poverty. Let us pray that by doing so, we may - like St Joseph- also be blessed with a purity of purpose.
St Joseph, pray for us
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.