Monastery of the Visitation

  Sermon of Cardinal Newman on the occasion of the Profession of Sr. Mary Dominica Bowden, January 12th 1854.

Let us be glad and rejoice and give glory to Him; for the Marriage of the lamb is come and His wife hath prepared herself. Apoc. XIX, 7.

There is but one God and He has been from the beginning. He is all perfect, all sufficient, all in all- He has all things in Himself, and there is no power, goodness, or any other excellence external to Him. And therefore, when He created the visible and invisible worlds, they could have no excellence of any kind but what He gave them, and He was the one Fount, and abiding centre and Sovereign Lord and Owner of all that was good and true, strong or beautiful. It was impossible, even for the Almighty to create a being who should be independent of Himself; for because He was Almighty, all things beside Him from the nature of the case depended on Him.
This is the second fundamental truth of all religion. The first is that God is all sufficient, - the second that nothing is sufficient but He. The first that He is His own good and His own bliss; the second that the blessedness of every creature lies in rejoicing and resting in Him. Without this the highest and holiest Archangel would suddenly droop, and collapse and shrivel up – or rather without this no Archangel would have height of place or sanctity of purpose to forfeit.
This it is which in the beginning the good angels understood so well, this was it which the rebel hosts forgot to their own destruction. Satan fell from Heaven like lightning before any formal condemnation on the part of the Most High; he was condemned already in his ambition, to attempt a rival throne to God, was in itself to build upon the great deep. The creation can but build itself upon God. He is the only possible foundation. As well might men imagine leaving the solid ground to tread on air or water, as the creation to leave the God of Ages and yet to find a place of rest. And who would wish to do so if he could, but spirits so perverted and unnatural, that, unless there are such, unless in our own hearts we have vestiges a sad witness of its possibility, we should have thought it could not be. The gifts of God within us, the grace which comes from Him, witnesses to its Author, extols Him, draws the spirit towards Him from whom it comes, making it His child while it makes it acceptable to Him, and preaches devotion while it imparts sanctity. An intense self-renunciation, a profound self-surrender to Him is, I will not say the duty, but the very law of all created beings.
And therefore in simple love for us, for the very love wherewith He created us, is God necessarily led to proclaim to us the elementary truth that if we would live we must look to Him for life, if we would be happy, we must make Him our glory. He asks us compassionately, “Why will ye die?” I am not imposing on you any positive law, which I could dispense with. I am not simply proving your obedience, by the conditions of an arbitrary command, I am but stating what is involved in the very fact of my being the living God that if you would live you must live by me.
However Angels fell, and man disobeyed, and a world of sinners was the consequence; but the Eternal Truth remained, and not thousands upon thousands could reverse it. The will of nations might say “It shall not be” but it was true as before. The wit of sages, the fiat of monarchs, the decree of states could not do that which is impossible even to God. The tender mercy of the Creator might look out mournfully and yearn over the work of His hands – but if He was to create, unless He was to annihilate, even He could not reverse it; He could not deny His own being and attributes; He could not make a second God; He could not bring it about that man should be happy, yet should rebel against Him. And therefore His love was exercised, not in allowing impossibility, not in recognising a rebellion, but in calling back the rebels to the sweetness of paternal forgiveness and the tenderness of paternal affection. O Israel thy destruction is thy own – in me only is thy help Jer. 3. He does not say go on, He says return – He cannot change His own nature: He cannot compromise His power and sanctity; He can but enlarge His mercy.
How He enlarged it my Brethren, you know full well. He would not be outdone by man – Man had done great exploits in the way of sinning, but the Creator resolved on greater in the way of love. He determined to win man’s heart back to Him, in spite, if I may say so myself, of himself. Therefore He veiled His glory and His high estate – He came in disguise, He put on Him a created nature, He made Himself our equal, He came to the world which He made, as a man; and He ate and drank, and conversed and mixed with us, as a proof of this nature. He condescended to what would seem impossible to God, but the idea of which to God only was possible. He condescended to come and all for the sake of the poor sinful soul, to ask its love to display to it its own celestial excellence, to win it, and to join it to Himself in an eternal marriage. Nay, and when He determined to give a proof of how much He loved and how much He would sacrifice for the object of His choice, for, lest He, the Creator should not come with a sufficient recommendation, or bid high enough for His beloved, He went out to fight the tyrant who enslaved it, and He rescued it from captivity at the price of His own blood.
And thus in a far more enduring way, according to our need, has He brought before us the momentous doctrine of our dependence on Him. It is an eternal truth that without Him we cannot do anything good – and that in His presence is our blessedness. But He insists not on this – rather He goes out to win us and to meet us. He manifests Himself not as the judge of the spirits of all flesh, but as the lover of souls. He has married Himself to His church, and to every elect soul in it, giving Himself for it. So is the mode He has so graciously adopted to win us back to Him; such is the great event which lies before us after the resurrection according to the text, the marriage feast.
Now to enter into the full force of this condescension, we must consider more attentively what man is, and what is his condition. Recollect then, my dear Brethren, that man is not a pure spirit, not an Angel, but is far more differently constituted, having a compounded nature, made up of soul and body. He is a creature of the elements, and is subject to their power. He is weak, wayward, irritable, irrepressible, wavering, and capricious; he is carried off in various directions; and ion order to fulfil his mission at all, he must first be directed to one object and fixed in one course. His Creator who knew what He has created, and saw his need, even in the time of his innocence, and while he was elevated above himself by supernatural grace, even in Paradise itself anticipated and supplied it. The only human way to bringing him into harmony with himself and preparing him to discharge the duties which were incumbent on him, was to withdraw him from the numberless influences which surrounded him and to fix his mind upon one object. It was not good for him to be alone, and a sort of helper was created for him (a sort of integrity of nature.) Such is the perfection of human nature, viewed in itself, divinely ordained, and recognised as such by Christianity which has raised matrimony to the dignity of a sacrament.
Man has great capacities; he has an intellect and a heart for many things; his nature is expansive, nor can you say how many things he can love, but he must begin from some fixed points. It is by the law of our nature, the natural happiness of everyone, man and woman, to have one central and supreme attachment, to which none other can be compared. An affection, one, mutual, sovereign, unalterable, is his earthly happiness and his earthly strength. Two creatures of God, placed in this rough world, exposed to its many fortunes, destined to suffering and death, join hands and give the faith to each other that each of them will be the other wholly unto death. Henceforth each is made for the other – each has possession of the affections of the other in a transcendent way (each soul); each loves the other better than anything else in the way; each is all in all to the other; each can confide in the other unreservedly, each is the others irreversibly. There is but one mind, one aim, one course, one happiness between two. Each is reflected in the other; each reads his own thoughts in the others face; each feels for the other more than for himself. Such is the fount head (aim) of human society and the continual provision of the human race: such is the beginning of civilisation, the guardian of religion, and the norm of philanthropy, (and the sanctification of mankind.) There is no such union elsewhere in this natural world; even the tie which binds mother and child (as tender and as beautiful, but not as lasting) may be broken – ineffable as was the interchange of love, and close the union which bound Mary and Jesus – thirty years it lasted, but then He had to go to preach and suffer; and, as far as this world went, He had little more to do with His Mother. But conjugal duty is indestructible: and in its outpouring and in its ardour and its security it may seem (if I may speak the word with reverence) to recall to us the everlasting ineffable love with which the Father loves the Son who is in His bosom and the Son the father who has from all eternity begotten Him.
Such is the blessedness of man viewed in his own nature, and without reference to grace. And now considering what shall we say of the dispensation of grace? You know my brethren, has innovated upon nature, not destroying or suspending it, but bringing in a higher order. Under the Gospel, not marriage, but virginity, has been in honour, and that because the kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of Heaven, and its luminaries, as becomes such a kingdom, neither marry nor are given in marriage but are as the Angels of God. Under the Jewish law marriage was in honour even according to the standard of the religion itself. Moses the Lawgiver was married - Aaron was married - the priests and Levites generally were married - the prophets were married - so too were the prophetesses Debora and Olda; there are a few exceptions, as Josue, Elias and Eliseus, the anticipation of what was one day to be. But when the fullness of time came, and the Gospel was preached, and the Catholic Church set up, then forthwith virginity became honourable as the higher state. Our Lord Himself, the Crown of Virgins, His ever blessed Virgin Mother, St. John the Baptist, set a pattern to the new disciplines. The Apostles followed, never married, or separating from their wives; the rulers of the Church: the priests and other sacred ministers, and then lay persons, men and women, who aimed at perfection. Henceforth a system of grace came in, which raised man above himself, and without repealing the laws by which he was naturally governed, or making that wrong which was Gods ordinance regarding him, put before his eyes a nobler state of life and counselled him to do that which came to him on no obligation.
Now I ask, has the Almighty God deprived us of any blessing of man when He has thus set before us a higher life? Observe this then, my brethren. The Gospel recommends celibacy, but observe how it draws around it the choicest blessings of human nature, while it seems to be giving them up. There is a state of celibacy recommended by philosophers, exemplified in religious teaching, which does ever harden the heart, which is of that forlorn, haughty and repulsive nature - as it has been imaged and extolled in the pages of heathen writers or in the teaching of false religions. There has been among the philosophers of antiquity who have been led to praise of a life of asceticism and self-denial almost Xtian. There have been those among false religions who have actually observed the state of celibacy and that on the grounds that it was higher than the common life of man. To make a single life its own end, to adopt it simply and solely for its own sake. I do not know whether such a state of life is more melancholy or more unamiable, melancholy from it’s from its unrequited desolateness, (like Mahomedan’s god, who from eternity has had no exercise of love) and unamiable from the pride and self esteem on which it is based.
This is not the Virginity of the Gospel - it is not a state of independence or isolation, or dreary pride, or barren indolence, or crushed affections; man is made for sympathy, for the interchange of love, for self-denial for the sake of another dearer to him than himself. (We are drawn from the world by being drawn to Christ) The Virginity of the Christian soul is a marriage with Christ. Hence the words, ‘I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.) O surprising love and wisdom, which has thus allowed us to aim at being Angels without ceasing to be men. O transcending condescension that He should stoop to be ours in the tenderest and most endearing way, - ours to love, ours to consult, ours to minister to, ours to converse with, ours to gaze on. Ours so fully that it is as if He had none to think of but each of us personally. The very idea of matrimony is possession – whole possession – the husbands is the wife’s and no others, and the wife is the husbands and none but his. This is to enter into the marriage bond (a closed bond, the awful vow and the sacred ring) this is the force of the marriage vow, this is the lesson of the marriage ring. And this it is to be married to Jesus. It is to have Him ours wholly, henceforth, and forever it is to be united to Him by an indissoluble tie – it is to be His, while His is ours, ( to have the fullness of the Godhead in the communion of the manhood) it is to partake of that wonderful sacrament which unites Him to His Blessed Mother on high. Such has the Highest deigned to be to His elect; to all of them in the world to come, as the text tells us, and to those of them in their degree by earnest or by anticipation who are called to follow the Lamb withersoever He goes, to those who are called to the holy orders or to the monastic state – to those especially the Spouses of Christ, those dear children of grace, who leave the earth and its allurements and its enjoyments, for Him alone, all of them ineffably united to Him, ( you know it far better than I can tell you dear sisters) some of them ascending so high along the ladder of mystical devotion as actually already to forestall that perfect solemnity which will be the portion of all saints in the world to come.
Such were the beautiful and innocent saints, in past ages of the Church, martyrs or confessors, who are your patterns, my Sisters, and your guardians and your intercessors and your intimate friends. Such was St. Agnes, who when offered for a husband a Roman nobleman, answered that she had found a better spouse – such St. Domitilla, the emperor’s niece, who when offered a high marriage answered “ If a maiden were offered the choice of a Monarch or a peasant, which would she prefer?” Such St Susanna, such St. Agatha, who were martyred rather than lose Christ. Such your own heroic St. Francis (who heard Christ and became deaf yet sang on to please her Divine Spouse) who was ever pining for the presence of her Spouse. Such the blessed Margaret Mary, who would have nothing short of His Sacred Heart, and could speak of it alone.
You, my sisters, who form this holy community, you too, my sisters, who are the subject of the present solemn rite and the occasion of our present meeting, you know all these things far better than I can speak of them – and were you not as charitable as you are, would smile at my rude wordy attempt to describe blindly and vaguely what you have long experienced, and have so anxiously expected – anxiously, with many beatings of heart, and holy aspirations, each one of you have been waiting for this day my dear Sisters , who are now before the Bishop who has the charge of you (to present yourself before the Bishop who will present you to Christ), anxiously waiting for this day and now it has come. The joyful, the solemn day is come, ( when some of you are to begin your trial, and others to receive its reward) O joyful, solemn day, the remembrance of which will be sweet through all eternity – that day of your espousal to Him whom you have chosen. He has chosen you, and you have chosen Him. He loves you with a love incomparable – He has drawn you with the cords of Adam – He has come to you in all His sanctity and all His divine beauty, and you have yielded yourselves to Him, to love and serve Him, and to love none other but Him except in Him for ever and ever.
Each of you has her own wonderful history known to herself – each has been drawn to Him in a way more wonderful than all the rest – for God can do these blessed things, each most wonderful. Each has had more mercies shown it, and most sins forgiven, and most graces bestowed. Each has the greatest cause for gratitude and affection – each is visited with the most special mark of His loving remembrance – I know it – I thank God for it – but there is one here, which I cannot help singling out, not of having more mercies shown her my sisters than the rest, but because I know her better, and because in contemplating Our Lords exceeding mercy on her, I am able to imagine, without knowing, His surpassing mercies to you all.
You, then my dear child, I have known almost from your birth. There is one, now no more, who was my earliest and truest friend, almost from my boyhood. To you he had more claim than anyone – for he was your father. Well do I remember in your earliest infancy what you do not recollect, the day of your baptism, well do I recollect that day, the 15th April 1831 so many years ago, and the great anxiety that your dear father showed that in every the least particular of ceremony you should be baptised rightly. I baptised you- thus it was, long before I was a Catholic, that according to the Anglican rite, I took you in my arms, and baptised you with water in the name of the Three Divine Persons, and signed you with the sign of the cross. That Baptism, though administered in ignorance, I believe to be fully valid – wisely and mercifully has the Church given you conditional baptism on coming to her, lest there be any chance of mistake; but the form was right and the matter right, and I had the fullest wish and purpose to do what the Church does, and I fully believe that from that moment you were rescued from the power of Satan, and made the subject of Gods supernatural promises and supernatural graces. From your very infancy then God has chosen you, and claimed you as His own. From your infancy has your dear Lord put His seal upon you, and drawn you towards Him out of the world, nay out of the multitude of faithful, to be with you more intimately than with others, to inhabit your heart , to fill you with honour, and to preserve you in innocence and peace. Ah my child, I am not unmindful, nor are you, that whatever be His graces to you hitherto, they constitute no claim on Him to continue you to the end – I am not unmindful that peaceful as your course has hitherto been, trials may come before life is over – rather the more you have received the more you may pray and tremble lest you should have to answer for the forfeiting of such manifold graces. I know no one is safe till he has finished his course, but, not forgetting this, I return thanks to God for what He has been for you from the first. I tenderly and thankfully look back on those past years, when, while you were all unconscious, I was narrowly watching you from the love I bore your parents. Your image is before me as you were a child, and as you were a girl - I recollect your manners and your ways – well do I recollect your dear Father, when you were a child, predicting that you would be a nun, so early gently and perseveringly has God drawn you. And so, as time went on, God’s purpose towards you became plainer – and then, when he was about to be taken from you (your earthly guardian) passed his last days in this very vicinity, as if with his last breath to commend you to the tender care of a Father and Master even kinder and more powerful than your own, the glorious St. Francis and St. Jane de Chantal. He brought you as if to the very door of this sacred house, and then he left you.
This is a world of separation and bereavement till the day which fulfilling that which this begins, the solemnity of the eternal marriage between God and His elect. Here we are variously called in His service, to the right and on the left – we go abroad or we sit at home – we repose in retirement or we go forth into the world. But that Day will reassemble us, when the voice goes forth, Behold the Bridegroom cometh – and then the wise virgins will take their lamps and go forth to meet Him – and He will take them up to the everlasting banquet – and there the Angels will sing joyfully “ Blessed are they who are called to the wedding supper of the lamb.” Apoc.19.