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The Life of Saint Joseph, by Maria Cecilia Baij, OSB
'The Life of St Joseph': an engrossing and rewarding work of personal revelation
THE LIFE OF SAINT JOSEPH
It is always a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a saint, and in Maria Cecilia Baij's The Life of St Joseph readers have a rare opportunity to forge a friendship with the devoted patriarch of the Holy Family.
Little is revealed of the life of St Joseph in the Gospels, and not a single word uttered by him is recorded, perhaps a reflection of his deep humility, an abundance of which would be required throughout the life of the man whom God Himself would deign to call 'father'.
Given the absence of detail concerning St Joseph's earthly life, one may wonder what fills the 416 pages of Maria Cecilia Baij's account.
In fact, The Life of St Joseph is a work of personal revelation, dictated by Jesus Christ Himself to Maria Cecilia, a Benedictine nun residing in the convent of St Peter in Montefiascone, Italy, between January and December 1736.
It was completed with some reluctance, the nun being fearful that the task was beyond her ability. However, at the insistence of her spiritual director, and encouraged by the personal assurances of both Jesus Christ and St Joseph, Maria Cecilia completed the account, never having read any work on St Joseph.
The original manuscript, written in Italian, was not made public until the early 20th century, when it was discovered by a German monk in the archives of the convent in Montefiascone in 1900, and eventually published at the insistence of Pope Benedict XV in 1921.
As is made clear in the volume's several prefatory notes, works of personal revelation are always to be read with caution, and should not be expected to be entirely free of human error, even where the veracity of their divine origin is alleged. Nevertheless, The Life of St Joseph has been declared to be free of doctrinal and moral error, and regardless of any obligatory caveats, it is an engrossing and deeply rewarding volume.
Written in a matter-of-fact style, the book narrates the entire span of St Joseph's life, beginning with a brief account of the circumstances leading up to his birth, and ending with his death, and subsequent passage into heaven following Christ's Resurrection.
It is a thorough and intimate portrait, illuminating the Saint's everyday existence from infancy to old age, as well as documenting the profound and momentous occasions which distinguished his life, both as a solitary servant of God, and later, as the head of the Holy Family.
Many 'gaps' - the minutiae upon which the Gospels are silent - are filled, and events such the Holy Family's flight into Egypt are imbued with a realism which might otherwise elude even one who is well versed in the Gospel texts.
The book also probes various deeper mysteries of the faith. Details which might otherwise not have occurred to the reader - the effects on Our Lady of having the Incarnate Word of God present in her womb; the ways in which Jesus' divine nature manifested itself during His infancy and childhood - are presented such that, on the one hand, they appear uncomplicated and commonsensical, and on the other, they inspire a deep sense of awe.
Although we profess our faith in such mysteries, a meditative reading of this book will undoubtedly bring the reader to deeper understanding that these were real events in real people's lives.
Everything is related clearly and economically, but always delving deeply into St Joseph's heart and mind, which were constantly elevated to God in prayer, and focusing on his unwavering dedication and submission to the divine will. Indeed, it is a portrait in which St Joseph provides an exceptional example and model for the everyday Christian.
To begin with, the Saint's prayerful exhortations of praise, petition, thanksgiving, and contrition, which recur consistently throughout the book, readily lend themselves to appropriation by the reader. Reading becomes prayer, and it is difficult not to pause and meditate upon the events of the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as they are portrayed here.
In a similar way, St Joseph's life presents a perfect model of devotion to Our Lady. The Saint was deeply aware of the special affection which the Almighty reserved for his blessed spouse, as indeed he was aware of Mary's unsurpassed virtue. To this end, we see St Joseph constantly turning to Our Lady, asking for her advice on how to please God, and imploring her to intercede on his behalf, mindful that God simply could not refuse the petitions of one so highly favoured.
For her part, Our Lady is shown to be a paragon of humility, totally submissive to the will of God, and also to the will of her husband. This presents a great paradox for St Joseph, who trembles at the responsibility of being entrusted with the care and protection of the Queen of Heaven, and of the divine infant, but who is ever grateful for the rare privilege of spending his life in their sanctifying presence.
Indeed the relationship between Joseph and Mary here depicted provides an exceptional archetype for married love: determined to serve one another with humility, the holy couple will undoubtedly inspire readers to a better appreciation of the beauty and fruitfulness of the marital union lived in a spirit of selfless love.
Above all, Joseph and Mary are united in their love of God, and the help and consolation which they offer one another ultimately consists in helping one another to seek God's will in all things. It is a refreshing and powerful example from which many lessons can be drawn.
These are just a few of the many spiritual insights to be found through- out this remarkable work. Relating St Joseph's life chronologically, the book is divided into 62 short, readable chapters. Any reader seeking stimulating material for contemplative prayer would find in this book an excellent companion.
The text is annotated throughout, and the book includes 75 pages of end notes in which theological, historical and exegetical questions raised by the account are discussed with reference to a great number of authoritative sources.
Devotion to St Joseph is widespread among Christians, and the favours accredited to his intercession are innumerable. Reading this book, it is easy to see why: St Joseph was a man who spent his life entirely in the service of God, and by his humility and generosity merited the sweetest affections of the Incarnate Word.
It was to St Joseph's chest that the child Jesus clung; it was St Joseph's hand that the second Person of the Holy Trinity grasped as He took His first steps. No creature, except Mary, knows Christ Jesus more intimately than does St Joseph. In this book, we have the opportunity to get to know him, to befriend him, and to ask with confidence that he help us to know his Son better. This is an acquaintance well worth making.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 21 No 11 (December 2008 - January 2009), p. 15
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