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On the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, or on the Octave of Her Nativity

Of two ways in which men come to the Blessed Virgin. Of the temptations that attack men living in seclusion. Of that which they must learn by experience, and make their own, before they can attain to the highest degree of real perfection.

Transite ad me, omnes qui concupiscitis me.

“Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits.”

To-day we celebrate the eighth day after the Birth of our Lady. St Bernard and other Saints confess that they cannot praise her enough, and that they must perforce be silent on all the riches of her praise. St Bernard says: “Dear Lady, although thou hast been exalted to the kinship of the Godhead, forget not thy kinship with our poor human nature. Be not so entirely lost in the Abyss of the Godhead, that thou canst not also remember that human weakness by which thou also hast been tempted, and the many holy prayers which have been offered unto thee by me and by many holy Saints.”

There are two ways in which she has been treated by men. Some will not, and say that they cannot pray, because they desire and also must needs trust themselves to God’s keeping, that He may do as He sees fit with them and all theirs. Others pray fervently to our Lady and to other Saints about all their affairs. There may be defects in both of these ways. The first err by not realising that the Holy Church has ordained that all men should pray. Our dear Lord taught us this Himself, and gave us an example and a model of prayer; for He Himself prayed to His Heavenly Father. These men justify their foolish notion, by saying that they need not worship, and that they will yet be heard, if their intentions are not evil. But there are some things which the Lord will only do in answer to prayer. Now, mark, God often allows man to fall into trouble, that he may be provoked unto prayer. Then God helps him, and hears his prayer, in order that his love may be stirred up yet more, and that by means of the answer he may receive comfort.

The others also err who pray because they are impatient, and expect that all the things for which they pray must come to pass. They ought indeed to pray, but with true resignation, that in all ways and in all things they may gladly accept the Will of God. Now, we have lately said much of the way in which men, who are beginning to do better, must cut off all gross, course sins and all growing evil inclinations, while those men who have in some measure attained to perfection must root out their inner besetting sins.

Now, those men, who have gone into retirement, fixing their hearts on God alone, desiring only to love God, and to think only of Him, are brought into such great temptations by the Evil One, that a man in the world would be terrified thereby. Temptation is common to all these men; and yet in each case the origin is very different. Temptation comes to a worldly man from an unmortified heart, from his nature, from flesh and blood. The temptation overpowers him, his work is destroyed; therefore there is nothing left for the Enemy to do, and he blazes it abroad. But a good man holds fast in his integrity, temptation comes to him from without and but little from his own heart. Thus the Enemy finds out some tendency in a man, even though he be pure. For instance, a man may naturally be inclined to anger; the Enemy discovers this, and attacks him with all his cunning, full of wicked deceit. He need not give himself so much trouble with a worldly man, for such an one follows immediately. He can entangle him in his toils at once, winding them round and round him till he is quite helpless. This is the way in which the Enemy treats a man whom he finds inclined to anger. He first of all suggests one image to him, and then another, which will rouse him, so that at last the man becomes angry, and he cries and clamours, as though he desired to beat and stab every one. But if he then comes to himself, and casts himself down before God in the very depths of humility, desiring no confessor, but making peace with man and giving due satisfaction, he can then cast himself down in his unworthiness and great sin, and then his sin will vanish from the sight of God like snow before the sun; all will be atoned, and the Enemy will depart thence in sorrow. If a man desire to act wisely in this, he must be very sincere and ready to get free.

Now we must notice one sense in which this does not affect all men; and we poor, weak, feeble creatures, who have not experienced them, may well fear to speak and hear of such exalted things. For it is just those, who know about them, who find it is so utterly impossible to speak of them. Job said: “A Spirit passed before my face, when I was trembling; it stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof.”2121    Job iv. 14-16. St Gregory understood this to mean the Sacred Humanity of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. The Form, which he saw, and did not recognise, was the unknown Godhead which is concealed from all creatures and is unknown to them. To this he added that which is written in the third of Kings. The Angel told Elias to go forth and stand upon the mount till the Lord came. When he went up, an awful tempest came, which was so strong that it overturned the mountain, the hard rocks were broken and the mountains were rent asunder; but in that the Lord did not come. Then there was a great and terrible earthquake; but in that the Lord did not come. Then there was a fierce fire; but neither in that did the Lord come. After all these things there was a still small Voice, a soft rustling like a gentle breeze; and in that came the Lord. Elias stood at the door of the cave, and wrapped his face in his mantle. In none of these ways—neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, did the Lord come; but, as St Gregory says, they were all a preparation and the road therein. These high mountains are like lofty, great minds; and the hard rocks and the earthquake are like minds wanting in self-control; and men who thing well of themselves, who hold fast to their own devices, and are self-willed and uncontrolled, they make great plans and do great deeds, but all in their own way. When the Lord comes to such men, He must first send a great earthquake, which will upset all that is in them.

But, alas, there are not many such men. The reason is that men content themselves with the things of this life, and cleave to their evil nature; and thus they remain, given up to the pleasures of sense. But those who are rightly stirred up, either more or less (and I have seen many such men), have feared over and over again, that in that hour they must lay down their lives. A man asked our Lord what he ought to do, because it seemed to him, day and night, as if he must lose his life in this way, and whether he ought thus to endanger it. Our Lord answered him: “Canst thou not risk and suffer that internally, which I suffered without measure in My body, in My Hands and Feet and in all My Body?”

Children, some men cannot bear this; so they seek here, there and everywhere for rest; and find it not, till they cast themselves down into the depths of suffering. How, think ye, should death be met? Children, if a man were as pure as when first baptized, and had never fallen into sin, still, if he desired to attain to the next truth, he must pass through this earthquake, and by this way into true resignation, or he will get no further.

After this earthquake came the fire; and in that the Lord came not. This means fiery love, which consumes the bones and the marrow, and by means of which a man is brought outside himself. A man was once so greatly inflamed by this fire that he never trusted himself to go near straw, thinking that his very heat must set it alight. Another man, because of this heat, could only sleep in winter when it had been snowing; he then lay down in the snow and slept, and the snow immediately melted around him, far and near. See, children, fiery love penetrates by the spirit into the body, and yet in this the Lord comes not.

After this came a sweet, gentle breeze, a soft wind like a murmur; and in that came the Lord. How was it, think ye, that must be, when the Lord comes to man in all these ways which are sudden and violent, and which cause such great disturbances that all that there is in his poor nature and in his spirit is consumed, so that then the Lord Himself comes? Know this, that if God did not preserve man’s nature in a supernatural manner, he would be unable, even if he had the strength of a hundred men, to bear the joy and the wonder; and yet it is only a glimpse. This glimpse was so excessively sudden that Elias stood in the door of the cave, and wrapped his face in his mantle. This cave is human weakness; but the entrance is nothing less than the vision of the Godhead by man. Elias wrapped his face in his mantle; which means that, however short and swift the vision was, still it was a glimpse that transcended nature, and was insupportable and incomprehensible to the natural man. Children, it was verily God the Lord Who was here. His sweetness is far above that of honey and the honey-comb, which are the sweetest things known to the world. But this reaches far beyond all powers, even unto a fathomless abyss. As weak eyes cannot bear the brightness of the sun, so a thousand times less can nature endure this condition in her weakness. All that we can say of this is that however well and fully we may be able to comprehend it with our minds, express it in words, or grasp it with the understanding, still it is all as utterly unlike the reality as it would be were I to say of a piece of black coal: “Look, here is the bright sun which lightens all the world.” Here true peace is brought forth; that peace which passeth all understanding; and thus a man may here be established in that true peace, which no man taketh from him.

Now the Form which Job saw and did not recognise, was the second Person of the Godhead, the Son of God; the soft, gentle Breeze in which the Lord came was the Holy Ghost. St Gregory says that this means that He came in this gentle breeze, and at Whitsuntide in a rushing wind. The reason was that He came to the outward man in a visible way, that he might carry on the work for the benefit of Christendom. Job needed it not after this fashion, therefore the Spirit came to him. Blessed are the sons of men who can attain to this great good for an instant even before death. But know that, however great and good this may be, it is as unlike all the sweetness that will be ours in Eternal Life, as the least drop of water is to the fathomless sea.

Now, what becomes of all those men before whom this joy is held forth and made known? They sink down in their absolute nothingness, in an inscrutable manner, as though they desired to be annihilated for a hundred hours out of love and praise to Him. It would be joy to them in the Presence and in awe of that great Being, out of very love, to attain to a state of non-existence; and they would gladly cast themselves down into the deepest abyss; for the more they acknowledge His Majesty, the more they acknowledge their own littleness and worthlessness. By this annihilation they have so absolutely separated themselves from themselves, that even if God wished to give none of this consolation and this experience they would not desire it, but would flee from it. And, if of their own free will they desired none, it would not be good for them, and it might easily lead them into sin, for which they would afterwards have to suffer in purgatory; and it would also be a sign that all was not well with them. Therefore the power of love must ever be thirsting; while moderation and discretion flee away.

These men have a most consuming thirst for suffering. They look upon it as their consolation and joy, given to them by God, that they may follow the blessed example of Christ. They desire to may come to them in the most ignominious and painful manner in which it can be borne. They thirst for the Cross; and, with love and fervent longings, they bend beneath the Cross of their beloved Lord. Here the Holy Cross is exalted indeed on the sacred Day of the Cross. The sufferings and the example of our Lord are followed here with true dignity. St Paul, who was exalted even unto the third heaven, said: “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”2222    Eph. vi. 14. Job said: “My soul rather chooseth hanging, and my bones death.”2323    Job vii. 15. This he chose as the best that God had given him. This hanging on the Cross is pain to most men, because their God hung on the Cross for their sakes, therefore God ordains that man should experience horrible darkness, and be forsaken in his great misery. How can the power of love, which was kindled by the flame of love, sustain itself when thus cut off from all consolation in such a perceptible way? Integrity and moderation come and speak to the power of love: “See, beloved one, this is the inheritance that He has left to those who love Him; a soul full of God and a body or nature full of suffering.” As love burns more or less brightly, so this inheritance is ever more valued, and is sweeter than any other consolation could be. This is the longed-for inheritance that our Lord promised to His Friends by the Prophets. The more nobly they posses this inheritance and love it, the more they will also posses that blessed and heavenly inheritance that our Lord extolled to His friends. They will posses it ever in fuller measure throughout eternity. The holy Martyrs have attained to this inheritance by their great love. They think they are only just beginning life; they feel like men who are beginning to grow. May God have mercy on those who neglect this ever increasing, true and holy blessing for vile, corrupt things, and may we ever confess this to Him. Amen.

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