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Lessons from the Holy Grotto By Plinio Correa de Oliveira

 

In the moral order, the world is composed largely of sinners, selfish creatures who live not to serve God, but to please themselves. These self-serving souls comprise the vast majority of mankind, especially in times of decadence – as were the days of Our Lord, as are our own.

In their selfishness, such men strive to gratify their disordered love of worldly riches, worldly delights, and worldly honors, as Saint John, the beloved Apostle, describes them. By worldly riches, he means the avarice of those who, in a frenzy, seek what they regard as a great fortune. These grasping Midases are so attached to the possession of money that often they do not take advantage of what they have, living in an obscure, banal, and even miserable state. Worldly delights denote the pleasures generated by the senses, that is, taste, sight, touch, sound, and smell. They, sensual pleasures above all, are ultimately everything agreeable and pleasing that a life of luxury may provide. In seeking worldly honors, man desires the exaggerated consideration of others, striving to be the object of great homage and adulation, in a word, to have prestige.

When man does not seek after God, he elects one of these three pleasures as his ultimate end. In him there exists an ontological unity that translates into a unity of objective. Thus, human egoism tends necessarily toward one of these three poles. For a time, some determined souls may strive for all three – worldly riches, delights, and honors – but having sampled each, they ultimately make one their life's goal.

As Saint Ignatius teaches, God wished to educate man through the birth of His Divine Son. The circumstances of His birth show that worldly riches, delights, and honors are nothing compared with the supernatural treasures, joys, and grandeur of God.

 

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Vanity of worldly riches

God, Who is infinitely rich, came to earth in poverty. In the stable of Bethlehem, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Omnipotent Lord of all, eloquently instructs us regarding the vanity of worldly riches.

Holy Grotto of Bethlehem Stained Glass NativityHe chose the poorest place imaginable for His birthplace – a manger. Wrapped in swaddling clothes by His Mother, the Holy Babe was sheltered in a stable made for beasts.

Through His birth in such impoverished circumstances, the Word of God made evident the indifference with which we should regard this world’s riches. Used rightly, money may contribute to passing and imperfect happiness, but all too frequently it is the cause of suffering, anguish, and even tragedy.

The Holy Family sought, first and foremost, to obey the Divine Will in all things, in this receiving a hundredfold here on earth, as promised in the Gospel (Matt. 19:29).

In man, a virtuous life generates supernatural happiness and often natural happiness as well – happiness so incommensurably more valuable than worldly riches that it inspired Saint Francis to confide the following to Brother Masseo:

“My dear companion, let us beg Saints Peter and Paul to teach us to possess the immeasurable treasure of holy poverty; for it is a treasure so divine that we are not worthy of possessing it , considering that it is a celestial virtue, by means of which earthly and transitory possessions are trampled underfoot and by means of which every obstacle retreats before the soul, so that the soul may be freely united with the eternal God. This is the virtue that permits souls on earth to converse with angels in Heaven. This is the virtue that accompanied Christ on the Cross, with which Christ was buried, the virtue with which He resurrected and ascended into Heaven. It fascinates souls in this life and gives them wings to carry them to Heaven in the next, for it bears the marks of humility and charity” (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Part 1, no. 13).

 

Disdain of worldly delights

Our Lord could have ordered the angels to embellish the Holy Grotto with the most delicate silks, the most aromatic perfumes, and the most celestial symphonies. He could have enjoyed every legitimate material delight from the first moment of His human life. Instead, He chose the very opposite. His delicate body lay not on soft silk, but on coarse straw. His crib was a feeding trough which, however diligently scoured by Our Lady, did not exude the sweet smells of exquisite perfumes. Born at midnight in the depth of winter, the Holy Infant trembled in the cold night air, warmed only by the breath of beasts. His cradlesong was the lowing of cows. Thus, Our Lord Jesus Christ showed us how foolish it is to make this world’s delights the end of our lives. To the contrary, Christ taught us to disdain them for the glory of God and the good of souls, in the measure that they distract and even deviate us from our ultimate end, the eternal delight of unending life with Him.

 

Emptiness of worldly honors

Our Lord wished to deprive Himself of everything that might serve as a symbol of worldly prestige. While Jesus was born a Prince of the Royal House of David, that house had lost its power and prestige in the eyes of the world. Indeed, Christ the King was born an outcast, for none would shelter Our Lady who bore Him within Her womb; Saint Joseph had knocked on door after door, only to be sent away. The Child Jesus demonstrated the vanity of those who seek only to be seen in the eyes of the world.

 

True grandeur

Let us now take a moment to contemplate the grandeur and majesty of the Child Jesus and His Most Holy Mother.

Imagine the Holy Grotto of Bethlehem, lofty and spacious as a cathedral. Its rustic stones transcend their lack of architectural definition, bringing to mind the vaults of a magnificent basilica. The cradle of the Infant Jesus lies beneath the point where several of the embryonic arches, crafted by nature, come together.

The Magi Adore Christ at the Holy Grotto Stained Glass ImageIn heralding the birth of her Divine Son, the Archangel Gabriel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary:
“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David His father; and He shall reign in the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33)

Within that grotto lay a Baby, fragile yet omnipotent, the King of Heaven and Earth, God-made-Man.

From the first moment of His conception within the maternal cloister, He possessed grandeur and power infinitely superior to that of any man who has ever lived – of all men from the beginning to the end of time.

Incomparably more powerful than Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, or Napoleon, or any and all of the mightiest armies known to man; immeasurably wiser than King Solomon, Saint Thomas the Angelic Doctor, and the hosts of human genius; within that grotto lay a Child whose every expression reflected divine majesty, ineffable holiness, utter wisdom, and limitless power.

Enchanted, let us consider the perfections mysteriously expressed in the fair countenance of the Child Jesus. One moment, He reveals His Divine majesty. In another, a resplendent light shines forth from His eyes – the windows of His soul. He inspires sinners to convert – to repent and confess their sins – while He attracts them through the intimacy of His love.

The German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich thus describes a vision she had of the Nativity:

“I saw Our Lord as a very little child, resplendent, whose brilliance surpassed that of every light in the grotto, lying upon the floor, before the knees of Mary. It seemed to me that He was very small and grew larger before my eyes. Then I saw Angels in human form all about, prostrate in adoration before the Child” (The Life, Passion, and Glorification of the Lamb of God).

It is said that as a child, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus had such a stately bearing that her father called her “my little queen.” During the process of her canonization, the gardener of the Carmel testified that he came unobserved upon one of the nuns working and recognized her as Sister Thérèse. Asked how he was able to identify her without seeing her face, he replied that it was by her majesty, for none of the other sisters was as majestic as she.

What then could we say of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth? Let us contemplate the Most Holy Virgin, the masterpiece of Creation, most majestic and pure, praying to her Divine Infant, as an angelic chorus intones anthems of adoration. Touched by the Holy Family, the ambience of that humble stable transcends the grandeur of the most refined court.

Approaching a scene so sacred, we revere the Christ Child, and in Him adore all that is beautiful, noble, and holy. We prostrate ourselves before the Divine Incarnation. The perfect model of all created grandeur, which is but a mere reflection of His Infinite Majesty, the God-Man attracts every form of sanctity, while repelling sin, error, and chaos. He does not reject but rather embraces the humble and contrite sinner. He beckons all who seek Truth and who have Faith.

 


 Taken from Crusade Magazine, Nov-Dec1998

 

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November 24

 

The devotions we practice in honor of the glorious Virgin Mary,
however trifling they may be,
are very pleasing to Her Divine Son, and
He rewards them with eternal glory.

St. Teresa of Avila


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SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the Martyrs of Vietnam

Vietnamese Christians were ordered to trample on a crucifix...

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St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the Martyrs of Vietnam

Born in 1795 in the Tonkinese town of Bac-Nihh in North Vietnam, Tran An Dung was the son of pagan parents. In search of work for themselves in 1807, his parents moved to the ancient citadel of Hanoi. Here their twelve-year-old son was taken care of by a catechist and for three years was instructed in the Catholic faith. Baptized in Vinh-Tri, he received the Christian name Andrew (Anrê) in baptism and went on to learn both Chinese and Latin and himself became a catechist. He was selected for further studies in theology and was ordained to the priesthood on March 15, 1823.

An exemplary pastor, Andrew was ardent and indefatigable in his preaching, often fasted, and drew many to the Faith by his simple and moral life. As a testament of the love which his congregation had for him, in 1835, when he was imprisoned during the persecution of the Annamite emperor Minh-Mang, his freedom was purchased exclusively by donations from his parishioners.

The Vietnamese Christians suffered unspeakably during this time. Beginning in 1832 Minh-Mang expelled all foreign missionaries and commanded all Vietnamese Christians to demonstrate their renunciation of the Catholic Faith by trampling on a crucifix. Churches were destroyed; religious instruction was forbidden. Christians were branded on the face with the words ta dao (false religion) and Christian families and villages were obliterated. Many endured extreme privations and hardship; many more were put to death for their fidelity to the Faith.

To avoid further persecution by the authorities, Andrew Dung changed his name to Lac and relocated to a different region. While visiting a fellow priest, in order to confess himself, Dung-Lac was arrested with Father Peter Thi on November 10, 1839. In exchange for a monetary ransom paid to their captors, the two priests were liberated, but their freedom was short-lived. Re-arrested not long afterwards, they were taken to Hanoi and severely tortured. They were beheaded shortly before Christmas Day on December 21, 1839.

The priests, Andrew Dung-Lac and Peter Thi, were beatified on May 27, 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and formed part of a group of Vietnamese martyrs beatified together on that day. Another group, Dominicans all, was beatified on May 20, 1906 and a third on May 2, 1909 both by Pope St. Pius X. A fourth group, which included two Spanish bishops, was beatified on April 29, 1951 by Pope Pius XII. All 117 martyrs were canonized in Rome on June 19, 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

These 117 martyrs met their deaths during several persecutions of Christians that swept through the Vietnamese peninsula between the years 1625 and 1886. Approximately 130,000 gave their lives for the Catholic Faith and further beatifications may be expected from amongst their glorious ranks. Among the 117 that have been canonized were 96 Vietnamese and 21 foreign missionaries. Of the Vietnamese group 37 were priests and 59 were lay people, among whom were catechists and tertiaries. One of them was a woman, mother of six children. Of the missionaries 11 were Spaniards: 6 bishops and 5 priests, all Dominicans; and 10 were French: 2 bishops and 8 priests from the Société des Missions Etrangères in Paris.

The tortures these martyrs endured were among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom. The means included cutting off limbs joint by joint, ripping living bodies with red hot tongs, and the use of drugs to enslave the minds of the victims. Among the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam, 76 were beheaded, 21 were suffocated, 6 burnt alive, 5 mutilated and 9 died in prison as a result of torture.

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The Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne

Born in 1814, Alphonse Ratisbonne was from a family of wealthy, well-known Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France. In 1827, Alphonse’s older brother, Thèodore, converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood, thus breaking with his anti-Catholic family whose hopes now lay in the young Alphonse. At 27, Alphonse was intelligent and well mannered. He had already finished his law degree, and decided to travel to Italy before marrying and assuming his responsibilities in the family business. However, God had other plans for him.

While in Rome, Alphonse visited works of art, and strictly out of cultural curiosity, a few Catholic churches. These visits hardened his anti-Catholic stance, and nourished his profound hatred for the Church. He also called on an old schoolmate and close friend, Gustave de Bussières.

Gustave was a Protestant and several times had tried, in vain, to win Alphonse over to his religious convictions. Alphonse was introduced to Gustave’s brother, Baron de Bussières, who had recently converted to Catholicism and become a close friend of Father Thèodore Ratisbonne. Because of the Baron’s Catholicism and closeness with his turncoat brother, Alphonse greatly disliked him.

On the eve of his departure, Alphonse reluctantly fulfilled his social obligation to leave his calling card at the Baron’s house as a farewell gesture.

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Hoping to avoid a meeting, Alphonse intended to leave his card discreetly and depart straight away, but was instead shown into the house. The Baron greeted the young Jew warmly, and before long, had persuaded him to remain a few more days in Rome. Inspired by grace, the Baron insisted Alphonse accept a Miraculous Medal and copy down a beautiful prayer: the Memorare. Alphonse could hardly contain his anger at his host’s boldness of proposing these things to him, but decided to take everything good-heartedly, planning to later describe the Baron as an eccentric.

During Alphonse’s stay, the Baron’s close friend, Count de La Ferronays, former French ambassador to the Holy See and a man of great virtue and piety, died quite suddenly. On the eve of his death, the Baron had asked the Count to pray the Memorare one hundred times for Alphonse’s conversion. It is possible that he offered his life to God for the conversion of the young Jewish banker.

A few days later, the Baron went to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte to arrange for his friend’s funeral. Alphonse reluctantly went with him, all the while making violent criticisms of the Church and mocking Catholic practices. When they arrived, the Baron entered the sacristy to arrange the funeral while Alphonse remained in the church.

When the Baron returned just a few minutes later, the young man was gone. He searched the church, and soon discovered his young friend kneeling close to an altar, weeping.  Alphonse himself tells us what happened in those few minutes he waited for the Baron: “I had only been in the church a short while when, all of a sudden, I felt totally uneasy for no apparent reason. I raised my eyes and saw that the whole building had disappeared. Only one side chapel had, so to say, gathered all the light. In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar. She was grandiose, brilliant, full of majesty and sweetness, just as she is in the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible force attracted me to her. The Virgin made a gesture with her hand indicating I was to kneel.”

When de Bussières talked to Alphonse, he no longer found a Jew, but a convert who ardently desired baptism. The news of such an unexpected conversion immediately spread and caused a great commotion throughout Europe, and Pope Gregory XVI received the young convert, paternally. He ordered a detailed investigation with the rigor required by canon law, and concluded that the occurrence was a truly authentic miracle. 

Alphonse took the name Maria Alphonse at baptism, and, wishing to become a priest, was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. After some time, and at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits and joined his brother Thèodore in founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. Father Theodore spread his congregation throughout France and England, while Father Maria Alphonse went to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he established a house of the congregation on the plot of land where the praetorium of Pilate had formerly stood.

The two brothers died in 1884, both famed and well-loved for their exceptional virtues.  

By Armando Santos  

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