POPE ST. LEO, in one of his homilies on the nativity of our Saviour, says, in addressing man: |O man, recognize thy dignity!| We might, with all due propriety, address these same words to woman, for her happiness and virtues depend in great measure on the elevated idea that she has of herself, and on the care with which she maintains this idea, both in her own mind and in that of others. Woe to the woman who, through false modesty, or something still worse, has lost self-respect, for she has deprived herself of her most powerful safeguard against instability of character and seductions of the world.
Woman has received from God the sublime mission of fostering in society the spirit of sacrifice and devotedness. Faithful, nay, sometimes perhaps over-zealous, in the discharge of these duties, she feels an imperative need of sacrificing herself to another who should constitute the complement of her life. As long as she has not made this surrender of herself to another she is a burden to herself, for she seems to find her liberty and happiness in this voluntary servitude of the heart, in this constant abnegation, in this perpetual sacrifice of her whole being.
This disposition of woman's heart, which has been given her for the good of society and for her own happiness, can be easily used to the detriment of both; such is necessarily the case the moment she sinks in her own estimation, so as to account herself a being of little value. It is a matter of vital importance to her to have a just idea of the value of the present she is making when she engages her heart and her fidelity. In fact, when a thing is lightly appreciated, we make little account of giving it away and less of choosing those to whom we give it. Now, if we consider the deplorable facility with which a vast number of women obey the caprice of their heart or of their imagination, we will be led to conclude that their valuation of them -- selves is very low indeed. They seem to lose sight of the fact that in giving their heart they give the key to all the treasures that enrich their soul; they give their will, all their thoughts, their whole life. They sometimes give more than all this, they give their eternal salvation, their conscience, and God Himself, putting in His place, by a sort of idolatry, the object that claims their heart.
To prevent this deplorable prodigality of themselves, women should spare no pains to comprehend thoroughly their dignity, of which they can never have too high an appreciation or too great an esteem. It would be most prejudicial to them to lower in their own mind their just value by a false humility.
The most humble of all women is, at the same time, she who had the best knowledge of her dignity. And her humility, which was never equaled by that of any other woman, did not hinder her from seeing the great things that God had operated in her, as she herself proclaims in that sublime canticle which is the |Magna Charta| of the rights, the prerogatives and the greatness of woman.
The two most beautiful and most elevated things in all creation are the intelligence of man and, the heart of woman. They are the special objects of God's complacency. He seems to be absorbed in the work of their education; to this end he seems to have converged all the miracles wrought by His divine Son, all the mysteries of Jesus Christ.
To impart to man a knowledge of truth and a love of virtue was the end that God proposed to Himself in the creation of the world. But the order which he had established was iniquitously subverted, and this subversion has shaken society to its very foundation, leading man's intelligence to conceive a hatred for truth and to become the slave of error; turning away the heart of woman from what is truly good and great to pander to false and transitory goods, which sully without contenting it.
The heart of woman may be said to be the source from which flows all the good or evil that consoles or afflicts mankind. As the city and state receive their form and character from the family, so the family is modelled after the type of the mother's heart, since upon her devolves the culture of the infant mind, that all-important education upon which depends man's weal or woe, both for time and eternity. Hence it is that, while writing this little work, and considering that many to whom it is addressed will read its pages, namely those who are destined to be one day heads of families, charged with the education of several children, who in turn will found numerous families to act a more or less important part in the great movement by which the plan of divine Providence is executed throughout ages, I feel a kind of profound respect, bordering on reverential awe, that engages me to pray God to inspire me with thoughts equal to the sublimity of my subject.
Whoever you may be that read and meditate this little book, I honor and venerate the dignity of your vocation; I regard you as an august and sacred being. I admire the great designs that God has over you; I pray Him to have you participate in the sovereign esteem and respect with which your condition inspires me. You are as yet free from all engagements, in the bloom of youth, adorned with the treasures of innocence and candor, standing like a queen upon the threshold of the future which opens before you like a spacious temple. The past is immaculate and free from the sting of remorse; with a vigorous mind and will you behold the future's perspective without anxiety or dismay, -- rich in pious souvenirs, saintly hopes, heavenly thoughts and merits acquired by prayer and the practice of virtue, ignorant of vice and its bitter consequences, save by the pictures that have been painted in order to inspire you with horror for it; your liberty is such that every Christian soul envies your happy state. You possess a power -- I would almost say, a majesty -- that no one can help admiring and revering. As there is no one freer than he who has never been the slave of sin, so there is no man stronger than he who has never succumbed to the allurements of pleasure. The woof of your life is there spread out before you intact and flexible, you can dispose and weave it as you please; you will now find none of those knotty or broken threads which, in after life, must sometimes be met with.
You are now at the period of life at which all the roads of life meet. You can choose the one that pleases you most, and enter on the good way with all that generous ardor so natural to youth. But, whatever you do, whatever the choice you may make, you will occasion the future weal or woe of many, perhaps for many generations. Whether spouse of Jesus Christ or of man, whether mother of a family or of the poor, whether a cloistered nun or a celibate in the world, you will neither save nor lose your soul alone; the effects of your virtues or vices shall be reproduced, long after your departure from the scene of life, in the lives of beings yet unborn, in favor of whom divine Providence implores your compassion. What a solemn moment! What sublime power! Have you given it serious thought?
Transport yourself, in thought, to the house of Nazareth, recall to mind the day on which Gabriel proposed to your Queen to become the mother of God, asking her consent to the Incarnation, by which was to be accomplished the salvation of the world. The angel's words astonished Mary's humility so far as to make her recoil before such a prodigious elevation, and, to obtain her consent, it was necessary to assure her that the Holy Ghost Himself would accomplish in her this prodigy. Indeed, it was a most memorable moment in the world's history, -- a moment wherein the salvation of the entire human race hung upon the word of a virgin's lips.
Now, in your present condition, at this period of your life, you bear a certain resemblance to the Blessed Virgin at Nazareth, on the day of the Annunciation. A glorious destiny is also announced to you; to you also is promised a saintly posterity, if you give your consent and concurrence to the Holy Ghost, with docility to the operation of His grace. Be not astonished at so great an honor. The choice that you are going to make, the course that you are going to adopt, will determine and fix the fate of a family, of a generation, -- of many generations perhaps, for God alone can tell how far the influence of your virtues or the result of your faults may extend.
If you have no regard for your own salvation or glory, oh, at least have pity for those whom the hand of God will place under your care, to be modeled by your instructions and example. Have compassion on them and on those who, succeeding them, must inherit your virtues or vices. Oh! how pleasing to God and respected of men is the young lady who, piously impressed with the greatness of her vocation, prepares for the future in a Christian manner, and resolves courageously to embrace and faithfully to discharge all its duties.
Like Mary, the model and glory of your sex, you also, but in a spiritual manner, are carrying Jesus Christ within you; and He, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, is leaving the impress of His virtues in your soul, that one day you may give Him birth spiritually, producing Him externally by a pure and Christian life. Like her you should be ready to accomplish the will of God in your own regard, saying, as she did, with sentiments of obedience and profound humility: |Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word;| abandoning your soul with perfect docility to the operation of the Holy Ghost, following Him wherever He desires to lead you. Let your soul glorify God, and rejoice in Him on account of the great things He has done in you, remembering that His mercy extends from generation to generation, in favor of those who fear him, and that holy families, fearing God, are formed by the lessons and examples of virtuous, God-fearing women. He reduces to naught those who confide in their own power and strength, while He sustains and exalts the humble. He freely shares His treasures with those who desire them, and reduces to indigence those who glory in their own abundance.
Let this beautiful canticle dwell in your heart and be the prayer of your lips; in this canticle, composed by the Mother of God, the honor and glory of your sex, or rather by the Holy Ghost Himself, who inspired her, He has inscribed all the rights and glories of women, by celebrating in it the power of her feebleness, the greatness of her humility and of all those modest virtues which so well become your condition.
A Christian woman who would never lose sight of what she is, of her worth, of her moral capabilities and of her sacred duties, will find in the frequent meditation of this sublime canticle considerations suggestive of thoughts and sentiments corresponding to God's designs over her. She should nourish her soul with the vivifying substance of the words it contains, and look therein for light to dispel her doubts, and for consolation in her troubles. In them she will also find a cheering hope in her languor, a powerful prayer in temptation, an acceptable act of thanksgiving, and a hymn of joy and triumph in her victories.