|JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
NOELS / CHRISTMAS
I. Introduction. II. Christmas in Montforts Time: 1. Montforts childhood; 2. Reaching maturity at the seminary: a. The essence of Bérulles thought, b. Absolutism, c. Disdain of infancy, d. A new emphasis. III. Montforts Vision of Christmas: 1. Christmas in Montforts preaching; 2. The hymns. IV. A Literary Analysis and Discussion of the Content of Montforts Christmas Hymns: 1. Omnipotence reduced to infancy; 2. The Virgin Mother; 3. Infancy; 4. A personal experience of God. V. Christmas in Montforts Spirituality: 1. The spirituality of the Incarnation; 2. The spirituality of loving dependence; 3. The spirituality of hope and joy.
The angels at Bethlehem sang of joy. Yet the ambiguous historical origins of Christmas, especially since it was celebrated during the pagan festivals of the winter solstice, repressed some of its spontaneity.1 The Latin hymns of the fifth to the thirteenth centuries reflect this. These hymns, composed by monks, were theological rather than realistic or closely concerned with life. They dealt above all with the Incarnation and the Nativity as part of the Redemption, probably in reaction to the 5th century errors of Nestorianism. Little effort was made to imagine the scene of the stable in Bethlehem. Little interest was shown in the Infant as an infant, and little sensitivity was displayed towards the human side of the Nativity. St. Bernard, in his first sermon on the Nativity, limited himself to stating that "the God of Majesty, in emptying Himself, conformed Himself not only to the earthly body of mortals but also to the weak and infirm age of infancy."2 Six centuries later, Cardinal de Bérulle was to express exactly these ideas. This monastic spirit is reflected in the hymns of the Church composed by monks. Not until Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) do feelings of a more human kind appear. It was difficult for faith to blossom in a popular religion steeped in superstition, in a Christianity mixed often indiscriminately with paganism. Fear of punishment was often stronger than joy. The world was haunted by evil spirits and goblins, whose evil influence could only be warded off by charms and offerings. Luckily, the thirteenth century brought the sweetness and joy of an Italian sun to this dark picture.3 A happier, more human religion appeared, which saw in the Infant of Bethlehem not only a theological mystery but an Infant full of charmGod, of course, but a God Who felt with us the cold of winter and the rough straw of the crib. At the same time, in 1223, three years before his death, Francis of Assisi was authorized by the Pope to popularize this vision. This was also the time (though some locate it as early as the middle of the tenth century, when the people ceased to understand Latin) when lighter Christmas songs began to appear in the vernacular, called mixed noels, in which Latin and the ordinary languages alternated: "Let us celebrate the birth / Nostri Salvatoris / Who is the delight / Dei nostri Salvatoris." This genre persisted until the time of Louis XIV. As the songs circulated between different regions, the form as well as the melody changed. One author, who seems not to have known Montfort, writes that "apart from a few rustic Christmas songs, the eighteenth century produced little French poetry of any charm."4 It is perhaps significant that the first collection of truly French noels came from Poitou, which is very close to Montforts region. These songs were published in Paris in 1520 under the name Lucas Le Moine, curate of St. Georges at Puy-la-Garde, in the diocese of Poitiers. The author was apparently an uncle of Rabelais who hid himself under this name.5
II. CHRISTMAS IN MONTFORTS TIME
In order to grasp the significance of Christmas in Montforts spirituality, we must return to the Brittany of his time, and as far as we can reconstruct its religious climate. We must enter the world of beliefs and practices in which the people lived and breathed. Its environment was a convergence of religious, social and agrarian realities. Across the centuries, Christian festivals developed which reflected the rhythm of the seasons, and the cycles in cultivating the land. Popular religion was shaped in a world dominated by such a deeply- rooted lifestyle. It left its mark on even the most alienated souls. "They remained faithfully devoted to their ancestors, they loved the times past, they respected the old ways, they cared for the primordial soil."6
1. Montforts childhood
Montforts biographers do not describe what Christmas was like within his family circle. But it was probably similar to that of most of his contemporaries. The Christmas of 1672 preceded his birth on January 31 by scarcely a month. His mother Jeanne Robert was already eight months pregnant when the Christmas bells rang. Her sons birth so close to Christmas, could not have left her indifferent to Marys giving birth to Jesus. Moreover, she had undergone a very painful experience when she lost her firstborn boy four days after his birth. It is unclear how soon after his birth little Louis Marie was turned over to the wet nurse named Mère André, a peasant from la Bachelleraie. Louis Marie remained with her about two years. Like all Breton children, Louis Marie was to have memorable evenings round the hearth fire"long winter evenings peopled by ghosts."7 Brittany was the classic land of myth and legend. It blended its Celtic and Christian spiritual experience into an enchanted story telling tradition. Christmas Eve was a special time for telling tales. It was no time to be a skeptic about fantastic people, places and events. It was commonplace for the drowned to return from the sea, for the damned to raise their tombstones.8 When he returned to his family, Louis Marie lived at Bois Marquer, attending the church at Iffendic. Louis Marie, already a child imbued with an immense sensitivity to the spiritual world, experienced a great deepening of his faith during this period. This fact was particularly evident from the way he treated his younger sister Guyonne. In Montforts rural home, Advent was a period of waiting, of expectation, both in terms of the agrarian and the religious life cycles. The low sun, the long evenings, the first gorse flowers and the holly already announced the approach of Christmas, which was always celebrated in grandiose fashion in the French provinces.9 When Christmas came, the children cleaned their clogs carefully, then placed them at the foot of the chimney piece and the following day discovered what "little Jesus" had put in themvery small gifts, for toys were still unknown. At church, Louis Marie listened to traditional hymns. He was impressed by this huge house "of the good God," by its decoration, by the Latin that he did not understand and that added to the mystery. His eyes and ears were open to the ceremonies and to the engravings in the stone, "visible and eloquent signs that are the missal of the poor."10 If Chateaubriand was able to describe the stunning effect of Christmas, of the New Year, of Twelfth Night, on his childs soul"I experienced an extraordinary religious feeling"we can easily imagine what Louis Marie might have felt, but with still more intensity since the action of the Holy Spirit was already so manifest within him.11
2. Reaching maturity at the seminary
The traditional faith Montfort acquired during his childhood and adolescence was further strengthened and developed in Paris. There he had many new teachers, some in person others in books. The Holy Spirit integrated everything for Montfort, and transformed him into a spiritual master able to teach by word and deed, by preaching and writing. The men to whom he entrusted his soul for spiritual direction were holy priests, most of whom greeted his ascetic tastes with surprising approval.
a. The essence of Bérulles thought.
Everything can be summed up in this saying of Bérulle: "What is man? A nothing capable of God." According to pope Urban XIII, Bérulle was the apostle of the greatness of God. He was inspired by the power of theocentric religion, a spirituality perfectly embodied in the Word Incarnate. This spirituality aimed to imitate and to take in more fully Christs attitudes or "states" (a word coined by the French school in order better to express the permanence of Christs mysteries) .
The sublimity of such a doctrine is open to the danger of absolutism, from which certain of Bérulles disciples were not exempt. When the greatness of God was considered next to the nothingness of the creature, the latter can logically appear quite abject. The Incarnation was an absolute self-abasement, of which Christmas was the realization. "From the throne of those glories where the Son of God lives by his first, eternal birth, he humbles himself and descends to earth and the womb of the Virgin to be born a second time. . . . And our senses perceive him, not as on high but as very humble."12 In this Olympian contemplation, there is nothing to soften the heart. "The harsh reality hidden beneath the grace and kindness that appeared to us with this Infant is the self-abasement of the Word Incarnate."13
c. Disdain of infancy.
At their most extreme, the disciples of Bérulle went beyond these high considerations. Not only did they fail to speak of the humanity of the Christ Child, exalting instead his divinity, but they fell into an exaggerated way of speaking which expressed nothing but contempt for the state of infancy. For Condren, the crib merely portrayed a wretched creature who "appears to be no more than an infant," who is "a composite of four types of wretchedness: smallness, poverty and dependence on others, subjection, uselessness." Therefore he seems to want Jesus "finally to discard the shameful exterior of the state of infancy" as quickly as possible.14 Bérulle similarly asserted that infancy was "the most vile and abject state of human nature after the state of death."15 This attitude was taken to what Bremond described as an extreme state of "inane fanaticism" by a certain Jean Garat, abbot of Chancelade, who could never bring himself to touch small children, for the veil of the flesh "always exhaled qualities so malignant that there was a danger of infection."16
d. A new emphasis.
Others avoided such excesses, while maintaining the same principles. Gaston de Renty, "one of the first disciples of the early followers of Bérulle,"17 wrote: "The infancy of our Lord . . . teaches us self- emptying and docility before God. . . . The soul does not rise to anything by itself but, on the contrary, empties itself absolutely and allows itself humbly to be led with . . . the simplicity of a pure, abandoned attitude."18 We need only introduce the happy images and thoughts that the vision of a child evokes into the formulation of Bérulle, and the austere doctrine becomes gentle. Self-abasement is replaced by self-surrender; and self-negation is replaced by simplicity.19 After Bérulle, were John Eudes and especially Margaret Mary Alacoque. The new emphasis we have just noted was largely influenced by the devotion to the Sacred Heart that began in Montforts time: he was born in 1673, the year of the great revelations of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary.
III. MONTFORTS VISION OF CHRISTMAS
Montfort was imbued first with the traditional religion of his family and milieu and second with the spiritual education which he received at the hands of his spiritual directors, who followed Bérulles teachings. How did he express this double legacy in his life as preacher and author? He was too much of an individual to be merely the reflection of the influences to which he had been exposed. He absorbed all aspects of these influences in his own very rich nature. "He was human with the best of human values, displaying love of men and the temperament of an artist, sculptor, and poet. He was singularly human without being a humanist."20 It was through this rich nature that he saw Christmas. If the mystery of the Incarnation was fundamental for him, it was in the mystery of the Nativity that the Incarnation was rendered visible and became "what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands" (1 Jn 1:1). While Bérulle lowered his gaze to this holy humanity only to see its weakness, poverty, and abjection, Montfort contemplated its beauty, gentleness, and charms. It would be appropriate here to emphasize his talents as sculptor. Several representations of Virgin and Child are traditionally attributed to him, especially the one that never left him until death, an Our Lady of Wisdom. The child whom Mary carries in her arms is always an extension of Christmas. The Magi do not necessarily find the Infant in his crib. Fra Angelico represents him on the knees of Mary. Whatever the pose, the background of a Virgin and Child is always that of Christmas: "They saw the child with Mary his mother" (Mt 2:11). In this, Montfort showed his balance, compared with the Bérulle school, which was too absolute in its disdain of the world. "There is a spirituality of human values, of the accomplishment of creation, of the action of grace [which Montfort knows well: LEW 36, 39]. And there is a spirituality of the Cross, of detachment, of the radical surpassing of this world of sin: this spirituality is reached via asceticism."21 Like Francis of Assisi, Montfort knew both types of spirituality well and blended them perfectly together. Christmas tempered the rigors of Calvary.
1. Christmas in Montforts preaching
All the great preachers have a series of sermons on Christmas. Bossuet preached two before the Court.22 He dealt with Christmas eight times in his Elévations sur les mystères (Elevations on the Mysteries).23 There is nothing similar in Montfort. None of his sermons is entitled "Christmas." Should we conclude that he never spoke on this theme?24 In fact he touches on the mystery of Christmas in many ways. In his last mission sermon at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, several days before his death, he deals with "The Love and Gentleness of Jesus Christ" (LS 1710). Even if we only possess the title, it is reasonable to suppose that he may have returned to ideas explored in Hymn 9 on "The Charms of Gentleness," where he mentions the mystery of Christmas: "From his Infancy He delighted / The Shepherds and the Kings / With such power / That they were ruled by Him. / His smiles, His air of gentleness / Spoke so eloquently / That He won them all over / In total silence" (H 5). There is a striking similarity between SM 9, Hymn 9, and LEW 121, where Montfort speaks of Wisdom: "The face of our loving Savior is so serene and gentle that it charmed the eyes and hearts of those who beheld it. The shepherds who came to the stable to see him were so spellbound by the serenity and beauty of his face that they tarried for many days gazing in rapture upon him." In SR 8, he relates the story of two little sisters who were saying their Rosary when a beautiful lady appeared to them and took away the younger sister. When she was found three days later, she said that the lady had taken her away to a beautiful place and that she "had also given her a baby boy to hold . . . and that she had kissed him again and again." In MR 19, in the sixth Hail Mary of the Birth of Jesus, he mentions "the ravishing beauty of her divine child." Finally, in TD 18 the idea of the dependence of Jesus is foregrounded instead, in the tradition of Bérulle: "He glorified his independence and his majesty in depending upon this lovable virgin in his conception, his birth . . . even at his death." The historical fact of Christs birth therefore gives precedence to this spiritual dimension, which embraces his whole life.
2. The hymns
Montfort dealt with the theme of Christmas especially in the hymns. It is regrettable that we do not know under what circumstances he composed the ten noels or hymns on Christmas. They add up to 785 lines. The first nine, Hymn 57 to Hymn 65, are numbered (the first, the second, and so on), each with a title: the Noel of the Angels, of the Shepherds, of the Children, of the Kings, of Pious Souls, of Zealous Souls, of the Children of Mary, of Spiritual Souls. The ninth merely bears the title "Christmas." A tenth, Hymn 66, "The Noel of Schoolchildren," is added. Hymn 63, "Noel of the Children," especially exalts Mary, who "has just borne this adorable Lord" (H 63:3). "This Savior only came to us / Because you believed / The word of an angel" (H 63:4). The only true allusion to Christmas is to be found in strophe 8: "Jesus loves the stable / But especially loves our heart." Hymn 64, with its authentic flavor of Bérulles thought, is dedicated to "spiritual souls." Here attention is concentrated on the Incarnation. God "becomes what we are, making us become what He is" (H 64:1). The rest of the hymn proceeds by a series of contrasts. "This very high Lord lowers himself / To raise us to Heaven, / He comes down into our lowliness, / To give us his glorious being" (H 64:2). There is nothing pessimistic here. On the contrary, everything opens out onto hope, as does the liturgy, in this Irenaean expression: "In the admirable exchange of the Eucharistic sacrifice you make us share in your own divine nature."25
Hymn 65 is quite different from the hymns just mentioned: it is sensitively constructed and recalls the mystery of Christmas in simple terms. A great deal of joy is expressed in the cadence of this hymn: "A great Master / Has just been born to us, / A new King / Rules over us from the crib" (H 65:1); "He is called / A God made Man / The Son of God / Incarnate in this place" (H 65:3).
Finally, Hymn 66 is the "Noel of the Schoolchildren." Here again there are a different rhythm and a varied description of the mystery. "Friends, I hear the song of the Angels, / How sweet and melodious it is! / They announce in their praises / A new-born child, King of Heaven. / They say he is in swaddling cloths / Let us adore Him with them" (H 66:1). "Do you see Him in a stable? / His mother holds Him in her arms. / Ah, how beautiful He is, how lovable! / How full of charms His face is! / Ah, how sweet, how affable He is! / Let us go to Him, let us make haste" (H 66:4).
Here and there in other hymns, scattered allusions to Christmas are found. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, revealed to St. Margaret Mary, tended to humanize the aridity of Bérulles outlook. H 57:6 is subtly inspired by such devotion in the following couplet, in which, addressing Mary, Montfort says: "You have charmed the Savior, / Beloved Heart, / He gave Himself, / He became God made Man!" Another brief allusion is found in Hymn 90, in the eighth Hail Mary of the first Decade, "I salute you, Mary, / In the birth of the Savior," which has the following conclusion: "Oh Virgin and Mother, / I revere you, / Produce Jesus in my heart" (H 90:14).
Hymn 97 is entitled "The Great Lesson of the Children Whom One Must Resemble to Enter Heaven." The hymn does not strictly speak of Christmas, but the birth of Jesus is evoked in an attempt to recapture the spirit of evangelical infancy. The hymn resembles a thesis in the way it sets out its opening proposition: "Whoever wishes to be / An all- powerful King / According to our Master, / Must become like a child. / Let us therefore go to listen to / A little baby; / Let us therefore learn his gentle lesson" (H 97:1). The description of the mystery follows: "Jesus rests / In this crib . . . he wishes to appear / As a one-month-old infant / He speaks as Master there / Let us listen to His voice" (H 97:2). Montfort is sensitive to the Infant Christs charms: "See His face / Filled with sweetness. / Do you see the image of our Savior? / His infancy speaks through silence, / His air of innocence / Preaches to powerful effect" (H 97:3). The following quatrain closes as follows: "Through grace, become / Like this child, / And you will take your place / In the firmament" (H 97:10).
Christmas also inspires H 55:18, which condenses the whole mystery of the Incarnation into four lines: "He is born of Mary. / In His temporal existence He is named, / Jesus, the Word Incarnate, / Or else the Son of Man." There is also an unexpected comparison with Christmas in H 48:6, 7, dedicated to the Sisters of the Visitation: "It is a great glory for you / That this Heart of the Lamb / Was born in a fashion amongst you: / Your house is His cradle. / If He wanted to be born amongst you, / It is to grow and increase, / You must make Him known, / You must make Him shine forth." Finally, it is Jesus Christ, offered by Mary, who becomes the model of our own act of offering. In H 49:2, we read: "Behold your dear Son, / Oh Father of light, / Listen to His infant cries, / Grant his prayers. / We offer Him to you now / Through the hands of Mary: / Be calmed; this dear Child gives you / Infinite glory."
H. M. Guindon
IV. A LITERARY ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION OF THE CONTENT OF MONTFORTS CHRISTMAS HYMNS
1.Omnipotence reduced to infancy
The fact that Montfort consecrated ten special hymns to Christmas, combined with other references scattered through other works, clearly shows how much he was aware of the mystery of the Incarnation. It is the "mystery of Jesus living and reigning in Mary . . . the first mystery . . . the most hidden; and it is the most exalted and the least known. . . . It was in this mystery that Jesus anticipated all subsequent mysteries of his life" (TD 248).
By her intimate union with the Sonthe sole center of the Incarnation Mary, too, becomes central; according to Montfort, she becomes the sign that reveals God, the "infinitely holy and exalted God" Who is "at the same time infinitely solicitous for him and understands his weakness" (cf. SM 20). This is the Christological formulationLaurentin noted thisanticipating the Marian formulation that Péguy employs when he writes: "To the one who is infinitely celestial / Because she is also infinitely terrestrial . . . / To the one who is the highest princess / Because she is the closest to men . . . / To the one who is infinitely distant / Because she is infinitely near . . . / The one who is infinitely our Queen / Because she is the most humble of creatures."26
The infinite nature of Gods transcendence and the weakness that God takes on in Christ without ceasing to be God is marvelously expressed by the poet with a dogmatic precision and a real beauty in the first noel: "The Most High, the Incomprehensible / The Eternal and the All-powerful / Has just now been born. / Is it possible? / The Eternal is one day old, the Word remains silent / The All-powerful has made Himself an Infant, / Let us acknowledge Him / Let us worship, let us praise, / Let us praise, let us love / And let us recognize / Our God, reduced to Infancy" (H 57:1).
Montforts artistic temperament is revealed here from the start; it is lofty and solemn and employs expressions that form antitheses as a sculptor works stone. The opening, which is clear and immediate, stresses the infinity of Gods greatness, and the strophe closes in an expression of the infinity of human limits that employs imagery and chiaroscuro. And then we find the following, delicately expressed in a series of contrasts: eternity reduced to a day; the Word, the living Word of the Father reduced to silence; and omnipotence humbled in the person of a powerless infant. Theological rigor is here lightened by poetry. Thanks to this, the paradox of transcendence in immanence emerges in the full unfurling of love, in its expression and its consequences. To God Who gave everything, let us also give everything. Divine love, which has rendered possible the equation of absolute greatness with the smallness of the infant, in a "wonderful exchange" requires love in return: "If our dear Lord is born for men / And to render them blessed / We owe Him, just as they do / What we are" (H 57:2).
And at the same time, in a dazzling flight, the angels sing glory to God in heaven, peace on earth, and goodwill among people, and they bring the good news to the shepherds, who are told to leave their flocks to go and worship the newborn, the true Lamb (a subtle allusion to the Passion in the middle of the joy of Christmas, for Christmas and the Cross are the dual manifestation of a single mystery). The rugged shepherds guess that their miserable life is to change: "How worthy this day is! A God of all majesty / Made Himself, in humanity / Our likeness" (H 57:5).
He Who created humankind in His own image and likeness now creates Himself in the image of humankind to search out His poor creatures, even the most lowly, to restore them to their original dignity. And Mary, always present in all Montforts noels the Mother and the Child is congratulated "for having given life to her Savior," having "charmed the Lord" (H 57:6). These congratulations are also a form of thanks and veneration.
2. The Virgin Mother
It is Our Lady who inspired Montfort to write TD, and he never ceased to sing of her in loving devotion. "The Most High God came down to us in a perfect way through the humble Virgin Mary, without losing anything of his divinity or holiness. . . . God, the Incomprehensible, allowed himself to be perfectly comprehended and contained by the humble Virgin Mary without losing anything of his immensity. . . . God, the Inaccessible, drew near to us and united himself closely, perfectly and even personally to our humanity through Mary without losing anything of his majesty. So it is also through Mary that we must draw near to God" (TD 157). This explains the constant presence of Mary in Montforts Christmas hymns: the Virgin and Child are Christmas and are the perpetual continuation of Christmas. And the shepherds, sent by the choir of angels, sing and invite the King in the stable to sing. Moved, grateful, and adopting a conscious attitude of humble sincerity, they address the Infant Christ: "Hail, dear Child long awaited, / Be welcome amongst us. / We come to pay homage to you, / We are only simple country folk, / We are without refinement" (H 58:4). And Jesus replies: "It is an excellent honor to me / To love me most dearly" (H 58:11).
And after these happy expressions, with their rich human and divine content, the shepherds address their feelings of gratitude to the Holy Mother: "We bless you a thousand times / Oh Most Blessed Virgin Mary, / You give life to us all / By giving us the fruit of life" (H 58:10).
This concept and attitude are repeated in the "Noel of the Kings" with new, sensitive expressions: "Mother of the most wonderful love, may you be praised in every place / For having given us this Infant-God / For having given birth to light, / And life to the true God, life to our Father" (H 60:12).
The contemplation of the Mother of God arouses in the poet such deeply tender feelings that the rough exterior of the ascetic yields as he describes an admirable Virgin and Child in the "Noel of the Pious Souls" (H 61). "How good it is to see the Savior / On His Mothers breast! / He presses against her heart / gently. / He kisses her tenderly, / He clings to her side, He embraces her. / His smiles, His tender and charming air / Fills her with grace" (H 61:4).
This marvelous portrait, which Montfort painted with delicate feeling, certainly does not recall the Virgins of the Renaissance. It recalls, instead, an icon such as that of Vladimir, of great intensity of feeling and extraordinary artistic sensitivity, but above all a work of deep spirituality, one not flawed by sentimentality. And Montforts language, at once noble and accessible, recalls the Praise of Giovanni Domici (1356-1419), that masterpiece of spiritual poetry, which takes up the theme of Marys maternal delight, dear to Jacopone de Todi, and elaborates on it: "Tell us, gentle Mary, with what desire / You looked upon your Son, Christ my Lord! / When sometimes He slept a little during the day, / You woke Him, desiring Paradise, / So softly you went, without a sound, / And you placed your face on His holy face, / And then you said to Him, with a maternal smile: / Awake . . ."
No less beautiful was the Marian flower in Montforts garden of popular poetry. In Hymn 63, inspired with human tenderness, St. Louis Marie contemplated, celebrated in song, and prayed to the Child Jesus and to his Virgin Mother. It is an enthusiastic celebration of Mary and her Son in nine verses of eight lines each. "Noel of the Children of Mary" weaves together a seamless eulogy to the marvelous Blessed Virgin Mother, and to her amazing prodigy: to she who broke the chains of evil and fulfilled the prophecies of the OT through her maternity. Thanks to her who overcame the serpent, "Heaven receives . . . a new glory" (H 63:3). Montforts words speak of the faith of she who gave us the Savior, and the charm of her purity, her power through humility, her beauty that vanquished God and made Him come down to earth to become our Brother. Montfort dwelt on the greatness of God, Who showed His power by making His finest masterpiece in Mary; on the loving tenderness of the Child towards the Mother whom He had chosen for Himself, a pure, strong, and fascinating Mother. In Montforts words the theology of the Fathers becomes a lyrical contemplation: "Jesus loves the stable / But especially your heart, / It is His agreeable bed, / It is his palace of honor. / He makes your breast his most glorious throne . . . / Oh gentle tenderness, / Oh tender smiles, / Oh holy caresses / Which this dear Son bestows on you!"
And the Virgin is blessed to be the privileged place which has embraced the whole of immensity: "Happy is your womb . . . / to have contained immensity, / To have nourished, to have carried / Eternal Wisdom!"(H 63:8-9).
Péguy is one poet who most eloquently celebrated both the artistic beauty and the theology of the Infancy, and did so with a deeply engaging tenderness. The first flower, the first day, the baby, everything was memorable, full of wonder: shaped by amazement, freshness and newness, everything great or small is beautiful. And Baptism is the Sacrament of infants, the first Sacrament. It contains in seed everything which will be. It is a beginning which contains the power of the future. The first day is the finest day, and Baptism is the Sacrament of the first day.
Péguy offers a song to the innocence of the child: The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue is taken up again in his Mystery of the Holy Innocents. In it he relives and rejoices in infancy, longing for that age of undiminished freshness, for that stage of human life which offers the finest and purest mirror of new creation.27
In brief, the theme of infancy, with its beauty and freshness, was dear to Montfort, too. He and Péguy considered the Incarnation to be the fundamental mystery. Both celebrate Christmas ceaselessly with their vital faith and passionate feeling. Cardinal de Bérullethe apostle of the Word Incarnatebrought out the absolute infinity of God in contrast to the nothingness of humankind; he exalted the divinity but neglected the humanity of the Christ Child. And some of Bérulles followers who were also Montforts teachers were excessive in their disdain for infancy as an abject, useless, and powerless state, the most contemptible except for death itself. In spite of his severe view of a world immersed in sin, Montfort appreciated the beauty of creation. He saw Christmas not from the viewpoint of a rigorous and moralizing theologian but from the perspective of a person who loved humanity. For among other things Montfort was endowed with the temperament of an artist and poet. He was clearly "human without being a humanist." For this reason, he contemplated and celebrated the beauty of Christmas, being attracted to the tenderness of the marvelous Child. All his noels are tender songs to the gentleness which emanated from the most beautiful Child: "Most sweet infant" (H 57:2); "How beautiful this infant is, how sweet it is to be close to his cradle" (H 58:9). Even the Magi prostrated themselves to worship, with authentic feeling, "at the feet of his Infancy, in respect, love and silence," enjoying "the ineffable gentleness which is to be experienced here, near this gentle Savior," and they wished to prolong their stay "to contemplate your most sweet charms" (H 60:10, 15). With the same delicacy of feeling, he celebrates the divine Infancy in the "Noel of the Pious Souls": "How small He now is, / But how lovely! / How many charms adorn this Childs / divine face. / His gentle eyes are secret charms / Which speak without words" (H 61:5).
Two animals are present. In their silent way, they invite people to lovingly and humbly praise the Infant. These unusual cantors sing: "Love this good little king" (H 61: 3).
Then the saintly poet turned his attention to the Blessed Virgin and exclaimed: "How charming you are in your purity." And he adds: "Let me kiss Him all I want! I am charmed to see this beloved child." And the schoolchildren, too, are in ecstasy before a new family group: "His mother holds Him in her arms / Ah! How beautiful, how lovely He is / How charming his face is" (H 66:4).
A whole swarm of happy children race to pay homage to the Child Jesus, in the "Noel of the Children" (H 59)a festival of innocence for the innocent Lamb. The children, deeply moved on seeing the newborn Infants wretched surroundings, want to save him from the poverty of the stable. They are touched, and invite him and his Mother to come and live in their homes where they can serve him completely, so that he might lack nothing. Montfort in this hymn synthesizes and integrates his devotion and theology, in and through Jesus relationship with children in the Gospel. It is filled with very joyful expressions, and delicate feelings. There is a rhythm in the canticle which seems to spring directly from the saints grateful faith. It is overflowing with deep divine and human meanings. It needs no commentary. Its meaning leaps out from every line, beautifully.
Jesus greets the children: "You see here / In me, your own Infancy [Péguys "Christ-children"] / May I also see / In you Innocence, / Simplicity, / Charity. / Adorn your heart, / It is my home, / It is where my greatness / Is always pleased to be, / It is my gift, / It is my incense" (H 59:8-9). And marvelously, the children reply: "Take, King of Heaven, / Our childrens hearts . . . / How sweet it is / To be in this stable! / Oh little Child, / How lovely you are! / Oh little lamb, / How beautiful you are!" (H 59:10-11).
4. A personal experience of God
The ten Christmas hymns do not all attain the same poetic level. Some of them, or some of their verses, are purely catechism lessons, expressed in rhyme, for instance, the "Noel of Zealous Souls" (H 62).
However, even in these less poetic lines, where some preacher is reproaching a miserly, worldly soul or where some proud potentate is refusing the treasure of true Wisdom offered to them by the infant King, there are sparks of brilliance. This is seen, for example, when Montfort defines the emptying of the All-Powerful into the state of infancy: "the loving eclipse of this divine Sun" (H 62:4). And one cannot help admiring in his various compositions his faculty for feeling and imagination in the way he develops various aspects of the Gospel story, in words and music. It is certain that Montforts poetry is always in the service of evangelization. His free flowing popular lyric poetry deservedly and reasonably should be called a "spiritual discipline" in the most positive sense of this phrase.
Montforts poetry is religious poetry, even if it is also didactic. It interprets and explains the doctrine and discipline of the faith. It communicates above all an experience of God and of the Virgin. The poets lyricism, often naive, aspires only to celebrate the eternal advent of Christmas, which is at once in time and beyond time.
V. CHRISTMAS IN MONTFORTS SPIRITUALITY
On first sight, certain passages of Montfort can fail to show that he is imbued with the spirituality of Christmas. Other passages, even while speaking of Christmas, appear to have little connection with his spirituality. We must therefore look beyond the literal meaning of both types of passage, as in the following quotes, which are inspired by Bérulle: "The infinitely holy and exalted God is at the same time infinitely solicitous for us and understands our weaknesses" (SM 20); and "The Most High, the Incomprehensible One, the Inaccessible One, He who is, deigned to come down to us poor earthly creatures who are nothing at all" (TD 157). The Nativity is indicated by the words "our weaknesses" and "come down to us." Expressed here are not only the union of great and small but also the absence of disdain for the small, which is instead called upon to grow: "The Most High God came down to us in a perfect way through the humble Virgin Mary, without losing anything of his divinity or holiness" (TD 157).
On the other hand, we cannot reach the same conclusion simply on the grounds that Montfort writes, "Let us give Him instead our souls / Let us deliver our hearts to His flames / Let us go in mind to the stable / To kiss His little feet" (H 64:8), or says to Christ, "Lovely Infant / Reign over us as Sovereign, reign over us" (H 9). Christmas remains the mystery of the Infant-God: "The All-Powerful made Himself an Infant" (H 57:1). Along with the Incarnation, this is the fundamental mystery to which the whole of Christian spirituality returns. Everything related to birth and infancy and their many aspects has a certain affinity with Christmas. Bérulle and his disciples concentrated on this affinity, but where they only saw humiliation and abjection, Montfort sees this mystery in a completely different way, though considering the same elements and often using the same language. Smallness and powerlessness become in Montfort loving dependence on a maternal Providence.
1. The spirituality of the Incarnation
Christmas begins in Marys womb before being made concrete in the crib. Montfort has this truth in mind: "I adore you profoundly . . . in the virginal womb of Mary, your most worthy Mother, at the time of your Incarnation" (LEW 223). From this moment on, the Consecration recognizes our belonging to Christ (TD 32), who already unites all his mystical members. "We must say that we originate in the Virgins womb, from which we emerged one day like a body attached to its head."28
2. The spirituality of loving dependence
Montfort links these three terms: "servants, slaves, children of Mary" (TD 56). This progression in dependence finally leads to a relationship of filial love, which is emphasized many times: "You will give them birth, feed them and rear them" (TD 31). "They will experience her motherly kindness and affection for her children" (TD 55). Wisdom Incarnate did not wish to come into the world independently of others, in the flower of his manhood, but he came as a frail little child, dependent on the care and attention of his mother (TD 139). Montforts whole spirituality is centered on this maternal function of Mary towards the newborn Christ wholly dependent on his mother; for us, this state lasts all our earthly life, our true birth coming about in glory after death (TD 33).
3. The spirituality of hope and joy
Christmas is a festival of hope and joy because it fulfills the hope of salvation. Montfort celebrated this joy, which was for a long time suppressed by a religion of fear and pessimism, of deviant spirituality: "Be blessed, O Mary, / You are our happiness, / And you give us life / by giving us this amiable Savior" (H 64:11). In SM 68, we read: "Hail, Mary, my joy," and in MP 12: "Mary, joy of those who serve the Lord." This joy which Mary communicates to us is her own joy. In H 57:6 we read: "O pure and divine Mary, / We admire your happiness: / To your Savior / You gave life." Mary, who at Christmas created our happiness by giving us the Savior, is always "in the act" of giving him. Her maternity is in the order of grace the continuation of what began with Christmas. Montfort here meets with the most current Church teaching: "Christmas is an extended commemoration of the Divine Maternity . . . of her who gave birth to the Savior of the world" (MC 5). "This maternity of Mary in the economy of grace is continued uninterrupted to the consummation of all the elect" (LG 62). John Paul II has recalled "the most special maternal cooperation" of Mary, not only in the past but also to prepare the future at the end of this second millennium (RM at49).
H. M. Guindon
Notes: (1) H . A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, London 1912, 34. (2) St. Bernard, Oeuvres complètes (Complete Works), trans. Dion-Charpentier, Paris 1867, 7:369. (3) W. R. W. Stephens, The English Church from the Norman Conquest to the Accession of Edward I, London 1901, 309, in H . A. Miles, Christmas, 35. (4) H . A. Miles, Christmas, 63. The author refers to H. Lemoignon, Vieux Noèls composés en lhonneur de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Old Christmas Hymns Composed in Honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ), Nantes 1876. (5) R. Louis, La Nativité de Notre-Seigneur Jésus- Christ (The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ), Paris 1911. (6) Histoire des Diocèses de France (History of the Dioceses of France), vol. 18, Le Diocèse de Nantes (The Diocese of Nantes), Beauchesne, Paris 1983, 252- 253. (7) B. Papàsogli, Montfort, A Prophet for Our Times, Edizione Monfortane, Roma, 1991, 18. (8) Histoire et liturgie, coutumes et legendes, littérature et poésie (History and Liturgy, Customs and Legends, Literature and Poetry), Desclée De Brouwer, 1894, 23. (9) Lambert, Dieu change en Bretagne (God is Changing in Brittany), Cerf, Paris 1985, 23. (10) Papàsogli, 18. (11) G. Davailly, ed., Histoire religieuse de la Bretagne (A Religious History of Brittany), H.L.D., Chambray 1980, 160-161. (12) Bérulle, 352. (13) Bérulle, 985. (14) Condren, Considérations 54-62, in Bremond, 3:520. (15) Bérulle, 1007. (16) Le Portrait fidèle des abbés et autres supérieurs réguliers et de leurs religieux dans la vie du père Jean Garat, abbé de Chancelade (The True Portrait of the Abbots and Other Regular Superiors and Their Religious in the Life of Father Jean Garat, Abbot of Chancelade), by a regular canon of the Abbey of Notre Dame de Chancelade, L. Roche, Paris 1691, 148. (17) Bremond, 264. (18) La Vie de M. de Renty par le Père Jean-Baptiste Saint-Jure (The Life of M. de Renty by Father Jean- Baptiste Saint-Jure), Paris 1652 in Bremond, 527. (19) Ibid., 528. (20) Laurentin, Dieu seul est ma tendresse (God Alone Is My Tenderness), O.E.I.L., Paris 1984, 110. (21) Ibid., 67. (22) J.-B. Bossuet, Oeuvres complètes (Complete Works), Flachat, Paris 1862, 8:241-242. (23) Ibid., 267-278. (24) No conclusion can be drawn from this silence. Montfort is called "the perpetual orator of his privileges and his greatness," yet he has scarcely one sermon of three pages and only a few mentions in the 477 pages of sermons that Montfort left. (25) Prayer over the Offerings, fourth Wednesday of Easter time. (26) Ch. Péguy, Le porche du Mystère de la deuxième vertu (The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue), I, 572-574. (27) Cf. Ch. Péguy, Il clima della speranza, introduction, translation, and notes by G. Francini, Padua 1982, 86, 119ff. (28) Saint Pius X, Ad diem illum, February 2, 1904.
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
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