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Salve Maria Regina


Vol. 43, Issue No. 135

Without Prayer it is Impossible to Resist Temptations and to Keep the Commandments

TheotokosJesus Living in Mary

Abridged from Bethlehem by
Father Frederick William Faber

God is incomprehensible. When we speak of Him, we scarcely know what we say. Faith is our medium, instead of either thought or tongue. In like manner those created things, which lie on the edges of His insupportable light, become indistinct through an excess of Divine brightness, and are seen confusedly as He is Himself. Thus, He has drawn the Blessed Virgin Mary so far into His light, that although she is our fellow-creature, there is something inaccessible about her. She participates in a measure in His incomprehensible Godhead. It is just as we cannot look for a moment at the noonday sun, whose shivering flames of black and silver drive us backward in blindness and in pain.

Who, then, could hope to see plainly a little blossom floating like a lily on the surface of that gleaming fountain, and topped everywhere by its waves of fire? So is it with the Immaculate Virgin Mary. She lies up in the fountain-head of creation, almost at the very point where it issues from God; and amid the unbearable flashes of God's primal decrees she rests, almost without color or form to our bedazzled eyes; only we know that she is there, and that the Divine light is her beautiful clothing, "a Woman clothed with the Sun." The longer we gaze upon her, the more invisible does she become, and yet at the same time the more irresistible is the attraction by which she draws us toward herself. While her personality seems to be almost merged in the grandeur of her relationship to God, our love of her own self becomes more distinct, and our own relationship to her more sweetly sensible.

It was a wonderful life which the Eternal Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, led in the Bosom of the Father. It fascinates us. We can hardly leave off speaking of it. Yet behold! He seeks also a created home. Was His eternal home wanting in anything of beauty or of joy? Let the enraptured Seraphim speak, who have lain for ages on the outer edge of that uncreated Bosom, burning their immortal lives away in the fires of an insatiable fulfilment, fed ever from the Vision of that immutable Beatitude. Quite obviously, there could be nothing lacking in the Bosom of the Father. God would not be God, if He fell short of self-sufficiency. Yet deep in His unfathomable Wisdom there was something which appears to our eyes like a need. There is an appearance of a desire on the part of Him to Whom there is nothing left to desire, because He is self-sufficient. This apparent desire of the Holy Trinity becomes visible to our faith in the Person of the Word. It is as if God could not contain Himself, as if He were overcharged with the fulness of His own Essence and Beauty, or rather as if He were outgrowing His own unlimited dimensions. It seems as if He must go out of Himself, and summon creatures up from nothing, and fall upon their neck, and overwhelm them with His love, and so find rest. Alas! How words tremble, and grow wild, and lose their meanings, when they venture to touch the things of God! God's love must flow. It seems like a necessity; yet all the while it is an eternally pondered, eternally present, freedom--glorious and calm--as freedom is in Him Who has infinite room within Himself. What looks to us so like a necessity is but the fullness of His freedom. He will go forth from Himself, and dwell in another home, perhaps a series of homes, and beatify wherever He goes, and multiply for Himself a changeful incidental glory, such as He never had before, and scatter gladness outside Himself, and call up world after world, and bathe it in His light, and communicate His inexhaustible Self inexhaustibly, and yet remain immutably the Same, awesomely reposing in Himself, majestically satiating His adorable thirst for glory from the depths of His Own Self. Abysses of Being are within Him, and His very freedom with a look of imperiousness allures Him into the possibilities of creation. Yet, this freedom to create, together with the free decree of creation, is as eternal as that inward necessity by which the Son is ever being begotten, and the Holy Ghost ever proceeding from the Father and the Son. All this becomes visible to us in time, and visible in the Person of the Word, and only visible by supernatural Revelation, which reason may corroborate, but never could discover.

The Word in the Father's Bosom seeks another home, a created home. He will seem to leave His uncreated home, and yet He will not leave it. He will appear as though He were allured from it, while in truth He will go on filling it with His delights, as He has ever done. He will go, yet He will stay even while He goes. Whither, then, will He go? What manner of home is fit for Him, Whose home is the Bosom of the Father, and Who makes that home the glad wonder that it is? All possible things lay before Him at a glance, as on a map. They lay before Him also in the sort of perspective which time gives, and by which it makes things new. His home shall be wonderful enough; for there is no limit to His wisdom. It shall be glorious enough; for there is no boundary to His power. It shall be dear to Him beyond word or thought; for there is no end to His love. Yet even so, nothing short of an infinite condescension can find any fitness for Him in finite things. Nevertheless, His created home shall be such as a God's power and wisdom and love can choose out of a God's possibilities. Who then shall dream, until He has seen it, what that thrice infinite perfection of the Holy Trinity shall choose out of His inexhaustible possibilities? Who, when he has seen it, shall describe it as he ought?

The glorious, adorable, and eternal Word, in the ample range of His unrestricted choice, predestined the Bosom of Mary to be His created home, and fashioned, with well-pleased love, the Immaculate Heart which He Himself was to tenant. O Mary, O marvelous mystical creature, O resplendent speck, lost almost to view in the upper light of the supernal fountains! Who can sufficiently abase himself before thee, and weep for the want of love to love thee properly, thee whom the Divine Word so loved eternally?

There were no creatures to sing anthems in Heaven, when that wondrous choice was made. No angelic thunders of songs rolled 'round the Throne in oceans of melodious sound, when the Word decreed that primal object of his adorable predilection. No creations of almost divine intelligence were there to shroud their faces with their wings, and brood in self-abasing silence on the beauty of that created Home of their Creator. There was only the silent song of God's own awesome life, and the eternal voiceless thunder of His Divine good pleasure. Forthwith -- we must speak in our own human way -- the Holy Trinity begins to adorn the Word's created home with a marvelous outpouring of creative skill and love. She was to be the head of all mere creatures, having a created person as well as a created nature, while her Son's created nature, with the Uncreated Person, was to be the absolute Head of all creation, the unconfused and undivided junction of God and of creation. She was to be a home for the Word, as the Bosom of the Father had been a home for Him, realized and completed in unity of nature. The materials which the Word was to take for His created Nature were once to have been actually hers, so that the union between the Divine Word and herself should be more exalted than words can express.

Each Person of the Holy Trinity claimed her for his own by a special relationship. She was the eternally elected daughter of the Father. There was no other relationship in which she could stand to Him, and it was a reflection of the eternal filiation of His uncreated Son. She was the Mother of the Son; for it was to the amazing realities of that office that He had summoned her out of nothing. She was the Spouse of the Holy Ghost; for He it was Who was espoused to her soul by the most transcendent union of which the kingdom of grace can boast, and it was He Who out of her spotless Blood made that undefiled Flesh which the Word was to assume and to animate with His human Soul. Thus she was marked with an indelible character by Each of the Three Divine Persons. She was Their eternal idea, nearest to that Idea which was the cause of all creation, the Idea of Jesus; she was necessary, as They had willed it, to the realization of that Idea; and she came before it in priority of time and in seeming authority of office. Such is the barest statement of the place which the Immaculate Virgin Mary occupies in the decrees of God. All we could add would be weak compared with this. Words cannot magnify her whom thought can hardly reach; and our compliments are almost presumption -- as if what lies so close to God could be honored by our approval. Our praise of Mary, in this one respect like our praise of God, of which it is in truth a part, is best embodied in our wonder and our love.

It was on the eighth of December that those primeval decrees of God first began to spring into actual fulfillment upon earth. Like all God's purposes, they came among men with veils upon their heads, and lived in unsuspected obscurity. Yet the old creation of the material world was an event of far less importance than the Immaculate Conception. When Mary's soul and body sprang from nothingness at the word of God, the Divine Persons encompassed Their chosen creature in that selfsame instant, and the grace of the Immaculate Conception was Their welcome and their touch. The Daughter, the Mother, the Spouse, received one and the same pledge from All in that single grace, or fountain of graces, as was befitting the grandeur of her Predestination, and her relationship to the Three Divine Persons, and the dignity she was to uphold in the system of creation. In what order her graces came, how they were enchained one with another, how one was the cause of another, and how others were merely out of the gratuitous abundance of God, how they acted on her power of meriting, and how again her merits reacted upon them -- all this it is beside our purpose to speak of, even if we could do so fittingly. We know that even the slightest grace of the lowest of us is a world of supernatural wonders itself; how, then shall we dare venture into the labyrinth of Mary's graces, or hope to come forth from it with anything more than a perplexed and breathless admiration? It was no less than God Who was adorning her, making her the living image of the August Trinity. It was that she might be the Mother of the Word and His created home, that omnipotence was thus adorning her.

To the eye of God her beautiful soul and fair body had glided like stars over the abyss of a creatureless eternity, discernible amid the glowing lights and countless glimmerings of the angelic births, across the darkness of chaos and the long epochs of the ripening world, and through the night of four thousand years of man's fall and wandering. How wonderfully she must have come into being, if she was to be worthy of her royal predestination, and of the decrees she was obediently to fulfil, and yet with an obedience entirely free!

Out of the abundance of the beautiful gifts with which God endowed her, some colossal graces rose, like lofty mountaintops, far above the level of the exquisite spiritual scenery which surrounded them. The use of reason from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception enabled her to advance in grace and merits beyond all calculation. Her infused science, which, from its being infused, was independent of the use of the senses, enabled her reason to operate, and thus her merits to accumulate, even during sleep. Her complete exemption from the slightest shade of venial sin raised her as nearly out of the imperfections of a creature as was consistent with finite and created holiness. Her confirmation in grace made her a heavenly being while she was yet on earth, and gave her liberty and merit a character so different from ours that in propositions regarding sin and grace we are obliged to make her an exception, together with our Blessed Lord. So gigantic were the graces of that supernatural life, which God made contemporaneous with her natural existence, that in her very first act of love her heroic virtues began far beyond the point where those of the highest saints have ended.

All this is but a dry theological description of the Word's created home, as it was when the Divine Persons clothed and adorned it as it rose from nothingness. Yet how surpassingly beautiful is the sanctity which it implies! Fifteen years went on, with those huge colossal graces, full of vitality, uninterruptedly generating new graces, and new correspondences to grace evoking from the abyss of the Divine Word new graces still, and merits multiplying merits, so that if the world were written over with its figures it could never represent the sum. It seems by this time as if her grace were as nearly infinite as a finite thing could be, and her sanctity and purity have become so constrainingly beautiful that their constraints reach even to the Eternal Word Himself, and He yields to the force of their attractions, and anticipates His time, and hastens with inexplicable desire to take up His abode in His created home. This is what theology means when it says that Mary merited the anticipation of the time of the Incarnation.

But let us pause for a moment here. St. Dionysius, when he saw the vision of Our Blessed Lady, said with wonder that he might have mistaken her for God. We may say, in more modern and less simple language, that Mary is like one of those great scientific truths, whose full magnificence we never master except by long meditation, and by studying its bearings on a system, and then at last the fertility and grandeur of the truth seem endless to us. So it is with the Immaculate Mother of God. She teaches us God as we never could else have learned Him. She mirrors more of Him in her single self, than all intelligent and material creation beside her. In her the prodigies of His love toward ourselves became credible. She is the hilltop from which we gain distant views into His perfections, and see fair regions in Him, of which we should not else have dreamed. Our thoughts of Him grow worthier by means of her. The full dignity of creation shines bright in her, and standing on her, the perfect mere creature, we look over into the depths of the Hypostatic Union, which otherwise would have been a gulf whose edges we never could have reached.

The earthly place, where the Divine Word's assumption of His created nature was to be effected, was the inner room, or woman's apartment, of the Holy House of Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph dwelt. It was an obscure dwelling of humble poverty in a rustic and sequestered village of a small land, whose days of historic glory had passed away, and whose destiny in the onward march of civilization would seem, as philosophical historians would speak, to be exhausted. The national independence of the people had come to an end. The questions, which divided their sects, were narrow and trivial. Jerusalem, long since eclipsed by Athens and outgrown by Alexandria, sat now, humbled and silent, beneath the somber shadow of Rome. Even in this land Nazareth was almost a byword of contempt. Folds of pastoral green hills shut it up within itself, and its men were known beyond their own hills only for being coarse and fierce rustics, with perhaps a reputation for something worse. The Eternal God was about to become a Nazarene. He, Whose Eye saw down into every wooded hollow and penetrated every sylvan glen upon the globe, Who saw the white walls of fair cities perched jealously on their hilltops or basking in the sunshine by the blue sea, chose that ill-famed, inglorious Nazareth for the scene of His great Mystery. Who can question that, with God, nothing is accidental, and that nothing happened as it were by chance with the central wonder of the Incarnation? It was His choice; and to us Nazareth and its Holy House, exiled, wandering, and angel-borne, Syrian, Dalmatian, Italian (Loreto), all by turns, are consecrated places; doubly consecrated by their old memories, and also by their strange continued life of local graces and the efficacious balm of a Divine Presence, awesome and undiminished.

This is a picture to us of the moment of the Incarnation. Innumerable decrees of God, decrees without number, like the waves of the sea, decrees that included or gave forth all other decrees, came up to the midnight room at Nazareth, as it were, to the feet of that most wonderful of God's creatures, with the resistless momentum which had been given them from eternity, all glistening with the manifold splendors of the Divine perfections, like huge billows just curling to break upon the shore; and they stayed themselves there, halted in full course, and hung their accomplishment upon the young Virgin's word.

It was a stupendous moment. It was fully in Mary's power to have refused. Impossible as the consequences seem to make it, the matter was completely in her hands, and never did free creature exercise its freedom more freely than did she that night. How the angels must have hung over that moment! With what adorable delight and unspeakable complacency did not the Holy Trinity await the opening of her lips, the Fiat of her whom God had evoked out of nothingness, and whose own fiat was now to be music in His ears; Creation's echo to that fiat of His at Whose irresistible sweetness creation itself sprang into being! Earth only, poor, stupid, unconscious earth, slept in its cold moonlight.

That Mary should have any choice at all is a complete revelation of God in itself. How a creature so encompassed and cloistered in grace could have been free in any sense to do that which was less pleasing to God is a mystery which no theology to be met with has ever yet satisfactorily explained. Nevertheless the fact is beyond controversy. She had this choice, with the uttermost freedom in her election, in some most real sense of freedom. But who could doubt what the voice would be, which should come up out of such abysses of grace as hers! There had not been yet on earth, nor in the angels' world, an act of adoration so nearly worthy of God as that consent of hers, that conformity of her deep lowliness to the magnificent and transforming will of God.

But another moment, and there will be an act of adoration greater far than that, in the Person of the Incarnate Word. Now God is free. Mary has made Him free. The creature has added a fresh liberty to the Creator. She has unchained the decrees, and made the sign, and in their procession, like mountainous waves of light, they broke over her in floods of golden splendor. The eternal Sea bathed the queenly creature all around, and the Divine complacency rolled above her in majestic peals of soft mysterious thunder, and a God-like Shadow falls upon her for a moment, and without shock, or sound, or so much as a tingling stillness, God in a created nature dwelt in His immensity within her Bosom, and the Eternal Will was done, and creation was complete. Far off a storm of jubilee swept far, flashing through the angelic world. But the Divine Mother heard not, heeded not. Her head sank upon her bosom, and her soul lay down in a silence which was like the peace of God. The Word was made Flesh.


The Ascetical Doctrine of St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori

Without Prayer it is Impossible To Resist Temptations
and To Keep the Commandments

Moreover, prayer is the most necessary weapon of defense against our enemies; he who does not avail himself of it, says St. Thomas, is lost. He does not doubt that the reason of Adam's fall was because he did not recommend himself to God when he was tempted: "He sinned because he had not recourse to the divine assistance" (P.1, q.94, a.4). St. Gelasius says the same of the rebel angels: "Receiving the grace of God in vain, they could not persevere, because they did not pray" (Tr. adv. Pelag. haer.) St. Charles Borromeo, in a pastoral letter, observes, that among all the means of salvation recommended by Jesus Christ in the Gospel, the first place is given to prayer, and He has determined that this should distinguish His Church from all false religions, when He calls her the house of prayer: "My house is a house of prayer" (Matt. 21:13). St. Charles concludes that prayer is "the beginning and progress, and the completion of all virtues" (Litt. Past. de Or. in comm.) So that in darkness, distress, and danger, we have no other hope than to raise our eyes to God, and with fervent prayers to beseech His mercy to save us: "As we know not," said King Josaphat, "what to do, we can only turn our eyes to Thee" (2 Par. 20:12). This also was David's practice, who could find no other means of safety from his enemies, than continual prayer to God to deliver him from their snares: "My eyes are ever towards the Lord; for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare" (Ps. 24:16). So he did nothing but pray: "Look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor. I cried unto Thee, O Lord; save me that I may keep Thy commandments." "Lord, turn Thine eyes to me, have pity on me, and save me; for I can do nothing, and apart from Thee there is none that can help me" (Ps. 24:15; 118:146).

And indeed, how could we ever resist our enemies and observe God's precepts, especially since Adam's sin, which has rendered us so weak and infirm, unless we had prayer as a means whereby we can obtain from God sufficient light and strength to enable us to observe them? It was a blasphemy of Luther to say that after the sin of Adam the observance of God's law has become absolutely impossible to man. Jansenius also said that there are some precepts which are impossible even to the just, with the power which they actually possess, and thus far his proposition is valid; but it was justly condemned by the Church for the addition he made to it, when he said that they do not have the grace to make these same precepts possible. It is true, says St. Augustine, that man, in consequence of his weakness, is unable to fulfill some of God's commands with his present strength and the ordinary grace given to all men; but he can easily, by prayer, obtain such further aid as he needs for his salvation: "God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding He expects you to do what you can, and then to ask for His Divine assistance to do what is beyond your strength; and He helps you, that you may be able." This famous text of St. Augustine is rightly celebrated, for it was afterwards adopted and made a doctrine of Faith by the holy Council of Trent (Sess. 6, c. 11). The holy Doctor immediately adds, "Let us see how man is enabled to do that which he cannot. By medicine he can do that which his natural weakness renders impossible to him" (De Natura et Gratia c.43). That is, by prayer we may obtain a remedy for our weakness; for when we pray, God gives us strength to do that which we cannot do of ourselves.

We cannot believe, continues St Augustine, that God would have imposed on us the observance of a law, and then made the law impossible. When, therefore, God shows us that of ourselves we are unable to observe all His commandments, it is simply to admonish us to do the easier things by means of the ordinary grace which He bestows on us all, and then to do the more difficult things by means of the more powerful help which we can obtain by prayer. "By the very fact that it is absurd to suppose that God could have commanded us to do impossible things, we are admonished what to do in easy matters, and what to ask for in difficulties" (De Natura et Gratia c.69). But why, it will be asked, has God commanded us to do things impossible to our natural strength? Precisely for this reason, says St. Augustine, that we may be impelled to pray for His help to do that which of ourselves we cannot do. "He commands some things which we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him" (De Gr. et Lib. Arb. c.16). And in another place: "The law was given that grace might be sought for; grace was given that the law might be fulfilled" (De Spir. et Litt. c.19). The law cannot be kept without grace, and God has given the law with this object, that we may always ask him for grace to observe it. In another place he says: "The law is good, if it be used lawfully; what then, is the lawful use of the law?" He answers: "When by the law we perceive our own weakness, and ask of God the grace to heal us" (Serm. 156, Ed. Ben.) St. Augustine then says: "We ought to use the law; but for what purpose? In order to learn by means of the law that which we find to be above our strength and our own inability to observe it, in order that we may then obtain by prayer the Divine aid to cure our weakness."

St. Bernard's teaching is the same: "What are we, or what is our strength, that we should be able to resist so many temptations? This is certainly what God intended; that upon seeing our deficiencies and realizing that we have no other help, we should with all humility have recourse to His mercy" (In Quad. 5.5). God knows how useful it is to us to be ob1iged to pray, in order to keep us humble and to exercise our confidence; and He therefore permits us to be assaulted by enemies too mighty to be overcome by our own strength, that by prayer we may obtain from His mercy the aid to resist them." It is especially to be remarked that no one can resist the temptations of the flesh against purity without recommending himself to God when he is tempted. This foe is so terrible that, in the conflict, it takes away, as it were, all light; it makes us forget all our meditations, all our good resolutions; it makes us also disregard the truths of faith, and even almost lose the fear of the Divine punishments. For impure temptations conspire with our natural inclinations, which drive us with the greatest violence to the indulgence of sensual pleasures. In such a moment, he who does not have recourse to God is lost. The only defense against this temptation is prayer, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says: "Prayer is the bulwark of chastity" (De Or. Dom. 1); and before him King Solomon said: "And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent except God gave it, I went to the Lord and besought Him" (Wisd. 8:21). Chastity is a virtue that we do not have the strength to practice, unless God bestows it upon us; and God does not give this strength except to him who asks for it. But whoever prays for it will certainly obtain it.

Hence St. Thomas observes (in contradiction to Jansenius), that we ought not to say that the precept of chastity, or any other, is impossible to us; for though we cannot observe it by our own strength, we can by God's assistance. "We must say, that what we can do with the Divine assistance is not altogether impossible to us" (1.2 q.109, a.4). Nor let it be said that it appears an injustice to order a cripple to walk straight. No, says St Augustine, it is not an injustice, provided always that means are given to him to find the remedy for his lameness; for after this, if he continues to go crooked, the fault is his own. "It is most wisely commanded that man should walk uprightly, so that when he sees that he cannot do so of himself, he may seek a remedy to heal the lameness of sin" (De Perf. Just. hom. c.3). Finally, the same holy Doctor says, "He knows how to live aright who knows how to pray aright" (Serm 55, E.B. app.); and, on the other hand, St. Francis of Assisi says, that without prayer you can never hope to find good fruit in a soul.

Wrongly, therefore, do those sinners excuse themselves who say that they have no strength to resist temptation. But if you don't have this strength, why do you not ask for it? This is the reproof which St. James gives them: "You have it not, because you ask it not" (James 4:2). There is no doubt that we are too weak to resist the attacks of our enemies. But, on the other hand, it is certain that God is faithful, as the Apostle says, and will not permit us to be tempted beyond our strength: "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able; but will make also with the temptation issue, that ye may be able to bear it" (1 Cor. 10:13). "He will provide an issue for it," says Primasius, "by the protection of His grace, that you may be able to withstand the temptation." We are weak, but God is strong; when we ask Him for aid, He communicates His strength to us; and we shall be able to do all things, as the Apostle reasonably assured himself: "I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). Therefore, he who falls into sin has no excuse (says St. John Chrysostom), because he has neglected to pray; for if he had prayed, he would not have been overcome by his enemies. "Nor can anyone be excused who, by ceasing to pray, has shown that he did not wish to overcome his enemy" (Serm. De Moyse).

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