The most profound knowledge we can learn from another person need not be from their own words. In his book “Adam, God’s Beloved”, written by the widely celebrated spiritual master Fr. Henri Nouwen, this is certainly true. Nouwen admits that despite his years of mingling with the best theological minds and spiritual gurus, he was most enlightened by a seriously handicapped young man, Adam Arnett, who never spoke or wrote a word in his life. Adam by worldly standards would doubtfully be considered ‘great’ or worthy of being recorded in the annals of history: he was never a politician, nor a movie star nor a lawyer nor even an ‘ordinary man.’ Despite this Adam became the spiritual master and guide to Nouwen. Adam’s strength, perseverance, humility, cheerfulness and love in the face of wordless suffering transformed Nouwen’s life to the extent that Nouwen felt compelled to tell the world how he found Christ in the disfigured and speechless Adam. Therefore through Nouwen, Adam, who never spoke or wrote, has touched and changed thousands of lives.
To an extent, isn’t this similar to our experience with the humble ‘wordless’ Joseph of Nazareth? Admittedly Joseph was not handicapped but like Adam he was by no means a ‘somebody’ in society. In the scriptures he is silent but similar to Adam his life and ‘silent’ witness has the ability to affect ours. Therefore, can we not learn from St. Joseph’s silence? While the wordless records of Joseph may give the impression of his insignificance, Joseph like Adam is a preacher and teacher in his own right. Joseph teaches us through what is written of his actions and decisions of faith and prudent discernment. His actions speak louder than any word he could utter, they reveal the essential dispositions of a true servant of Christ.
In the Gospel of the solemnity of St. Joseph Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are given a significant insight into Joseph’s soul, into the kind of man he was. St. Matthew tells us “he was a just man”(Matt 1: 19 RSV). This comment can easily be overlooked in our eagerness to read about Joseph’s great dream, but this would be a mistake. Because understanding Joseph as “just” is the key to unlocking his hidden life and appreciate the remainder of the Gospel passage. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives points us to the description of a just man in Psalm 1 as a portrait of Joseph. The Pope comments that on reading Psalm 1 we come to know Joseph the man. We get the sense of Joseph as one who whose roots are in the living waters of God’s word, whose life is spent in unceasing dialogue with God and who, therefore, is constantly fruitful.
This insight into Joseph as one who is intimately close to God, pondering His ways, helps us penetrate the deeper meaning of the dream event in the Gospel. No longer is the dream solely a dramatic scene enthralling our imaginations, instead, it preaches to us of the virtues of faith and discernment. For Joseph the dream is a moment of prudential judgement and a response of faith. He distinguishes the dream as reality and not illusion. Once he discerned this, Joseph responds to the extraordinary demands of the moment with great faith in the Lord. This action speaks to our hearts of a man who is inwardly perceptive to the divine, who can acutely discern God’s will and who as a result is sensitive and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. The many years of meditating on God, in the law day and night (Psalm 1), has made Joseph the person who God can entrust his household to, who as the Collect of the Mass tell us, can oversee the “unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation.”
St. Joseph therefore is a model for us of one who has a ‘tender conscience’; a conscience that is not lax but is openly attuned to hearing God’s voice affording the soul to make the kind of prudent judgements that God delights in. He is a man of deep faith. Like Adam Arnett his ‘silence’ has much to teach us. Like Adam, his life comes to us through the words of others. Though long gone are the ‘greats’ of society who remain as mere fading memories, even forgotten icons, Joseph and Adam live on in the hearts of many. They live because “ whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”(Matt 23:12) Their wordless existence is a witness to their humility.
St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, Pray for us.