Virtue is Greater than Dignity |
In this month of Mary's May when bouquets of virtues are exalted to the Immaculate Queen, a definite distinction must be made between dignity and virtue. Virtue without dignity is worth many graces; dignity without virtue is worthless. Let Mary, Help of Christians, show us the way to her Divine Son's Heart through virtuous lives.
"Among mere creatures, as it must always be when a contest of virtues arises, the Immaculate Virgin Mary reigns victorious over all. How few of us have ever penetrated the profound truth of her reaction when offered the greatest dignity possible to a mere creature, that of Mother of God? How shall this be done, for I know not man? Behold how she prefers virtue to dignity, going so far as to refuse the greatest dignity were it necessary to preserve virtue! It may well be said that this singular and peerless creature, the masterpiece of God's omnipotence, is the only woman in history who would have answered thus, and hence was the only one destined to be rewarded with the Divine Maternity. When will we understand that it was her preference of virtue over dignity which obtained both? How few of us sinners, when offered dignity, answer as we should: How shall this be done, for I know not God?"
It seems those who exalt virtue over dignity gain both, whereas those who exalt dignity over virtue lose both.
We are saved by virtue, not dignity. Not a single soul will enter heaven by virtue of dignity alone, but rather by the dignity of virtue alone.
The saintly Popes have exemplified this. Supreme among them, of course, is great St. Peter. While much is heard of his betrayals, how much is heard of his humility - he who exclaimed: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord? Is there one in the world today with a like humility? Yet, because he placed virtue before dignity, he gained both, and sits as Prince of the Apostles whom we will all see at the Last Judgment judging the 12 tribes of Israel.
There have been exactly two canonized Popes in the last millennium or so - St. Pius V and St. Pius X. What was the reaction of each one upon being elected Pope? They wept. Neither considered himself worthy of such a great dignity; each feared the danger such a supreme dignity posed to virtue. They imitated St. Peter (perhaps in very word): Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Only this sincere, virtuous response made them worthy of the dignity. Could this be a reason they are the only two canonized Pope Saints in a thousand years? Those who truly understand the danger of exalting dignity over virtue are the ones most likely to avoid it, are the ones most fit to rule.
It is true that office and accompanying dignity are necessary for the right ordering and government of both Church and State. When joined with virtue, greatness results; when exercised without preference to virtue, tragedy.
Did our Blessed Lord, by His life and example, preach dignity or virtue? Did He not leave His throne and assume the condition of a servant? Was He born in a palace? Did He ostentatiously ride into Jerusalem among prancing steeds? Where was His dignity at His arrest? His trial? beatings, spittings, tortures, scourging? Where is the dignity in the crown of thorns? the trampling underfoot by an unruly mob of frightful sinners? Where is the dignity in a face covered with spittle, dirt, blood, and wounds? the horrible nailing to the cross? the death in bitterest agony? Where is the dignity in all of this if it is not in virtue? It is written of Him that "virtue went out from Him and healed all" - virtue, not dignity - virtue, the very name of which designates power. Why don't we learn the lesson of Christ, made obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross, which lesson is: for which cause God hath given Him a name above every other name, that in the name of Jesus every knee must bow in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth... Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?
Why, oh why, do we not learn this lesson? If our Lord Jesus Christ in His infinite wisdom, though He had a divine right to sit at the right hand of His Father, yet chose to enter into His glory by the practice of virtue and not the ostentation of what this world calls dignity, not the lording over by force of might which so typifies the reprobate - why do so many men, Catholics especially, even some priests and prelates among them, lord it over others as the pagans do (which Our Lord solemnly commanded the Apostles not to do), seemingly relying upon dignity alone, which can never win the good will of man or the approbation of God...
Another excellent example of this is given by perhaps the holiest Catholic king of them all, St. Louis IX. So humble and unpretentious was he that he used to sit down under a tree and there hear all who would come to him. Surely many were scandalized at this... This is our king? The same type were scandalized at the supreme humility and unpretentious behavior of Christ... We will not have this man to rule over us... yet woe to those who are scandalized in Me... Do we not see that by such kind, unpompous, sincere, humble behavior He has not only drawn all things to Himself but, as it were increased His dignity in the only way possible? Think of it... how could God Himself increase the praise and glory due to Him from creatures? By assuming a supreme dignity He already possessed? by lording it over His creatures, He Who is the Lord of lords? Or rather by assuming the form of a servant and practicing virtue? It was the virtue of Christ, and not the dignity, which evermore entrapped Him (for our benefit) in the sacred Humanity - He Whom the whole world cannot contain. It was the virtue of the humble maiden, who with one hair of her head wounded the heart of God, which drew Him from His eternal throne, entranced by the beauty of virtue.
Another Christian king learned the hard way that virtue is greater than dignity. The following is from the St. Andrew's Missal for September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
"Towards the end of the reign of Phocas, Chosroes, King of Persia, took Jerusalem, where he put to death several thousand Christians and carried off to Persia the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, which St. Helen had deposited on Mount Calvary.
"Heraclius, the successor of Phocas, had recourse to many fasts and prayers, imploring with great fervor the help of God. He assembled an army and defeated Chosroes. He then insisted on the restitution of the Cross of the Lord. Thus was recovered the precious relic after an interval of fourteen years. On his return to Jerusalem, Heraclius carried it on his shoulders in great pomp to the mountain where the Savior Himself had borne it.
"An extraordinary miracle marked the occasion. Heraclius, who was loaded with ornaments of gold and precious stones, was held back by an invisible force at the entrance gate of Mount Calvary. In vain were his efforts to enter.
"As the Emperor and all those who witnessed the scene were astonished, Zacharias, Bishop of Jerusalem, said to him: 'Consider, O Emperor, that with these triumphal ornaments you are far from imitating the poverty of Jesus Christ and His humility in bearing His Cross.' Heraclius thereupon doffed his splendid garb and walked barefoot with a common cloak on his shoulders, where he again deposited the Cross."
My kingdom is not of this world. Heraclius tried to exalt the dignity of an earthly king over the virtue of the eternal King; he thus lost both, and his "dignity" became merely an embarrassment for him. To his credit he exchanged what he had erroneously thought was his dignity for virtue, the very essence of which is the imitation of Christ. By gaining virtue he gained a kingly dignity not only in front of the few around him but for perpetual remembrance, whereas countless other kings, who imperiously exalted what they thought was their dignity, who lorded it over their subjects, now see themselves eternally humiliated in hell. What dignity is there in that?
Among mere creatures, as it must always be when a contest of virtues arises, the Immaculate Virgin Mary reigns victorious over all. How few of us have ever penetrated the profound truth of her reaction when offered the greatest dignity possible to a mere creature, that of Mother of God? How shall this be done, for I know not man? Behold how she prefers virtue to dignity, going so far as to refuse the greatest dignity were it necessary to preserve virtue! It may well be said that this singular and peerless creature, the masterpiece of God's omnipotence, is the only woman in history who would have answered thus, and hence was the only one destined to be rewarded with the Divine Maternity. When will we understand that it was her preference of virtue over dignity which obtained both? How few of us sinners, when offered dignity, answer as we should: How shall this be done, for I know not God?
Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that nursed thee. To which Our Lord answered: Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it. How many misunderstand this mysterious exchange. Jesus Christ, rather than allowing His own Mother to be exalted simply due to the dignity of position, made it known that true exaltation comes with virtue, and preeminently in this Blessed Mother. This our Queen herself desired, for, as stated, she valued and chose the Immaculate Conception over the Divine Maternity, and thereby gained both. This is why we find her next to her Son not on Palm Sunday but on Good Friday.
Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom. The reply of the Incarnate Wisdom: "Can you drink the chalice which I shall drink?" To gain dignity, wilt thou practice virtue? Canst thou imitate My suffering, My poverty, My humility, My charity, My virtue, in order to gain this dignity? Though they would indeed do those things, and gain an eminent place in that kingdom, yet the two who practiced the greatest virtue, who suffered the most, were eternally predestined for the two eminent seats: the Immaculate Virgin Mary on His right, St. Joseph on His left.
Lucifer, Prince of the Angels... what dignity was his - but did it gain Heaven for him? Or, rather, did his preference for his natural dignity over supernatural virtue precipitate him into hell
Could any example be clearer than that of Judas? The one whose dignity was so great that it would have placed him as a judge of humanity wallows eternally in the deepest pits of hell! Did dignity save him, or rather, did it lead to his great damnation when joined to his lack of virtue?
The first will be last, and the last first. The little ones without "dignity" who practice virtue will be raised out of the dunghill to be set with the princes of the people, whereas the mighty will be mightily tormented.
The humble dignity of a St. Joseph will eternally confound all the pomp and regal display and ostentation this world can ever muster...
Let us imitate our Savior, Who was also our Teacher, and also our Immaculate Queen, the Mistress of virtues, and of all the angels and saints, by exalting virtue over dignity that we may gain both.
(Published in Reign of Mary #103, Fall 2000)
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