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Mary’s Chastity

by Saint Alphonsus de Liguori

       After the fall of Adam, man's senses became rebellious to reason. As a consequence, chastity is the most difficult of all the virtues to practice. St. Augustine says: “Of all inner conflicts, the most arduous are concerned with chastity. These battles are of daily occurrence, but victory is rare.” May God be praised eternally, however, because in Mary He has given us such a shining example of this virtue. “Mary is with good reason called the Virgin of virgins,” says Saint Albert the Great, “without the advice or example of others, She was the first to consecrate Her virginity to God.” In this way She led to God all who imitated Her virginity, as David foretold: “After Her shall virgins be brought ... into the temple of the King” (Ps. 44:15). Without advice and without any example! St. Bernard says: “O Virgin, who taught Thee to please God by Thy Virginity and to lead an angel's life on earth?” St. Sophronius replies: “God chose a pure Virgin for His Mother, that She might be an example of chastity to everybody.”

       He speaks here of those who appear anxious to win the battle against unchastity but are willing to use the means and flee the dangers.

       That is why St. Ambrose calls Mary “the standard-bearer of virginity.” Because of Mary's purity the Holy Spirit declared that She is as beautiful as the turtle-dove: “Thy cheeks are beautiful as the turtle-dove's” (Cant. 1:9). “A most pure turtle-dove” is what Aponius calls Her. For the same reason Mary is also called a lily: “As the lily among the thorns, so is My love among the daughters” (Cant. 2:2). On this passage Denis the Carthusian remarks: “Mary was compared to a lily among thorns because all other virgins were thorns, either to themselves or to others.” She inspired everybody who looked at Her with chaste thoughts. St. Thomas confirms this when he says that the beauty of the Blessed Virgin incited to chastity all who looked at Her. St. Jerome maintains that St. Joseph remained a virgin as a result of living with Mary. Writing against the heretic Helvidius, who denied Mary's virginity, St. Jerome said: “You say that Mary did not remain a virgin, I say that not only did She remain a virgin, but that even Joseph preserved his virginity through Mary.”

       St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the Blessed Virgin loved chastity so much, that to preserve it She would have been willing to renounce even the dignity of Mother of God. This seems evident from Her reply to the archangel: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Lk. 1:34). And from the words She added then: “Be it done to Me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38), signifying that She gave Her consent on the condition that, as the angel had assured Her, She should become a mother only by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

       St. Ambrose says that “anyone who preserves chastity is an angel; anyone who loses it is a devil.” Our Lord assures us that those who are chaste become angels: “They shall be as the angels of God in Heaven” (Mt. 22:30). But the unchaste become hateful to God, like devils. St. Remigius used to say that the majority of adults are lost by this vice. We have quoted St. Augustine as saying that a victory is very seldom gained in this combat. Why is this? Because the means by which the victory may be gained are very seldom used. These means are threefold, according to St. Bellarmine and the masters of the spiritual life: fasting, the avoidance of dangerous occasions of sin, and prayer.

  1. By fasting we mean especially mortification of the eyes and the appetite. Although Our Blessed Lady was filled with divine grace, She nevertheless practiced mortification of the eyes, according to St. Epiphanius and St. John Damascene. Her glances were always modest and She never gazed fixedly at anyone. She was so unassuming, even from childhood, that everyone who saw Her was charmed by Her reserve. St. Luke remarks that when She went to visit Elizabeth, She went “with haste” (Lk. 1:39), in order to avoid the public's gaze. Philibert relates that it was revealed to a hermit named Felix that as far as Her food was concerned, when She was a baby She took milk only once a day. St. Gregory of Tours maintains that She fasted throughout Her life. St. Bonaventure explains this: “Mary would never have found so much grace if She had not been moderate in Her meals, for grace and gluttony do not go together.” In short, Mary was mortified in everything, so that it was true to say of Her: My hands dropped with myrrh (Cant. 5:5).
  2. The second means is avoidance of the occasions of sin: “He that is aware of the snares shall be secure” (Prov. 11:15). St. Philip Neri coined the expression: “In the war of the senses, cowards conquer.” By cowards he means those who flee from dangerous occasions. Mary fled as much as possible from the gaze of men. Remember St. Luke's remark that, in going to visit Elizabeth, Mary went with haste into the hill country. One author calls attention to the fact that Our Lady left Elizabeth before St. John was born: “And Mary abode with her about three months; and She returned to Her own house. Now Elizabeth's full time was come, and she brought forth a son” (Lk. 1:56-57). Why did Mary not wait for St. John's birth? Because She wanted to avoid the hubbub and excitement that usually accompany such an event.
  3. The third means is prayer. The wise man said: “And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it ... I went to the Lord and besought Him” (Wis. 8:21). Mary revealed to St. Elizabeth of Hungary that She did not acquire any virtue without effort and without continual prayer. St. John Damascene calls Our Immaculate Mother “a lover of purity.” She cannot endure those who are content to be unchaste. And if anybody appeals to Her to be delivered from unchastity She will certainly help him. All he has to do is call upon Her confidently. The Venerable John of Avila used to say that many have conquered impure temptations merely through devotion to Mary Immaculate.
    •        O Mary, most pure dove, how many are now in hell on account of impurity! Most gracious Lady, obtain for us the grace always to fly to Thee in our temptations, and always invoke Thy name, pleading: “Mary, Mary, help us!”

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