All Day (Monday)
Meditations for Lent By: Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Courtesy of Sophia Institute Press Solemnity of the Annunciation The Handmaiden The holy Fathers say with one accord that the principle of our ruin was pride, and the reason
Meditations for Lent
By: Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
Courtesy of Sophia Institute Press
Solemnity of the Annunciation
The holy Fathers say with one accord that the principle of our ruin was pride, and the reason for this is plain: from the sacred Scriptures we learn that the fall of man was prompted by Satan. This proud spirit fell upon us. Like a large building that falls over and crushes a smaller one beneath it, so did this proud spirit topple over onto us and envelop us in his ruin. By falling upon us, he impressed upon us a movement similar to his own. Having been beaten by his own pride, he pulled us after him, so that we are now as proud as he, and this pride is our most deadly vice.
Of all the vices, it is the one that is most opposed to its remedy and which most greatly separates us from mercy. For man, wretched as he is, would be easily rendered worthy of pity if he had not been proud. It is easy enough to have compassion for unhappy people who submit themselves, but, as St. Augustine says, “There is no one more unworthy of compassion than a proud sufferer, one who joins arrogance to weakness.” This is the condition in which we were: at once weak and haughty, powerless and yet bold. This presumption closed the door on mercy; therefore, in order to relieve our misery it was first necessary to cure us of our pride. To attract compassion, we first had to learn humility. This is the reason God humbled himself in the womb of the Blessed Virgin and took upon himself the form of a slave.
Here we ought to admire the method God employed to cure human arrogance, and to do this it is necessary to explain the nature of our stubborn illness. Pride, as St. Augustine tells us, is a false and pernicious imitation of God’s greatness: “Those who rise up against you,” he says, addressing God, “imitate you in a disordered way.” This account makes good sense, but a nice distinction made by the same Father will help us to see farther. There are some things that God allows us to imitate, and others he does not. What excites his jealousy is when man wants to make himself God and resemble him, but not every kind of resemblance is offensive.
For he has made us in his image, and we carry upon ourselves the impression of his countenance and the mark of his perfections. There are divine attributes which our attempts to resemble do not make him angry with us; on the contrary, he commands it. For instance, consider his mercy, of which it is said in the Scriptures that it “is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). He has ordained us to conform to this model: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). God is patient with sinners, inviting them to repentance, and while he waits for them to return, he causes the sun to shine on them. He wants us to show ourselves to be his children by imitating this patience with regard to our enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). Likewise, as he is truthful, we can imitate him in his truthfulness. He is just; we can follow him in his justice. He is holy, and even though his holiness seems entirely incommunicable, he is nevertheless not angered if we dare to resemble him in this marvelous attribute. On the contrary, he commands it: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
What is the resemblance that makes him so jealous? It is when we wish to resemble his independence by taking our will as its own sovereign law, just as he himself has no law beyond his absolute will. This is where he is touchy; this is his point of delicacy. This is when he violently pushes back those who would injure the majesty of his empire. Let us be gods: he allows it through the imitation of his holiness, justice, patience, and ever-generous mercy. But as to his power, let us keep ourselves within the bounds proper to a creature, and not allow our desires to extend to so dangerous a resemblance.
Here is the unchanging rule that distinguishes between what we can and what we cannot imitate in God. But oh, how depraved are the sons of Adam! Oh, how strange is the corruption of our hearts! We reverse this beautiful order. We do not wish to imitate him in the things in which he proposes himself to us as a model, and in those in which he wishes to be unique and inimitable, we attempt to counterfeit him. For if we were to imitate him in his holiness, would the prophet say, “Help, Lord; for there is no longer any one that is godly” (Ps. 12:1)? Or if we were to imitate his fidelity or his justice, would the prophet Micah say: “The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net” (Micah 7:2)? And so we do not wish to imitate God in these excellent traits whose living image is so easy to see in us. Instead that sovereignty, that independence which we are not allowed to grasp: these we seek. This is the sacred and inviolable right that we dare to usurp.
For, as St. Augustine explains, just as God has no one above him who rules and governs him, so also do we wish to be the arbiters of our conduct, so that by casting off the yoke, cutting the reins, and spitting out the bridle of the commandment that restrains our wayward liberty, we might depend upon no other power and be as gods upon the earth. This false estimation of our independence makes us irritable in the face of laws. The one who prohibits us incites us, as if we were to say in our hearts: “What! Someone dares to command me!” We take offense at laws as we would at some great injury done to our person.
Is this not what God himself holds against the proud, under the image of the prince of Tyre: “Because your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of gods’ ” (Ezek. 28:2). You wanted neither to be ruled by nor to depend upon another. You are full of yourself, and you ascribe all things to yourself. When you have seen your fortune founded by your skill and intrigue, you did not remember the hand of God, and you said with Pharaoh “My Nile is my own,” that is, this whole great domain belongs to me, it is the fruit of my labor, “I made it” (Ezek. 29:3).
Thus does our blind pride set us up as petty gods. Well then, O proud man, O little god: behold the great living God who lowers himself to confound you. Man has made himself god through his pride. God makes himself man through his humility. Man falsely credits himself with God’s greatness, and God truly takes on man’s nothingness. For thus we should consider what happens today in the blessed womb of the holy Virgin. There, God empties and annihilates himself by taking the form of a slave so that the slave might be confounded when he wishes to make himself the master and lord.
Here is a new secret of the divine mercy, which wished not only to confound our pride, but even to condescend to the point of giving it a certain kind of satisfaction. For it was necessary to give something to this unruly passion, which will never entirely surrender. Man had dared to aspire to the divine independence. He could not be contented on this point: the throne cannot be divided and the sovereign Majesty cannot suffer an equal. Yet here is a counsel of mercy that will be capable of satisfying our pride: if we cannot resemble God in his sovereign independence, he wishes to resemble us in our humility. Man can never become independent. In order to satisfy him, God becomes submissive. His sovereign grandeur will not allow itself to be abased while remaining in himself, but this infinitely abundant nature does not refuse to go borrowing in order to enrich itself by humility, so that, as St. Augustine says, “the man who disdains humility, who calls it simplicity and baseness when he sees it in other men, will not disdain to practice it, seeing it in God.” Such is God’s plan to cure human arrogance: he chose to rip out of our hearts that indomitable pride that submits only with disdain and dominates with glee, which cannot abide any burden or law, even those given by God. This is why there is no lowliness or servitude to which Christ does not descend: he abandoned himself to the will of his Father.
Let us carefully weigh these words: he took the form of a slave. He took upon himself the human nature that obliged him to be a subject, he who was born king. He descends still further. He took the form of a slave because he appeared like a sinner, because he himself was robed with “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), and in this way he bore the marks of a slave, such as circumcision, and he lived a servile life: “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). He abased himself much further. He took the form of a slave because he was not only similar to sinners, but he was the public victim for all sinners. From the first moment of his conception — “when Christ came into the world,” as the apostle said — he took upon himself the condition of victim, and he said, “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:5, 7).
Lest we think that in submitting himself to the will of God he exempted himself from depending upon the will of men, let us recall that he was handed over as a victim to the will of sinful men, to the will of Hell: “But this is your hour,” he said, “and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). He did not await the Cross to make this submission. Mary was the first altar upon which he was immolated. Mary was the temple where he first rendered homage to God, where for the first time this great and marvelous spectacle of a God submissive and obedient even unto death, even giving himself up for sinners and to Hell itself in order that they might have their way with him. Why this abasement? To confound our pride.
In the sight of so profound an abasement, who could refuse to submit? Of what obedience can we complain when we see the wills of the men to whom the Savior of souls submitted? To the will of the cowardly Pilate, of the treasonous Judas, of the High Priests, and of the barbaric soldiers who made sport of him? After this example of submission, we ought to cherish the lowest places, which, after the abasement of the incarnate God, have henceforth become the most honorable.
Mary joins us today in these sentiments. Even though her angelic purity was a powerful attraction to make Jesus Christ be born in her, it was not her purity that brought this mystery to its consummation: it was her humility and her obedience. If Mary had not said that she was a handmaiden, in vain would she have been a virgin, and we would not exclaim today that her womb is blessed. Let us profit from this lesson. Let us meditate attentively upon this truth.
Week 3: Monday
The Silence of Christ
Let us consider that the silence of patience in affliction, suffering, and contradiction is one of the most difficult parts of Christian morality to practice.
Few people like to suffer, and to suffer in silence in the sight of God alone. And if it is rare to find those who like to suffer, it is still rarer to find those who suffer without trying to tell the world of it. It is silence, however, that sanctifies our crosses and our afflictions and greatly increases their merit. If you find it difficult to suffer your crosses and defeats, bring Jesus to mind. Amid an infinite number of persecutions and sorrows that he endured in the presence of his wicked judges, before whom he was so falsely accused and slandered, he responded not at all: “Jesus was silent” (Matt. 26:63). His profound silence and invincible patience astonished Pontius Pilate: “the governor wondered greatly” (Matt. 27:14). Jesus endured a thousand injuries, insults, and indignities from all manner of persons. He was falsely accused by his cruel enemies, the scribes and the Pharisees. They said he was a blasphemer, a rebel, a breaker of the law, and a disturber of the peace, that he had contempt for the Roman taxes, and, finally, that he was misleading the people with his new doctrine. His sacred ears rang with these outcries and calumnies, but Jesus did not say a single word to justify or defend himself against these angry dogs who were so outrageously shredding his reputation. And in that dark night when this dear Savior suffered an infinite number of injuries, affronts, and cruelties: what did this mild lamb say? Alas! Not the least impatient word.
Then, in that bloody and sorrowful scourging, when he was slashed and striped by the lash, which made blood stream from his sacred veins: what patience and silence did this mild Jesus show then! He suffered all this without saying a word. He did not so much as open his mouth to complain of the cruelty of his proud executioners, who were still not content with the inhumanity they had dealt out to him.
So they took a sharp crown of thorns and pierced him to the skull. Jesus endured this torment like the others, with an unbreakable silence. He was led to Herod, who greatly desired to see him and who rejoiced. But our Lord constantly persevered in keeping a profound silence. Although he knew full well that Herod had the power to hand him over to his enemies, he said not a word in his presence: a marvel. It was with good reason that one of the Fathers called him the victim of silence; Jesus consecrated silence by the patience he displayed in his Passion.
We should admire and imitate his example. This is how we should behave when we are wrongly accused and persecuted. In whatever condition God allows you to be, and amid whatever pain he allows, learn how to remain with him without seeking consolation from creatures. Take the part of silence and shut yourself up within so that our Lord can give you the interior strength to suffer virtuously and meritoriously. It is upon these occasions that we must say with David: “My soul refused to be comforted: I remembered God, and was delighted” (Ps. 76:3-4, Douay-Rheims [RSV = Ps. 77:3-4]).
It is here that our souls are tested and marvelously improved when, by a truly Christian generosity, we are able to rise up above all that troubles and opposes us, and, like Jesus, we keep a profound silence, even when there is something to speak about, whether for our justification against an unjust accusation, or amid a raging tempest of trouble. A truly generous soul must defend itself with silence, which will be its calm and peace amid the storm. Jesus will send an interior sweetness into the depths of the hearts of those who, by a little courage, reject and abandon the help of creatures for the sake of his love.
In our sufferings and contradictions, let us not look to secondary causes. We must not pander to our self-love by a vain search for someone to blame for our sufferings. We must instead lift our sights to Heaven, to see that it is God himself who has allowed these things to happen to us, and that they will be for the sake of our salvation if we know how to profit from them. In all of the most vexing occurrences, a truly Christian soul should say to God from the depths within: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready” (Ps. 107:2, Douay-Rheims [RSV = Ps. 108:1]). I am ready to do your will, come what may.