My eldest brother died last year . . .
. . . and I became the last surviving member of my immediate family. It was a sobering moment. The consolation came from knowing that I can take great joy in my own progeny: six grown children and fifteen grandchildren.
It was with some nostalgia, therefore, that I began to sort through some very old photos. I found one of my favorites, a faded black and white picture of my dad holding my two-month-old twin sister and me. He holds one of us in each arm. In the picture, my sister is sound asleep. But I am awake and smiling up at him, and he is beaming back at me.
The tender affection and strong security of my father’s arms were a constant in my childhood. His death when he was only fifty-one and I was twelve years old was a crushing loss. But the foundation of love and trust in my father enabled me to love and put trust in God the Father, and it is the solid foundation on which my prayer life rests to this day.
St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, believed that the essence of prayer was to “remain like a child on the bosom of the Divine Father.” Those of us who have known comfort and security in our human fathers find that easy to understand. Amazingly, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, became man and learned to live in the bosom of his divine Father in the same way I did. He was wrapped in the arms of his strong, humble, faith-filled foster father, Joseph. Because of that, Joseph has always been my favorite saint, a model for my prayer life, and, since the death of my father, he has become someone I have looked to as my foster father.
A Mentor for Prayer. The impact of Joseph on my prayer life comes primarily from imitation. Like any good Jewish father, Joseph would have taught Jesus not only to work and to honor his mother but also to pray and to read Scripture. I can almost hear Joseph teaching Jesus to pray to God the Father and to recite the psalms both at home and in the Temple. If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s more than good enough for me!
When we hear Jesus speak in the Gospels, he is often quoting the psalms. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Even at the hour of his death, the oh so comforting and familiar words of the psalms formed on his lips. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
For more than forty years, my favorite way to pray has been using the Divine Office, the prayer of the Church. Its primary content consists of the same psalms that Joseph and Jesus must have prayed.
Within our family, my husband led us in Morning Prayer every day. Before school, before play, before anything else, the word of the Lord was heard and recited. The repetition day by day, month by month, year by year, lodges deep within. Without intending memorization, memorization happens.
There is a psalm for every mood of my day—jubilation, sorrow, frustration, and anger. Snippets of those memorized psalms keep me aware of the presence of God in all things. Surely the conversations in the home of Nazareth were sprinkled with such reminders as well. On rough days I have only to recall that the Lord is a “shield around me.” The wisdom of the psalms can turn crushing sorrow into joy. “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy!” When prayers are answered favorably and the good times come, praise comes easily. “Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy.”
A Strong and Vigorous Father. Jesus called Joseph Abba long before he taught us to say “Our Father.” I have a sense that when we look at Jesus, we not only see God the Father but a little bit of Joseph as well. Not biologically of course, but in the way that familiarity and discipleship produce a strong image. It makes me smile to watch my own son and his father. Though they are very different, there are moments when a gesture or mannerism, a way of speaking or mode of conversation makes the resemblance striking.
I have never cared for the artwork that portrays Joseph as an old man with a grey beard. It seems to demean the strength of his chastity by assuming it was the result of old age. An apocryphal tradition held that Joseph was a widower who married Mary at an older age. It seemed to answer the problem posed by the Scripture that refers to the “brothers” of Jesus. In this view they are the children of Joseph’s earlier marriage. But St. Jerome believed the word used more properly meant cousin. And I am of that belief. Since Jewish custom at the time was to marry young, that is how I see St. Joseph—a strong, young, vigorous man holding the child Jesus close to his heart.
St. Joseph teaches me to hear the Lord, whether in thoughts, in words, or in dreams, and then to obey what he says, even if it means the wrench of changing my mind. Joseph did it after he had decided not to break it off with Mary, accepting the responsibilities of fatherhood for a child who was not his own. He did it again when told to flee into Egypt. This decision could not have been easy. But with great faith, he accepted God’s will and plan, even though it meant traveling through the scorching sands of Egypt to go live in pagan surroundings.
Humility and Love. Joseph also teaches me the joy to be found in silence and humility. Pride and wordiness are more my style. But Scripture doesn’t record any word that Joseph ever spoke. That’s downright convicting. If one who is humble doesn’t consider himself more than he is, but also not less than he is, then Joseph’s acceptance of his authority in the family of Nazareth personifies humility. As Blessed Pope John Paul II said, it was Joseph “into whose custody God entrusted his most precious treasures.”
St. Joseph was the first to love Mary, and with him I come to know and love her better. How much she must have trusted in his strong and gentle presence! As John Lynch says so eloquently in A Woman Wrapped in Silence, when Joseph and Mary and their infant child were far from home in a strange land, Joseph knew that “he was a homeland for her heart.”
Saint Joseph was also the first, with Mary, to love Jesus. Learning to pray was for me as simple as “seeing” how Joseph talked with Jesus: directly, naturally, familiarly, confidently, tenderly, and no doubt with humor.
Resting with His Son. Decades after John XXIII placed the name of Joseph in the Roman Canon, Pope Francis has cleared the way for him to be named in the Mass in Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV in the third edition of the Roman Missal. It’s about time. Next to Mary, Joseph may well be the “greatest saint.” As such, it is truly “right and just.”
It was death that got me thinking along these lines, and it is reassuring to me in my seventh decade to remember that St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death. Tradition holds that Jesus was with Joseph at the time of his peaceful death. That is what we all hope for. In death it was Joseph’s time to rest in the bosom of the Son who is ever “at the Father’s side.” (John 1:18)
And so I make my own this ancient prayer to St. Joseph.
Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while he reposes near your heart. Press him in my name and kiss his fine head for me and ask him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of Departing Souls, pray for me.
Dorothy Garrity Ranaghan lives in South Bend, Indiana. Her latest book is Blind Spot: War and Christian Identity, available from New City Press.