St. Joseph – Patron of Natural Contemplation


        The infancy narratives in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke contain the only biblical references to St. Joseph we possess.  In these texts St. Joseph is clearly presented to us as a model of compassion and discernment, and above all else as the protector and defender of the Holy Family.  However, if we look carefully at these texts we will find another aspect to the biblical presentation of St. Joseph that should be of great interest to Christians who wish to practice contemplative prayer.

        It has long been noted that the infancy narratives, particularly the first and second chapters of St. Luke’s gospel, depict the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of lectio divina, the slow, interior, prayerful repetition of sacred scripture that allows the written word of God to become an experience of union with God.  In lectio divina the biblical text gradually becomes transparent, revealing the One Who originally inspired it: in the same way, in Catholic tradition Mary becomes utterly transparent to the One she bears.  In his infancy narrative Saint Luke uses different verbs to portray how the devout Christian, imitating the Blessed Virgin, should ponder the sacred text. In Luke 2:19 and 2:51 the related verbs suntéreo and diatéreo describe how Mary “treasures up”, “remembers” in her heart the words of the shepherds and the events surrounding the child Jesus’ visit to the temple. In Luke 2:19 the verb sumballo describes the art of meditation as a “stirring together” of impressions and reactions, a “joining together” of words and ideas.

        The significance of St. Luke’s description of Mary “pondering” the Word “in her heart” was noted by Origen in the third century (Hom. 20.6 on Luke, 6), by Bede in the seventh century (Hom. 1.7 on Christmas), and by commentators throughout the middle ages.  So universal was this identification of Mary with the art of biblical meditation that in the Western Church the standard artistic representation of the Annunciation invariably depicts Mary engaged in lectio divina as the angel Gabriel approaches.  Thus she who will become the Mother of God fittingly prepared herself to receive the Incarnate Word by pondering in her heart the written word of God in the biblical text.

        In order to understand the role and, as it were, the “icon” of St. Joseph in the infancy narratives, it is important to recall the place assigned to lectio divina in the life of the Christian by early Christian mystical theologians.  In the spiritual writings of Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others, the art of lectio divina is understood as a “laboratory” where the Christian learns the great art of theoria physiké, natural contemplation, the ability to behold God present in created things and in human history.  Discovering God in the texts of sacred scripture encourages the Christian contemplative to gradually look up from the pages of the Bible to the “salvation history” that is concealed within the ordinary events of everyday life.  The Christian contemplative learns to “read” and ponder the purposes and presence of God in the often-difficult circumstances and relationships of his or her life.  And it is precisely this great art that St. Joseph models for us in the Gospel of Matthew.

        In Matthew’s infancy narrative Joseph, presumably joyful in his engagement to Mary, is suddenly confronted with the incomprehensible scandal of Mary’s pregnancy (Mt. 1:18).  Joseph, however, is one of the tsadikim / dikaioi, the “just” or “holy ones” of Israel (Mt. 1:19) who trust in God and act with compassion.  His initial reaction is to divorce Mary quietly so as to spare her both public humiliation and also, presumably, the death penalty her condition could entail according to strict Jewish law (Mt. 1:20).  But then, Joseph, the compassionate tsadik becomes through the grace of God more than a “just one”; he becomes a contemplative.  St. Matthew uses the verb enthumeomai to describe Joseph’s prayerful reaction to this seeming catastrophe.  Like the verbs St. Luke uses to describe Mary’s pondering, this word also means “to ponder” or “to lay to heart”; but it carries the additional sense of “to consider deeply” (Liddell & Scott, Kittel).  Joseph ponders, “considers deeply”, in his heart this seemingly painful event and he is rewarded with perception of the inner meaning – God’s meaning – of these events through the medium of an angelic voice.  And this revelation occurs not through any ecstatic frenzy, but rather in the ordinary, mundane experience of refreshing, dream-filled sleep (Mt. 1:20). What appeared at first to mean infidelity and scandal can now be contemplated as the fulfillment of prophecy and the true meaning of Joseph’s own life (Mt. 1:20-24).  Joseph has contemplated the inner meaning, the “word”, of God in the most painful event of his life.

        This is the contemplative art of which St. Joseph can rightly be regarded as patron.  Joseph gazes deeply with the eye of faith into the events of his own life, and with God’s help he perceives the work of salvation in ordinary events, even in the painful experiences that once seemed devoid of God.  Modern Christians eager to practice contemplation often imagine that their goal is ecstasy, escape from the confines of ordinary life; or else they strive solely for imageless, wordless prayer that leaves behind the mundane, messy word.  St. Joseph teaches us another kind of contemplation, one more in keeping with the Word Who became flesh to redeem and remake the “ordinary” world He so passionately loves.  We who, like Mary, ponder the words of God in lectio divina can learn from St. Joseph to behold within the events of our ordinary lives the glorious purposes of God.


This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2001....x....  .