The Poverty of the Blessed Virgin
“I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?” [Cant. 5:3]
Our blessed Lord Jesus Christ has given us a perfect example of poverty and contempt of the world. Having condescended to take our nature, He chose to be in a lowly and humble position. For our sakes He chose to be “made poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich.” He could have enjoyed all the wealth of the world, and all its luxuriance might have rolled at His feet. He could have been born in a palace with thousands to wait upon His every want. But the gifts of earth did not become the humility of the incarnate God. He saw the emptiness of human things, and He would not touch any of the gilded vanities which so attract mankind. It was His will to be driven out of the habitations of men, and to have no place where to lay His head. He preferred a cave for His birth-place, and the oxen’s stall for His cradle. His holy Mother, whose heart was one with His, took part in His self-abnegation. The world was nothing to her, and all its riches could not excite one emotion in her soul. She gave all she had to the poor, that for the service of God she might be emancipated from every care. The Fathers tell us that in her early childhood she made a vow never to possess any of the goods of this earth. “Where our treasure is there also is our heart.” She desired to have no treasure here, that her heart might be wholly united to God. It was, therefore, no trial to her to bear the pains and inconveniences of poverty. The cave of Bethlehem was a sweet hiding-place where she could prove to her Child that she loved nothing but Him. The Magi brought their costly gifts, and they were devoted to charity. She went before the altar with two turtle-doves, the offering of the poor, and knelt among the crowd. The angel called her at midnight to arise in haste and fly to Egypt. She arose at once, leaving all she had, and began her long and painful journey. Many a time she felt the pangs of hunger and thirst in her pilgrimage through the desert, and during her lonely sojourn in the land of idolatry. Her food was always coarse, and her raiment plain. When the holy family returned to Nazareth, a lowly cottage became their abode, where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph all worked with their hands to earn their daily bread. There was no rest for them in this world of sin. The second Adam came to the thorny ground of the first Adam, and took His portion of toil. It was Mary’s delight to be among the poor, and even to do menial offices for others. She drank in more and more every day of the spirit of her Child, and became more and more detached from every earthly thing. When He left her to begin His ministry she was dependent upon the charity of others.
He was on the mountain, and in the desert, and why should not His Mother be a pilgrim like Him? And when He died He gave her in trust to St. John, that the disciple whom He loved might provide for her wants. In Mary’s poverty we see not only the entire renunciation of all worldly goods, but a complete separation from them in heart. She had nothing, and she desired nothing. Her soul was most tranquil, because no created thing had power to touch her heart. She had put off all the garments of earth, how could she ever put them on again? She had washed her feet from every defilement of corruptible treasure, how could she touch again the dust of this world? She had only one possession, an infinite one, her God; and this filled her whole heart.
There is much for us to learn in this brief view of the poverty of the Blessed Virgin. The Church commends this virtue as most necessary for all who would tread in the steps of her Master. Actual poverty is no doubt a grace for such as use it rightly. The poor are freed from many temptations, and are not so likely to fasten their affections upon worldly things. Their hard life here is an incentive to look above for enduring treasures. To a certain extent they must feel themselves strangers and pilgrims on their way to a better country. Hence the poor are generally the favored children of God. The Lord was surrounded by them when He was on earth, and His Church is especially their portion. But poverty of spirit is essential for all who would be saved. We must learn to despise worldly things, or we can make no real progress in the love of God. Whatever goods of earth God may give us, we must not fix our affections upon them, nor desire them for their own sake. As good Christians we must be detached from the treasures of which we are only stewards. Our Lord Himself has said that it is hard for the rich to enter into His kingdom, and that they who trust in riches have no hope of salvation. With the possession of wealth comes care, which weighs upon the soul, and bears it down among the pursuits of time. Many spend their whole lives in toil and labor, and have no reward but treasures which one hour may take away, and which can never go beyond the grave. The brief joys of the rich will never pay for the anxious mind or the aching heart. If we are poor we must bless God for this grace, and endeavor to turn it to our sanctification. If we are encumbered with the possessions of this life, we must use them for the benefit of our neighbors, as well as our own salvation. We must make to ourselves friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when we fail they may receive us into eternal habitations. The Catholic religion, animated by the spirit of its divine Head, has taught us many heroic lessons in the virtue of poverty. It has taught many souls to emulate the graces of Mary, and cheerfully to lay down at the feet of Jesus every temporal thing. Princes have descended from their thrones to cast the dust of this world from their feet, and to be wholly emancipated for the service of God. The vow of poverty is a necessary condition of the religious state, since perfect consecration of the soul is inconsistent with any hold upon the things of this life. No one can leave the world except by renouncing all that he has, and by choosing alone a heavenly treasure. “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and follow Me, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven.”
The example of the Blessed Virgin will be our encouragement as we endeavor to walk in her footsteps. She will gently wean us from the love of all earthly possessions, guiding us, as we can bear it, to a more and more perfect life. We need not be discouraged at the sight of our own self-love, nor at our great repugnance to mortification. We shall not learn detachment all at once, nor in the easy way our imaginations have pictured. But with Mary for our model we cannot wander from the right path. As things temporal recede little by little from our view, things eternal will draw nearer to us. The chains that bind us to earth will be broken one by one, and the love of God will be the only solace of our free spirits. Who would compare corruptible treasures with the infinite wealth of God, Who becomes Himself the possession of His saints?