Actual Catholicism — as opposed to the faux Catholicism espoused by today’s false shepherds — with its immutable truths that oppose our unruly passions, presents to the world a picture similar to this cave: austere and forbidding, coarse and prickly. As Fr. Leen emphasized, Our Lord could have chosen to be born in much more accommodating circumstances, but He chose the cave, with the sufferings it would cause Him:
“And all these things, the cold, the darkness, the roughness of the straw, the unpleasant odor, concentrated their arrows of suffering on the tender Body of the Baby that had just been born in this inhospitable place. Sensitive in the extreme, the Child-God quivered with pain, and broke into infant wails.” (p. 51)
We know St. Joseph acted with an extraordinary amount of virtue, grounded in a Faith, Hope, and Charity beyond that which we will attain. But, even aside from these holy motives, we can see a perfect logic in this manner of acting.
God could have chosen to pair the immense joy of Our Lord’s birth with a setting that would have been far more comfortable for the Holy Family. God instead chose to link the most profound joy the world had ever known with a setting that almost all men would have striven to avoid. This was the case not only for the Holy Family, but for all who were drawn to Jesus:
“All who wished to be with Jesus — to come close to Him — were drawn into these miserable surroundings, first Mary and Joseph and then the shepherds. They all had, in order to get near Him, to suffer the same cold, the same misery, the same abandonment — to share everything which provided a marked contrast to the scenes that were taking place in the village above.” (p. 51)
God did not make a mistake with this setting, and so we have this perpetual reminder that those who seek to do God’s will should not shy away from miserable conditions and abandonment. We do not need to seek miserable conditions — any more than Mary and Joseph sought to find a miserable cave — but we should know that such conditions do not of themselves exclude the most profound and holy joys.
Fr. Leen then described the scene taking place in the village above the cave:
“From it floated down the pleasant sounds of revelry and feasting. Every house was brilliantly illuminated and the lights shone on faces that were bright with laughter and excitement. The rooms glittered with vessels which set out delicate things to eat and drink. The cheerful music set the young people dancing, whilst the old exchanged confidences with their friends who had come from a distance. An agreeable warmth pervaded every house. Each one vied with the other in effort to gratify every sense and to dispel in a whirlwind of gaiety and pleasure the tedium of life. How they would have shuddered at the dreariness and discomforts of the cavern in the chalk cliff!” (pp. 51-52)
The cave of Bethlehem helps us see our religion in a more proper light: God sends us the various hardships in life so that we can serve Him through our virtuous practice of the religion He has given us.
As the world sees it, the village above offers the only path to happiness and contentment, even though the entirety of human experience tells us that it always falls short of satisfying our desires. Those who have never known the Faith generally cannot imagine that the cave offers the only possibility of satisfying their ultimate desires. For those who have drawn close enough to the cave to understand, though, the true contrast between the cave and city becomes clear:
“The cave and the city! What a remarkable contrast! In the city seems to be all the ‘joie de vivre’; on the hillside nothing but misery and discomfort. Yet which of these two groups of personages enjoyed the greater happiness? Need we ask? The revellers find dissipation but not happiness, and in every act of enjoyment are filled with a sense of dissatisfaction. Who is there who has not experienced the hollowness and emptiness of even the most intoxicating joys of earth? . . . On the other hand, what intense happiness is to be found at the side of the manger!” (p. 52)
Here is why the cave is an “exact presentation of the paradox of Christianity.” Even the best that the world can offer will fail to satisfy us, because God made us to be satisfied only by drawing close to Him. The danger of pursuing the “intoxicating joys of life” is that they may draw us away from the intense happiness that we find at the side of the manger. That is why the wisest men to ever live have been the saints who have deliberately chosen what seems harsh and forbidding to the world:
“The Christian life . . . has a cold and harsh and forbidding appearance. Yet, if we once deliberately make our choice, we shall find all this austerity is in the exterior and that the whole-hearted practice of Christianity and the full acceptance of its conditions give a happiness and contentment that fill the soul. Was there ever a man who had surrendered his will to the will of God who could not confess that he was supremely happy? Was there ever a worldling who could say that the pleasures of sense ever left him otherwise than with a dissatisfied craving which they were unable to satisfy? It is only those that lead an interior life that ever in this world taste real happiness. Out of one hour of their life they get more value than do superficial Christians out of years. They really live — the men given to exterior things merely exist.” (p. p. 54)
In this formula for true happiness, Fr. Leen repeated a key that many spiritual writers make: Was there ever a man who had surrendered his will to the will of God who could not confess that he was supremely happy? What, though, does this really mean in practice?
If we make the deliberate choice to follow Mary and Joseph in always seeking to do God’s will, we can offer Jesus the only thing on earth that attracts Him: souls and hearts of the holy and the pure.
Fr. Leen illustrated the perfect surrender to God’s will by describing Mary and Joseph’s search for a dwelling. Just as they were not wrong to seek a comfortable and safe shelter for Our Lady to give birth, we are not wrong when we seek what is useful for our material well-being. In all of their searching, though, Joseph maintained a perfect submission to God’s will:
“Each rebuff cut [Joseph] to the heart. Yet his manner does not change — his pain and disappointment have no power to ruffle the tranquility of his great holiness. Anxious as he was to secure shelter for Mary, his request never degenerated into unmanly importunity. He asks with humility but not with subservience, and accepts his refusal with dignity and without recrimination. For, in the successive disappointment, he sees God’s will and he instantly conforms himself to it, knowing it to be best. So we should make our petitions, too, our demands for this or that — ready to accept, with perfect resignation, whatever God should decide. If we do not get what we desire, we should thank God that we have failed to obtain what might have proved hurtful to us. And even our best interests will be found to have been served by this conformity to God’s will.” (pp. 46-47)
We know St. Joseph acted with an extraordinary amount of virtue, grounded in a Faith, Hope, and Charity beyond that which we will attain. But, even aside from these holy motives, we can see a perfect logic in this manner of acting:
- God created us to know, love, and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next.
- And, as Fr. Leen wrote, we must use our free will to turn to God if we wish to serve Him: “God, Who created us without our will, would not save us without our will. He could pay the ransom for our sins a million times over; we should still remain slaves of Satan did we not use our free will to turn to God.” (p. 29)
- Therefore, because God orders everything in our lives so that we will turn to Him, we always act in our own best interests by following St. Joseph’s example in trustingly conforming ourselves to God’s will.
All too often we tend to see our Catholic religion as a “service” that God gives us so that we can navigate the various hardships of life as well as possible. So we encounter an obstacle to our happiness — which can be anything from lost keys to the loss of our own health, or worse — and we rightly turn to God and His saints for intercession. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with this, the cave of Bethlehem helps us see our religion in a more proper light: God sends us the various hardships in life so that we can serve Him through our virtuous practice of the religion He has given us.
Our gift will not be as perfect as that offered by Jesus and Mary, but it is the best we can offer to Jesus, and the only one that will truly bring us peace and joy.
As Fr. Leen described it, part of the paradox of Christianity — exemplified so well by the cave of Bethlehem — is that as soon as we resolve to do God’s will as faithfully as possible, and turn the results over entirely to Him, we will invariably reach the place where God wants us to be. This, indeed, is what happened with the Holy Family’s search for shelter:
“And in the present case, the cave of Bethlehem that God’s Providence provided for the shelter of the Holy Family was after all the most suitable place to be the scene of God’s birth, although we should never have thought it so before the event. On reflection, and contemplating the nativity in the full light of our knowledge of what the Son of Mary is — ‘Who,’ as St. Paul says, ‘was predestined the Son of God in power according to the spirit of sanctification’ — we can see how incongruous would any other place have been, how perfectly congruous the cave itself was for the birth of Jesus. He Who was the Immense should not be confined within the narrow walls of a town, and He Who was infinitely rich would not be demeaned by dependance on any of the creature comforts of earth. There is only one joy to be looked for on earth, only one that attracts Him, one thing that calls forth His complacency: it is the souls and hearts of the holy and the pure.” (p. 47)
If we make the deliberate choice to follow Mary and Joseph in always seeking to do God’s will, we can offer Jesus the only thing on earth that attracts Him: souls and hearts of the holy and the pure. Our gift will not be as perfect as that offered by Jesus and Mary, but it is the best we can offer to Jesus, and the only one that will truly bring us peace and joy. Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us!
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