JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
I. Use of the Word "Covenant" in the Works of Montfort: 1. The Hymns; 2. The Ark of the Covenant; 3. Covenant and the Cross; 4. Covenant and Wisdom; 5. The covenant with God. II. Theological Content: 1. Covenant contract and Baptism; 2. The covenant as spousal relationship; 3. The Ark of the Covenant; 4. Characteristics of covenant. III. Relevance of Montforts Teaching on Covenant: 1. Personal and communitarian aspects of the covenant; 2. The renewal of baptismal vows; 3. Covenant renewal as a new start; 4. Montforts clarity.
A study of covenant reveals that basic to all its types, historical, social or other, are three components: giving, receiving, and giving back. In this article we shall restrict ourselves to biblical covenants with their three components, as reflected in the writings of Saint Louis de Montfort.
I. USE OF THE WORD "COVENANT" AS EMPLOYED BY MONTFORT
The word itself occurs only twelve times in Montforts works.
1. The Hymns
Almost half of the occurrences appear in H, and they would not seem at first sight to have much relevance to the biblical theme. Hymn 12:5 informs us that the covenant between the Virgin most pure and Jesus her Spouse is eternal. In his hymn "The Tenderness of Charity towards ones Neighbor," Montfort sings that ones neighbor "is the son of the eternal Father, / and through a divine covenant, / is universal heir to the kingdom" (H 14:17). In H 36:90 the victim of human respect is upbraided: "Renegade Christian, have your way; / you are engaged in a horrible covenant; / you are but a monster in disguise." In H 87:9, in honor of Jesus living in Mary, Montfort writes: "They seem to be intertwined. / How beautiful this covenant!" H 17:5, again referring to Mary, says, "She is my Ark of the Covenant / wherein I find holiness." The biblical theme of covenant is not the object of these citationsat least at first sightexcept for the reference to the Ark of the Covenant.
2. The Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant recurs twice more in Montforts writings, in a rather surprising way. In FC, those who refuse to suffer patiently and are not resigned to carrying their Cross are told: "You will be like the two oxen that drew the Ark of the Covenant, lowing as they went" (cf. 1 Kings 12 according to the Vulgate, 1 Sam 6:12 in Hebrew and our modern translations). The same is applied to the worldly-wise in LEW 178: "I seem to see in you the oxen that drew the Ark of the Covenant against their will, bellowing as they went, unaware that what they were drawing contained the most precious treasure upon earth." The "precious treasure" refers to the fact that the Ark contained the Scrolls of the Covenant, the Decalogue (cf. Ex 25:16) and perhaps more (cf. Heb 9:4). These last two references from Montfort bring together the covenant and the Cross.
3. Covenant and the Cross
The relationship of covenant and the Cross appears again in LEW 172 - "The bond between them is indissoluble, their covenant is eternal. Never the Cross without Jesus, or Jesus without the Cross" - and indirectly in LEW 195, where we find the third means for acquiring Divine Wisdom, a universal mortification. Wisdom looks for people worthy of him: "He has to search because there are so few and he can scarcely find any sufficiently unworldly or sufficiently interior and mortified to be worthy of him, of his treasures, and of his covenant."
4. Covenant and Wisdom
The relationship of covenant and Wisdom is developed in LEW 20-28, where we find the whole of chapter 24 of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), a text that is essential for an understanding of Wisdom, the basic element of Montforts spirituality. Montfort introduces this passage: "This is how divine Wisdom herself describes, in the twenty-fourth chapter of Ecclesiasticus, the effects of her activity in souls. I shall not mingle my poor words with hers for fear of diminishing their clarity and sublime meaning." These words of Divine Wisdom end with verse 31 (according to the Latin Vulgate; verse 22 in our modern translations, which use the short Greek text), but Montfort adds verse 32 (=23), which is not part of the original but an explanation by Sirach, who says: "All this is the book of life, the covenant of the Most High, and the knowledge of the truth." "All this" means the description of Wisdom given in the preceding numbers. That Montfort should have retained this last verse and not the following ones, which are likewise Sirachs, is significant. For him, Wisdom is an expression of the Covenant of the Most High.
5. The covenant with God
The last of the twelve references to covenant pertain to the covenant contract. The first is in TD 126, where, having written that "this devotion could rightly be called a perfect renewal of the vows and promises of holy baptism," he continues: "Scarcely anyone makes a personal ratification of the covenant contract made with God through his sponsors" (TD 127). The proof that he took this seriously is the fact that "he had a formula of this renewal of baptismal promises printed, which he got those who were literate to sign."1 Several copies have been discovered entitled "Covenant Contract with God" (cf. CG), recalling the title of the book written by St. John Eudes, Contrat de lhomme avec Dieu par le saint baptême (Contract of Man with God through Holy Baptism) (1654). We have, however, no proof that this book was available in the library at Saint-Sulpice or, if it was, that Montfort had read it.
II. THEOLOGICAL CONTENT
1. Covenant contract and Baptism
The formula "covenant contract," unlike "Ark of the Covenant," does not so much evoke a concrete image of the covenant as its essential meaning. The legal aspect of pacts practiced by their neighbors, from whom the Israelites had copied them, helped the people of God to grasp the meaning of the bond that was offered to them by God: "I will be your God, and you shall be my people, if . . ." (cf. Dt 26,17-19, etc.).
The reference to Baptism reflects the New Covenant itself. What is significant here is that Montfort envisages not simply a renewal but a ratification (a legal term found also in TD 127 and in the formula of Consecration in LEW 225) of the covenant made by the godparents, all drawn up in legal terms: "made before the Church, in such-and-such a place, on such-and-such a date" (cf. CG 1-3).
It is interesting to note how well the covenant contract drawn up by Montfort-fort is in keeping with his times. The formula of renewal and the practices that follow (the truths of the Gospel, the place of Mary, confessionreminding us that the missionary never ceases to call to conversion) all bear an authentic Montfort stamp, expressed in the thought patterns and practices of his time and place. The saints practices of popular devotion in connection with the covenant renewal (cf. H 139, "Rule of a man converted during a parish mission," with its 71 verses) have been criticized. He is, however, simply reflecting the cultural context of the age. It is well to remember that the Gospel itself is a living word rooted in different cultures: the Gospel of Matthew employs a different approach to that of Luke or John. This is also a caution to those who would advocate using only the precise practices and formulas employed by Montfort in preaching the covenant renewal.
2. The Covenant as spousal relationship
Legal images of covenant are not the only ones to be found in Montforts reading of the Bible. The prophetic image of marriage, itself essential to the covenant, is to be found throughout. For Montfort, it derives from the Wisdom aspect, which enlightens and facilitates the Law. The frequency of terms of love underlines their importance in Saint Louis de Montforts spirituality in general and, in particular, his understanding of the covenant with God: "spouse," "lover," "union," "womb," "breast," "desire," "seeking," "acquiring," "good," "happiness," "pleasing," "beauty," "grace," "sweetness," etc. It is impossible to recall all the terms used by Montfort in the rich vocabulary of love that he employs,2 of realistic images. "Covenant" itself is, for Saint Louis Marie, a term of love. It is, therefore, in this context that we must understand the term "covenant" in H. Hymn 12 on "The beauty of virginity" proclaims: "He embraces me; I embrace him. / He is mine and I am his," and "Since God lays himself down / upon my breast among the lilies," etc. Montfort clearly alludes to the Song of Songs, which speaks, in the words of popular love songs, precisely of the covenant between God and His people. The mystics, including Father de Montfort, use this vivid love language from the Song of Songs - hardly ever found in todays liturgy - when illustrating the covenantal relationship of God with man. To avoid confusing people, Montfort felt obliged to write verse 29, lest he be accused of denouncing marriage: "It is not that I pretend / That marriage is evil." He wrote this song to the tune of "I Have Nothing More to Claim": a clear indication that for him marriage can lay claim to no superiority over the divine union of the pure virgin.
Keeping in mind Montforts insistence on the covenant with Godand therefore with our neighboras a love relationship, we can understand the expressions of tenderness in Hymn 14, expressions which are not easily assimilated when love of ones neighbor is seen as a duty, and often a painful one at that. The word "charity" itself no longer conveys its original meaning: love. The NT alone retains this interpretation, and Montfort follows suit. Even Hymn 36, "The snare of human respect," can only be explained in the light of the alternative offered in Hymn 38, "Please God, or please the world." In his attempt to persuade us to prefer virtue, "this infinite treasure," and "this precious pearl which is never tarnished when one is in love with it" (H 67), Montfort again uses the language of love. We should not be surprised, then, at the "delights," "ravishments," and "ardors" of Hymns 77 and 87. All these terms take on an obvious meaning only when seen in light of the image of spousal relationship. All St. Louis Maries references to the "anger of God," "the snares of the world," to universal mortification, etc., can only be understood correctly if they are placed in the framework of the saints insistence that God is love and earnestly calls us to an ever deeper union with Him; we are to respond joyfully and completely, no matter the cost.
3. The Ark of the Covenant
The three references to the Ark of the Covenant mentioned above now take on an added importance. If, as appears to be the case, the covenant is a major theme for Montfort (not just the term, but the reality behind it), we can understand the importance he attaches to the Ark, which "contained the most precious treasure upon earth" (LEW 178). Here we have not just an accidental symbol, in relation to Mary and the Cross, but something essential. May we not, like S. Lyonnet,3 see Mary as "the holy Ark or the dwelling-place of God where his Son, the Holy One, the Son of God, comes to live"? Charles Perrot thinks that "such an exegesis is not without interest, even if it presupposes, for Luke as well as for his readers, an astonishing facility for seeing allusions in the scriptural texts. For that reason, we ought not to rely too much upon it."4 Montfort is not trying to settle exegetical debates. Rather, the missionary is insisting that the importance of Mary and the Cross in the economy of salvation derives from their function in the New and Eternal Covenant. For him, the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption are the distinguishing marks of the NT.
4. Characteristics of covenant
In addition to the few explicit references to the covenant, Montforts writings speak of certain characteristics that are precisely those of the covenant.
a. A new Law.
The covenant carries with it a new Law (the covenant clauses with their different systems of law). This Law arises from an initiative that is always divine, and it derives from a promise (the theme of inheritance). Montforts thought is heavily influenced by these ideas. This is exceptionally clear in PM: "It is your work, great God. Make your divine purpose a reality." But it is also the very basis of devotion to Mary: "God has decided to begin and accomplish his greatest works through the Blessed Virgin" (TD 15).
b. Gods call and human cooperation.
Another aspect of the biblical covenant is also present in LEW. While the covenant remains always the result of Gods initiative, God commits Himself in it to a form of cooperation with the human being "that limits both the power of man and of God" (as André Neher says in his definition of the covenant). LEW is full of awareness of this weakness of God for the human being, "whom he [Widsom] cannot help loving" (LEW 45). At the same time, Montfort pro-poses maxims, rules, and practices (cf. the covenants system of laws), which make the human being capable of remaining faithful to the covenant that God continues to offer. Finally, Montfort pays attention to the promises linked to the New Law. We have only to think of "the marvelous effects of Wisdom in the souls of those who possess him" (LEW 90ff.) or of "the wonderful effects of this devotion in a soul which is faithful to it" (TD 213ff.).
There are evident parallels between Montforts understanding of covenant and current theology. In emphasizing covenant fundamentally as a Sapiential spousal relationship (demanding absolute fidelity) linked to Baptismand its constant ratificationswith its Marian and apostolic dimensions, the roving missionary was quite innovative. His thought was mirrored in his contemporaries only in parts of stories about the saints, in moral commentaries on the Bible, and in a few spiritual authors.
III. RELEVANCE OF MONTFORTS TEACHING ON COVENANT
In a world where the specific culture and context of Saint Louis Marie is no longer found anywhere, the thought of the missionary must be faithfully transposed and adapted to modern times and its own variety of cultures. This holds true for the particular practices surrounding mans relationship to the covenant. The principles on which Montfort bases his covenant spirituality are as valid as the Scriptures that proclaim them; Montforts particular practices and stresses on the Gospel message, however, are time- and culture-bound.
1. Personal and communitarian aspects of the covenant
There is no question of erasing the individual and personal dimension of the covenant, especially now when several forms of individualism are extolling a subjectivism that goes further than Renaissance humanism. Ways must be found to integrate this personal responsibility with the ecclesial dimension, not to mention the planetary or even cosmic dimension, of which our world is becoming more and more conscious; such considerations areunderstandably enoughnot stressed in Montforts writings. Nonetheless, in LEW we find some striking passages on the drifting of society that would apply to the contemporary generation.
2. The renewal of baptismal vows
The Easter Eucharist includes a liturgical celebration of the renewal of baptismal promises: a covenant renewal ceremony. Saint Louis de Montforts teaching on the "perfect" covenant renewalConsecrationmay be helpful in preparing the people for such an important rite. Moreover, as the missionary concluded parish missions and retreats with an impressive covenant renewal, it may be helpful to include such a ceremony in similar circumstances today.
The full significance of the ceremony can be accentuated by sharing with the community the stresses Saint Louis de Montfort connects with the renewal of baptismal promises: spousal, Marian, total, Trinitarian/ Christocentric, apostolic.
3. Covenant renewal as a new start
Saint Louis de Montfort insists strongly on a renewed life following upon the covenant renewal ceremony. The examples he gives of sins to be avoided and of piety to be lived, although time- and culture-bound, have value in principle. His stress on sincerity, on the totality of our belonging to the Lord, on not following contemporary idols, on a life lived in Mary, on the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, on the definite need for a spiritual guide and the regular celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, on effective fraternal love, especially for the poor - all these can easily be transposed into the present-day context. Montforts Path of Perfection is an overall view of the road to God Alone, which the saint kindly but forcefully encourages to all who renew the baptismal covenant with the Lord.
4. Montforts clarity
Saint Louis Marie can also be imitated for the clarity with which he explained the consequences of a solemn covenant ratification. He never hedged; he never taught what would be contrary to the mind of the Church; he never watered down, not when it came to the reality of the spousal relationship inherent in the covenant renewal, not when it came to the sins that must be avoided and the virtues to be practiced after the covenant is ratified. The covenant spousal contract embraces, as the saint explains following the Word of God, the totality of who we are and what we have. Sin, therefore, is absolutely to be rejected by all, especially by those who live the covenant ratification. Montfort upholds both the horrendous objective reality of covenant sins and also the incomprehensible love of God for sinful man.
Notes: (1) Grandet, 395. (2) We might even speak of an "erotic" vocabulary, if the term had not taken on, in our modern language, a connotation of license and immorality in the use of sex, rather than of simple desire and pleasure (which can, of course be quite legitimate, as the Bible attests). Like the Bible, and any number of spiritual writers, drawing metaphors from very deep human experiences, Montfort has no difficulty in using this type of language to express the reality and the richness of the love relationship that God wishes to have with us. (3) Le Récit de lAnnonciation, in lAmi du Clergé, 1956, 33. (4) Cahiers Évangile, (Gospel Notebooks) 18 Novembre, 1976, 47; cf. Jean- Paul. Michaud in Cahiers Evangile, 7 septembre, 1991, 31-32, 34, 40, 44- 45.
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St.
Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.
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