Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ite ad Joseph - Part III

III. Joseph - The Quiet Man

Trooper Thornton, John Wayne's character in the classic romance The Quiet Man, is described as a "quiet, peace-lovin' man." Although the latter epithet might not apply to other characters played by Wayne throughout his career, the former description seems to be a trademark. There's a manliness and strength in the virtue of silence. Reticence suggests thoughtfulness, composure, and attentiveness. From their silence, Wayne's characters burst into action, quick and deadly, a storm following calm. We admire and muse at these characters, and the figure of the "quiet man" has become almost cliche, reproduced variously in other personae such as James Bond or even Clark Kent.

The man of silence is really an archetypical figure of sorts. He is a classic staple used in a plethora of literature and media; and there are plenty of historical precedents as well. Who can forget Teddy Roosevelt's admonition to "speak softly and carry a big stick?" Or the countless military greats, from Washington to Napoleon to Lee, who have been described as "quiet leaders?" Silent composure was a mark of regency according to chivalric code; a sign of gentility by the standards of Victorian decorum. And of course, Our Lord Himself was Kingly in His silence before Pilate.

It has been noted that there is a remarkable lack of information about Saint Joseph in scripture. In fact, the great man actually speaks not at all. In all of the actions we read not a single word spoken from his saintly lips. Why? Did he say much, but little worth note? Or did he, in fact, say little? I suppose this to be the case. Perhaps the silent figure presented in the Bible is less enigmatic than we think. Perhaps the portrait we receive of a quiet man of action is as accurate a picture as we could desire.

Surely, at such a moment as the finding of Jesus in the Temple, most earthly father's would have had their lot to say. But we find Joseph standing in quiet support of Mary at this moment. Fading into the background even at such a moment as this, Joseph probably lived most of his life in such a way: with his hand on Mary's shoulder, composed as her pillar of strength. From this composure, we rest assured, he occasionally broke forth into action. Many legends surround his role in leading Mary and Jesus into and back from the land of Egypt. But, chances are, such great deeds as make up these legends are the exceptional moments in Joseph's life. The man of quiet composure probably spent most of his years as a background figure to the life at Nazareth, humbly fulfilling the terrible task of rearing the Son of God, attmepting to raise him as a man after his own example with God's grace.

There is a great poem by Robert Hayden called Those Winter Sundays, describing how a father would wake early each morning and prepare the fire so that the family would wake up to a warm house. The poet movingly depicts a wearied working man caring for his family, even polishing his son's shoes before the start of each day. Hayden closes the poem with a particularly poignant rhetorical question: "What did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?"

This question we may ask ourselves about the hidden life of Saint Joseph. In all likelihood, the silence of scripture masks nothing more than the regular deeds of an ordinary father. Yet, in such deeds consists the great man's saintliness and virtue. As many recent saints such as Josemarie Escriva, Therese de Lisieux, and Mother Theresa have taught us, great holiness is often achieved through the accomplishment of ordinary and daily tasks, especially when these tasks are fulfilled humbly and quietly. I like to think that scripture is silent about most of Saint Joseph's deeds because Joseph himself was silent in accomplishing them. Seeking no praise and admiration, working dutifully and gratefully without hope of fame or fortune - this is the "way" advocated by many modern spiritualists and (I believe) it was also the "way" of Saint Joseph.

May we often meditate on scripture's silence in regard to Saint Joseph. What are the many deeds that go undescribed and uncelebrated? Are they so different than the ones which we find ourselves doing day in and day out? And might scripture's silence be but a reflection of Joseph's own silence, as he humbly worked out the will of the Heavenly Father whom He emulated and represented for Christ his foster-son? May our meditation move us to do our daily work with equal reverence and devotion, seeing in Joseph a model of perfection through "love's austere and lonely offices."


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