Joseph’s Interior Life of Prayer and Contemplation

July 7, 2021 • 11 min

From The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, in file "The Life and Glories of St. Joseph", page 367
By Edward Healy Thompson, M.A.

The inner life is the true life of a man, and all the splendour and merit exhibited in the visible and sensible actions of the saints have their principle within and their source in the heart, hidden from men and patent to God only.

The Royal Prophet was well persuaded of this truth, for, after his panegyric of the surpassing beauty of the Spouse who had won the heart of the Eternal King, he confesses that it is needful to look within, for it is thence that all her glory proceeds: “All the glory of the King’s daughter is from within”.

We may safely affirm that never was there a saint whose life was so interior as was that of Joseph. Duly to honour him, then, it behoves us, with the aid of light from above, to endeavour to penetrate into his soul, there to admire the priceless treasures of grace and the virtues with which God replenished it, especially while his life was “hid with Christ in God”.

In considering this interior life of Joseph we may securely take as our guide the pronouncement of Holy Church, and adopt her language concerning him in those hymns composed in his honour which have been admitted into her divine offices.

Now, what does she say? “Others after a pious death attain to perfect bliss, but thou, O Joseph, while yet living on earth art in the enjoyment of God, like to the saints in Heaven.” (“Post mortem reliquos mors pia consecrat: tu vivens, superis par, frueris Deo.”—Hymnus in Festo S. Joseph, die xix. Martii.)

The Holy See has authorised these words, and the voices of countless priests have consecrated them in all the sanctuaries of our holy religion in which they have been sung. May we not add that they have been in a manner canonised by the general veneration with which they have been received and reechoed in the hearts of the great body of the faithful?

If, then, we desire to know what was the life which Joseph led while on earth, that secret life, that life of the Spirit, that life which passes between God and the soul, we are taught by the Church that it was like that of the Blessed in Heaven.

And that we may not suppose that there is any exaggeration in such an estimate, the Church reiterates, or rather reinforces, her first utterances, assuring us that in the hidden life of Joseph privileges may be discerned which none of the saints in Paradise enjoy. His lot on earth surpassed even that of the saints in Heaven. (“Mira sorte beatior.”—Ibid.)

This suffices us; we need no further description of the interior of Joseph than that with which Holy Church has herself supplied us.

Now, we know that the saints in Heaven are full of light, burning with love, and plunged in delights inexpressible. Full of light, because penetrated with the resplendent rays and receiving the powerful impression of the Uncreated Light in their understandings (“In Thy light shall we see light.” Psalm xxxv. 10.); burning with divine love, because in Heaven they behold nothing but what is lovable, and because they participate in their measure, according to the prayer of the Son, in that love which unites Him and His Eternal Father (“That the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” St. John xvii. 26.); immersed in ineffable joys, because in Heaven all is perfectly conformable to our feelings and inclinations, and to the spiritual faculties of our souls. With truth is the bliss of Heaven called “the joy of the Lord,” (St. Matthew xxv. 21, 23.) since it is union with Him who is essential Joy, as He is also Light and Love.

Such also was Joseph’s life on earth; full of light, burning with love, and plunged in ineffable delight.

Nor let it be supposed that any contradiction is implied between what is here said and the assertion that he led a life of inward martyrdom, a martyrdom of love. We shall have occasion to return to this subject hereafter; it may be sufficient meanwhile to remark that the highest joy and the greatest suffering and sorrow are not incompatible, since we know that our Lord’s Human Soul possessed the Beatific Vision while He was leading a life of suffering on earth, and even during His Passion, though He did not permit His inferior nature to derive any consolation therefrom. In this state He stands alone, since it resulted from the union in Him of two natures the divine and the human in virtue of which His human soul enjoyed the vision of God. Still, saints, in their degree, and after His pattern, have been enabled to rejoice and sorrow at the same time, and even to exult in the midst of the keenest anguish, through the grace communicated to the superior region of their souls.

Scripture teaches us that there are two principal ways in which God communicates supernatural light to His dearest friends on earth. The first is through prayer; and the second is by a ray of divine wisdom, with which He graciously enlightens the understanding. Joseph, then, during his whole life had his soul raised in God, “the Father of Lights,” by the highest contemplation; and, in the next place, this great God united him to Himself; by infusing into his understanding the purest rays of His infinite wisdom. Hence his soul was full of light.

If little, comparatively, is said by the Evangelists respecting Joseph, we may be sure that that little has always a special meaning, which we should do well to study and examine. We are often surprised by what saints and doctors of the Church have extracted out of certain passages of Scripture which to our denser spiritual senses would not have been discernible.

When St. Luke mentions Joseph and Mary wondering at what they beheld and heard on finding Jesus in the Temple, many holy writers have believed that this was no ordinary wonder. The Evangelist, so parsimonious of his words, would scarcely have recorded so particularly what might have been readily supposed of any ordinary parents. It has, then, been believed by saints and doctors that the two holy spouses were rapt in a species of ecstasy, that highest form of ecstasy of which the most perfect souls are alone capable, and which leaves the mind in the full exercise of its faculties.

For the suspension of the senses is no measure of the sublimity of the rapture, as all who have the slightest acquaintance with mystical theology are aware. Far from this, it is a well-known fact that a soul new to such divine favours, and but moderately advanced in the spiritual life, will swoon away or become outwardly insensible at the slightest supernatural communication, although graces of a much higher order would fail so to affect one who was more familiar with these divine operations, and who had made greater progress in the life of perfection.

That our Lady’s life was one of almost abiding ecstasy we may well believe, an ecstasy indefinitely heightened by every fresh manifestation of the glory of her Divine Son; and her ecstatic state must have surpassed all to which saints have been raised. Nevertheless, we cannot imagine that she was ever deprived of the use of her external senses; and of holy Joseph we may believe the same. 1

How do we suppose he was interiorly engaged when in his workshop with Jesus at his side? Doubtless he was in silent rapture, but at the same time giving full exterior attention to the work in which his hands were occupied. And how was his mind employed during his journeys? It was contemplating the infinite perfections of God-made-Man, whom he held in his arms or led by his hand. How, also, during his exile, apart from converse with men? His life, in short, was a continual communication with God by means of never-ceasing prayer, not only while waking, but even while sleeping, as several doctors opine.

It is worthy of notice that whenever the angel brought to Joseph any command from God, he always spoke to him when sleeping. This singular mode of apparition, we have good authority for believing, was more glorious than that which has been customary with other saints, and was a mark of the eminent virtue of Joseph.

Such was the view of a learned interpreter who flourished more than eight centuries ago. We may fairly conclude that Gerson had the same thought when he tells us that the slumber of this great saint was not an effect of nature but of grace, which never ceased to operate in his soul at those times when he gave some repose to his body.

Or rather, did not Gerson, with many other doctors, mean to teach us thereby that Joseph was raised to that state of spiritual silence and plunged in that mystic sleep during which contemplatives discourse with God after having attained to the most perfect union with Him? The learned Simon de Cassia, indeed, held that this sleep of our saint was a rapture, one of those ecstasies which were continual during almost his whole life.

St. John Chrysostom compares the sleep of Joseph with the trance into which God plunged Adam when He formed Eve; and, since many doctors judge that this deep sleep or trance of the first man was an ecstatic slumber, we may readily admit that the sleep of Mary’s spouse was akin to ecstasy, and that his slumber was mysterious in its character.

The sleep of Peter in his dungeon and that of Joseph differed widely. The angel caused a great splendour to fill the prison, in order to make the Apostle open his eyes; and this did not suffice, until the blessed spirit touched him, to rouse him out of his deep slumber.

But each time that the angel came to speak to Joseph when sleeping, he had only to present himself and speak one word in order to be recognised, heard, and obeyed; because this great saint, in whom the exercises of nature scarcely suspended the operations of grace, slept a sleep more resembling an ecstasy than a common slumber; and it was easy for him to perceive and hearken to an angel at the same time that he was familiarly conversing with the God who sent him.

1 See concerning St. Joseph’s ecstasies, Eduardus Vastorius, In Enar. Coruscationum; Damianus, Sermo de Natali Domini; Enar. xix.; and Joannes Bourgehesius, in Harmon. Evang. p. 75, who says that St. Joseph was in almost continual ecstasy.

This topic continues in the book, but this book snippet is already long enough. The rest shall have to wait for another day.

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