Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin
FROM the example of Christ, his blessed Mother, and the apostles, St. Thomas shows1 that state to be in itself the most perfect which joins together the functions of Martha and Mary, or of the active and contemplative life. This is endeavoured by those persons who so employ themselves in the service of their neighbour, as amidst their external employs or conversation often to raise their minds to God, feeding always on their heavenly invisible food, as the angel did in Tobys company on earth. Who also, by the practice and love of daily recollection and much solitude, fit themselves to appear in public; and who by having learned the necessary art of silence in its proper season, and by loving to speak little among men,2 study to be in the first place their own friends, and by reflection and serious consideration to be thoroughly acquainted with themselves, and to converse often in heaven.3 Such will be able to acquit themselves of external employs without prejudice to their own virtue, when called to them by duty, justice, or charity. They may avoid the snares of the world, and sanctify their conversation with men. Of this the Blessed Virgin is to us a perfect model in the visit paid to her cousin Elizabeth, as St. Francis of Sales takes notice, who borrowed from this mystery the name which he gave to his order of nuns, who, according to the first plan of their institute, were devoted to visit and attend on the sick.
The angel Gabriel, in the mystery of the Annunciation, informed the mother of God, that her cousin Elizabeth had miraculously conceived, and was then in the sixth month of her pregnancy. The Blessed Virgin, out of humility, concealed the favour she had received and the wonderful dignity to which she was raised by the incarnation of the Son of God in her womb; but in the transport of her holy joy and gratitude, she would go to congratulate the mother of the Baptist; with which resolution the Holy Ghost inspired her for his great designs in favour of her Sons precursor not yet born. Mary therefore arose, saith St. Luke, and with haste went into the hilly-country into a city of Judu; and entering into the house of Zachary saluted Elizabeth. She made this visit to a saint, because the company of the servants of God is principally to be sought, from whose example and very silence the heart will always treasure up something, and the understanding receive some new light and improvement in charity. As glowing coals increase their flame by contact, so is the fire of divine love kindled in a fervent soul by the words and example of those who truly love God. In this journey what lessons of humility does the holy Virgin give us! She had been just saluted mother of God, and exalted above all mere creatures, even the highest seraphim of heaven; yet far from being elated with the thoughts of her incomprehensible dignity, she appears but the more humble by it. She prevents the mother of the Baptist in this office of charity; the mother of God pays a visit to the mother of her Sons servant; the Redeemer of the world goes to his precursor. What a subject of confusion is this to the pride of the children of the world! who not content with the rules of respect which the law of subordination requires, carry their vanity to an excess of ceremoniousness contrary even to good manners, and to the freedom of conversation, which they make an art of constraint and of torture both to themselves and others; and in which they seek not any duty of piety or improvement in virtue, but loathsome means of foolish flattery, the gratification of vanity, or that dissipation of mind which continually entertains it with trifles and idleness, and is an enemy to serious consideration and virtue.
When the office of charity called upon Mary, she thought of no dangers or difficulties in so painful and long a journey of above fourscore miles from Nazareth, in Galilee, to Hebron, a sacerdotal city in the mountainous country on the western side of the tribe of Juda. The inspired writer takes notice, that she went with haste or with speed and diligence, to express her eagerness to perform this good office. Charity knows not what sloth is, but always acts with fervour. She likewise would hasten her steps out of modesty, not choosing to appear abroad, but as compelled by necessity or charity; not travelling out of vanity, idleness, or curiosity, but careful in her journey to shun the dissipation of the world, according to the remarks of St. Ambrose. Whence we may also gather with what care she guarded her eyes, and what was the entertainment of her pious soul with God upon the road. Being arrived at the house of Zachary, she entered it, and saluted Elizabeth. What a blessing did the presence of the God-man bring to this house, the first which he honoured in his humanity with his visit! But Mary is the instrument and means by which he imparts to it his divine benediction; to show us that she is a channel through which he delights to communicate to us his graces, and to encourage us to ask them of him through her intercession. At the voice of the mother of God, but by the power and grace of her Divine Son, in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost, and the infant in her womb was sanctified; and miraculously anticipating the use of reason, knew by divine inspiration the mystery of the incarnation, and who it was that came to visit him. From this knowledge he conceived so great, so extraordinary a joy as to leap and exult in the womb.4 If Abraham and all the ancient prophets exulted only to foresee in spirit that day when it was at the distance of so many ages, what wonder the little Baptist felt so great a joy to see it then present! How eagerly did he desire to take up his office of precursor, and already to announce to men their Redeemer, that he might be known and adored by all! But how do we think he adored and reverenced him present in his mothers womb? and what were the blessings with which he was favoured by him? He was cleansed from original sin, and filled with sanctifying grace, was made a prophet, and adored the Mossiah before he was yet born.
At the same time Elizabeth was likewise filled with the Holy Ghost; and by his infused light, she understood the great mystery of the Incarnation which God had wrought in Mary, whom humility prevented from disclosing it even to a saint, and an intimate friend. In raptures of astonishment, Elizabeth pronounced her blessed above all other women, she being made by God the instrument of his blessing to the world, and of removing the malediction which through Eve had been entailed on mankind. But the fruit of her womb she called blessed in a sense still infinitely higher, he being the immense source of all graces, by whom only Mary herself was blessed. Elizabeth then turning her eyes upon herself, cried out: Whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? She herself had conceived, barren and by a miracle; but Mary, a virgin, and by the Holy Ghost; she conceived one greater than the prophets, but Mary the eternal Son of God, himself true God. The Baptist, her son, used the like exclamation to express his confusion and humility when Christ came to be baptized by his hands. In the like words and profound sentiments ought we to receive all the visits of God in his graces, especially in the holy sacraments. Elizabeth styles Mary, Mother of her Lord, that is, mother of God; and she foretels that all things would befal her and her Son which had been spoken by the prophets.
Mary hearing her own praise, sunk the lower in the abyss of her nothingness, and converting all good gifts to the glory of God, whose gratuitous mercy had bestowed them, in the transport of her humility, and melting in an ecstasy of love and gratitude, burst into that admirable canticle called the Magnificat. It is the first recorded in the New Testament, and both in the noble sentiments which compose it, and in the majesty of the style, surpasses all those of the ancient prophets. It is the most perfect model of thanksgiving and praise for the incarnation of the Son of God, and the most precious monument of the profound humility of Mary. In it she glorifies God with all the powers of her soul for his boundless mercies, and gives to him alone all the glory. In the spiritual gladness of her heart she adores her Saviour, who had cast his merciful eyes upon her lowliness. Though all nations will call her blessed, she declares that nothing is her due but abjection, and that this mystery is the effect of the pure power and mercy of God; and that he who had dethroned tyrants, fed the hungry in the wilderness, and wrought so many wonders in favour of his people, had now vouchsafed himself to visit them, to live among them, to die for them, and to fulfil all things which he had promised by his prophets from the beginning. Mary staid with her cousin almost three months; after which she returned to Nazareth.
Whilst with the Church we praise God for the mercies and wonders which he wrought in this mystery, we ought to apply ourselves to the imitation of the virtues of which Mary sets us a perfect example. From her we ought particularly to learn the lessons by which we shall sanctify our visits and conversation; actions which are to so many Christians the sources of innumerable dangers and sins. We must shun not only scurrilous and profane discourse, but whatever is idle, light, airy, or unprofitable; whilst we unbend our mind, we ought as much as possible to seek that conversation which is conducive to the improvement of our hearts or understandings, and to the advancement of virtue and solid useful knowledge. If we suffer our mind to be puffed up with empty wind, it will become itself such as is the nourishment upon which it feeds. We should shun the vice of talkativeness, did we but consult that detestable vanity itself which betrays us into this folly; for nothing is more tyrannical or more odious and insupportable in company than to usurp a monopoly of the discourse. Nothing can more degrade us in the opinion of others than for us to justle, as it were, for the word; to vent all we have in our hearts, at least a great deal that we ought to conceal there; and without understanding ourselves, or taking a review of our meaning or words, to pour out embryos of half-formed conceptions, and speak of the most noble subjects in an undress of thoughts. What proofs of our vanity and folly, what disgraces, what perplexities, what detractions, and other evils and sins should we avoid, if we were but sparing and reserved in our words! If we find ourselves to swell with an itch of talking, big with our own thoughts, and impatient to give them vent, we must by silence curb this dangerous passion, and learn to be masters of our words.
Note 4. From the word joy used by the evangelist on this occasion, and from the unanimous consent of the fathers, it is manifest that the holy infant anticipated the use of reason, and that this was not a mere natural motion, as some Protestants have imagined, but the result of reason, and the effect of holy joy and devotion. [back]