Saint Joseph is called the most obscure among the saints. There is good reason for this remark. His exterior life passes along in obscurity, and his interior life, in which the saint is great and unique, is essentially darkness and shadow.
The exterior view of Saint Joseph’s life presents nothing extraordinary or striking. Nothing has come down to us of the early part of his life. A distinct outline of him is obtained only with the coming of Jesus. He is a descendant of the distinguished family of David, but it has no longer any prestige.
The greatest part of the saint’s life is passed in the little hill town of Nazareth, of very meager importance, not even mentioned in the Old Testament, and in regard to which people shrugged their shoulders as to whether anything worthwhile could originate there (John 1:46). Here, too, the saint does not seem to have held a public office. He was merely known as the carpenter, an occupation in which fame had never before come to anyone. His particular and personal vocation to be the foster father of the Messiah, exalted and sublime in itself and without compare, was the very reason that demanded the profoundest obscurity.
St. Joseph’s Vocation
The prophets, the Apostles, and the martyrs proclaimed the divinity of Jesus and were rewarded with distinction and glory. Saint Joseph’s vocation, as long as he lived, was to hide this divinity. He was the shadow of the heavenly Father, not only in the sense that he was the visible representative of the eternal Father in regard to Jesus, but because under the guise of a natural fatherhood he concealed the divinity of the Son.
According to his vocation, then, Saint Joseph is essentially a shadow, which, like an ordinary shadow, passing noiselessly over the earth and covering everything it meets, conceals his Son, Jesus, and even the marvels of his spouse, Mary, her virginity and divine motherhood. The saint throws himself heart and soul into this unique vocation of placing the mantle of obscurity over everything and during his whole life does not deny this vocation, even by a single word. He wishes to be hidden and to remain so. With what revelations could he not have startled the world concerning his virginal spouse, who was the object of important prophecies of old, and the hope of his people?
He sheltered the ardently longed-for Messiah in his tent and yet did not mention a single word about His presence there. The revelations that from time to time light up the infancy of Christ and His person do not come from Joseph. He is only the mute, but interior admirer, “his secret to himself ” (Isa. 24:16)! He takes his secret to the grave. He had long disappeared from the scene by the time Jesus wrought His wonders and rose from the tomb, and suddenly transformed the terrible Passion into a reign of glory.
Even in the development of the Church the saint was obliged to remain a long time in the shadow, until the day of recompense came in the universal recognition of his merits. Such is the wonderful vocation of Saint Joseph, to be a shadow, to cast a shadow over himself and over all about him and over God Himself.
The Hidden Life
The exterior life of the saint is altogether unobtrusive and retiring. But this was not sufficient; the hidden life must needs be an interior life also. In this capacity alone does it fit in with Saint Joseph’s office. For his vocation was precisely to be the protector and defender of the hidden life of Jesus. This life was essentially an interior life. Hence, no other saint but an interior one and one who cultivated the interior life could be the defense and protection of the Savior’s hidden life.
The hidden life is the spiritual and nobler part of a human life, and elevates man to a more exalted and sublime position in human existence than a man’s exterior allows us to perceive. The hidden and interior life consists in the participation of the soul, that is, of the inner, spiritual faculties of man, in external affairs, but with a higher, supernatural motive that makes it ever aspire unto God. It is the life of a man from God, for God, and in God.
Therefore, to sum up, the inner life consists above all in purity of heart and freedom from whatever can render us spiritually repulsive and displeasing to God; hence the avoidance of all deliberate and voluntary sin with the accompanying care of and attention to our interior life. Further, the inner life consists in the diligent effort to transform our exterior works into virtue, supernatural virtue, and meritorious activity in God’s sight by means of a supernatural motive and good intention. Finally, it consists in the practice of the most intimate union with God by prayer at definitely appointed times and by docility to God’s inspirations. Such is, practically, the interior life, and such, too, must have been Saint Joseph’s interior life.
How glorious must have been this interior life for Saint Joseph! Who can grasp or comprehend it? We may come nearer to an appreciation of it by a consideration of his vocation and office and of the graces granted to him by God in appropriate measure.
The Richness of St. Joseph
If Mary obtained such an abundance and such a treasury of graces from the first moment of her existence on earth so that she might become a worthy Mother of God, then, too, Saint Joseph must have received the corresponding apportionment of grace for his office, which in a way approached that of our Blessed Lady. This fund of grace, however, depended entirely on the development of the saint’s interior life; indeed, the more modest and retiring the external activities of Saint Joseph were, the more abundant was the increase of his treasury of interior graces.
Surely the circumstances of the saint’s life, such as the continual example of our Savior and of the Mother of God, and his intimate companionship with them, could not have been more propitious for the fostering of the interior life. How great must have been the purity of his thoughts, designs, and aspirations, since, like an angel in the vision of the thrice-holy God, he constantly dwelled and moved in the presence of our Lord!
How profound and impressive his recollections in all his exterior actions, since his whole life and all his efforts were an undivided service of God and were dedicated to the promotion of the most exalted designs and counsels of God! How ardent the love that was stored away in his heart! How could it be otherwise, since all that happened round about him, what he saw and heard, was a manifestation of the most marvelous mysteries of God’s love, unheard-of sources of grace, and revelations of the divine wisdom and beauty itself!
As the moon enters a cloud and transfigures it with its light, so must Saint Joseph, who had sunk his whole being into God, have shone interiorly with the divine effulgence itself.
Patron of the Interior Life
Saint Joseph, therefore, from the fact that he was completely given to the interior life, is a patron of this life unsurpassed by any other. He was not a light beaming into our eyes, but was rather an all-pervading fragrance which all who come near it perceive without knowing its source. And so the fragrance of his interior virtues, as the model of the interior life, continues to pervade the Church of God.
Such was his personal greatness, and such it had to be. What in reality would he have been without this interior life, but an empty, passing shadow, a mere nothing before God and man, like the rich and great ones of earth, of whom Holy Scripture says that on awaking they “found nothing in their hands” (Ps. 75:6). Saint Joseph was rich before God in his hidden life.
Such is truly the manner of God’s greatness itself. God is hidden, silent, interior, and invisible to us just because He is God and is therefore infinitely happy in and through Himself. We participate in this greatness of God by entering into the interior life, which is essentially a life for God and in God.
In this life dwells purity of heart because of intimate converse with God, the mirror of purity; in this life are true riches, because what we do is done for God and becomes pure gold for eternity. In this life, strength of soul abounds because grace, which springs from this union with God, is able to conquer the dangers and difficulties of the exterior life.
Let us enter upon the way of the interior life under the guidance of Saint Joseph, by practicing it faithfully, by a calm attention to our interior advancement, by a persevering renewal of a good intention in all our actions, by the practice of prayer and docility to the interior inspirations of God. Without the practice of the interior life, the most hidden life would remain a merely external existence without value and meaning for God and eternity.
There is no better guide to the promised land of the interior life than Saint Joseph. To be a citizen of and a great man in this kingdom is the particular property of our saint’s holiness and the rich reward he merited by his services during the infancy of Jesus.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from The Truth about St. Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.