The man whose heart is in accord with God’s makes no display, nor does God choose him for his appearance or by listening to the voice of the people. When Samuel was sent to the house of Jesse to find David — the first to have merited such praise — the great man destined by God for the world’s most glorious throne was not known even to his family. He was not thought of while his older brothers were being brought before the prophet. Yet God, who does not judge as man does, secretly warned Samuel not to regard their great stature or hardy countenance. And so, rejecting those who had been put forward in the world, he bid to approach the one who had been sent to watch the sheep, and pouring the oil of royalty upon his head, he left his parents astonished to have so little known the son chosen by God for such an extraordinary advantage.
A similar design of Divine Providence allows us to apply what was said of David to Joseph, the son of David.
The time had come when God sought a man after his own heart in order to place in his hands what was dearest to him: the person of his only-begotten Son, the integrity of his holy mother, the salvation of mankind, the treasure of heaven and earth. He overlooks Jerusalem and the other famous towns and rests his gaze upon Nazareth, and from this unknown hamlet chooses an unknown man, a poor craftsman, Joseph, and entrusts to him a work that would not bring shame to the highest order of angels, so that we might understand that the man after God’s own heart must be sought in the heart and is made worthy by his hidden virtues.
Christian justice is a private affair between a man and God: it is a mystery between them that is profaned when it is revealed, and which cannot be too carefully hidden from those who are not privy to the secret. This is why the Son of God enjoins us to retire by ourselves and to pray with the door shut. The Christian life should be a hidden life, and the true Christian should ardently desire to remain hidden under God’s wing without having any other spectator.
Yet here nature cries out, for it cannot abide this obscurity; nature recoils from death, and to live hidden and unknown is to be dead in the minds of men. Life is found in activity, and the one who ceases to act seems also to have ceased to live. Men of the world who are accustomed to tumult and hurry do not know what peaceable, interior activity is; they do not think themselves to be doing anything unless they are anxious, and therefore they consider retreat and obscurity to be a kind of death. They understand life to be found in the world, and so they persuade themselves that they are not entirely dead as long as their name finds some echo upon the earth. This is why reputation seems to them to be a second life: to survive in the memory of men is a distinction they hold in great account.
It takes little to make them believe that they will secretly come out of their tombs to hear what will be said about them, so strongly persuaded are they that to live is to make some noise and to stir up the affairs of men. Here is the eternity promised by the world, an eternity in titles, immortality by renown. It is a vain and fragile immortality, but one made much of by the conquerors of old. It is this false imagination that makes obscurity seem a kind of death to those who love the world, and even something worse than death, for, in their opinion, to live hidden and unknown is to be buried alive.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, having come to die and to sacrifice himself, wished to do so completely: and so he was not content to die a natural death, nor the most cruel and violent death, but he wished to add to that a civic and political death. And as this civic death came by two means, both by infamy and by being forgotten, he wished to suffer both of them. A victim of human pride, he wished to sacrifice himself by all sorts of humiliations, and he gave his first thirty years to that death of being forgotten. To die with Jesus Christ, we must die this death, so that we might say with St. Paul: “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
The world is dead to us when we leave it. But this is not enough; in order to arrive at perfection we must be dead to it and it must leave us, that is to say that we should place ourselves in such a condition that we no longer please the world, that it holds us for dead, and that it no longer takes us to belong to its parties and intrigues, nor even to its conversations. This is the high perfection of Christianity, and it is here that one finds life, because here one learns to enjoy God, who does not live in the whirlwind or in the tumult of the world, but in the peace and solitude of retirement.
Joseph was dead in this way. He was buried with Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin, and he was not at all troubled by a death which enabled him to live with his Savior. On the contrary, he feared nothing more than that the noise and the life of the world would come to disturb his hidden and interior repose. It is an admirable mystery:
Joseph had in his house what could have attracted the eyes of the whole world, and the world did not know it. He possessed a God-man, and he said not one word about it; he is the witness of so great a mystery, and he enjoyed it in secret, without divulging it! The Magi and the shepherds came to adore Jesus Christ; Simeon and Anna publicized his greatness; no other could have given better testimony of the mystery of Jesus Christ than the one who was its custodian, who knew the miracle of his birth, and whom the angel had so well instructed. What father would not speak about so admirable a son?
And despite the ardor of so many holy souls who would have sat before him with great zeal to celebrate the praise of Jesus Christ, he was not able to open his mouth to tell them the secret that God had confided to him. Er-ant mirantes, said the evangelist (Luke 2:33): they seemed astonished, it was as though they knew nothing. They heard all the others speak, and they kept so religiously silent that it was still said of him after thirty years in the village “Is this not the son of Joseph?” (cf. John 6:42) without any of them having learned of the mystery of his virginal conception.
It is because Mary and Joseph knew that in order to enjoy God in truth, one must retire with God and be content to see him alone. Where shall we find spiritual and interior men in an age when brilliance is everything? When I consider men in their work, their business, their activities, I find confirmation of St. John Chrysostom’s dictum that all our actions have only human ends in view. For how many shall we find who do not turn aside from the straight and narrow when they find their path blocked by powerful obstacles, or who do not seek an accord between what justice requires and what popularity asks of them, between duty and the desire to please?
How many shall we find to whom the prejudice of opinion, the tyranny of custom, the fear of shocking the world does not cause to seek some middle ground between Jesus Christ and Belial, between the gospel and the age? If there are, indeed, some whose virtuous desires are not entirely smothered by human respect, how many of these are content to await their crown until the next life and who do not want to earn some of the fruit in advance in the form of human praise? This is the plague of Christian virtue.
Virtue is like a plant that can die in two ways: by being ripped out or by being allowed to dry up. A torrent of water uproots it and casts it upon the soil; a dry spell withers it upon its stalk. It is the same with virtue. You love equity and justice, but some great interest is presented to you, or some violent passion makes your love of justice rise impetuously in your heart: if you allow yourself to be carried off by the storm, a torrent of water uproots your soul. You languish for a time under the trial of your weakness, but in the end you allow passion to carry off your heart. The whole world is amazed to see that you have lost the virtue that you had so carefully cultivated.
Yet when these violent efforts have been resisted, do not think that you have been saved. You must beware of the other danger, the danger of praise. The opposing vice uproots virtue, but the love of praise causes it to wither. It seems to hold its position well, to stand firm, but it deceives the eyes of men. The root is withered; it draws no more nourishment; it is good only to be cast in the fire. It is the dry grass of the rooftops of which David spoke, “that dries itself out before it is pulled forth” (cf. Ps. 129:6). How desirable it is not to have been born in a high place, but instead to live in some deserted valley! How devoutly we should wish that our virtue will not be exposed in a lofty place, but instead be nourished by Christian humility in some forgotten corner!
Joseph merited the greatest honors because he was never touched by honor. The Church has nothing more illustrious, because it has nothing more hidden. May the Almighty God ensure that we shall always revere Joseph’s hidden virtue.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Meditations for Lent, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.