Bethlehem, Chapter VII – Simeon and Anna

But our seventh type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy brings us to a very different picture. The world of the Church is itself a hidden world; but even within it there is another world still more deeply hidden. It is the very cloister of the Holy Ghost, though without any show of cloister, a world of humblest peace, of shyest love, and of most secret communion with God. It gives us much to think of, but little to say. There is little to describe in its variety, but much in its heavenly union to feed the repose of prayer. The gorgeous apparition of the Kings in the gloomy Cave has passed away. The Babe too has left the Cave. Our present picture is the same humble mystery of Bethlehem which is now enacted on a gorgeous scene. We must pass to the glorious courts of the magnificent temple, when its little unknown Master has come to take possession, the true High Priest, with a thicker veil of incredible humiliation round Him than that which shrouded the local Holy of Holies from the gazing multitude. It is the mystery of Mary’s jubilee, the Presentation of Our Lord mingling with that true-hearted deceit of humility, her needless Purification. The Babe’s new worshippers are Simeon and Anna, who so resemble each other amidst their differences that we may regard them as forming one type of worship. Anna was a widow of the tribe of Aser, who filled no place in the public eye, but in whom her little circle of friends had recognized and revered the spirit of prophecy from time to time. She thus had an obscure sphere of influence of her own. She was a figure familiar to the eyes of many in Jerusalem, whose piety led them to the morning sacrifices in the temple. Bowed down with the weight of fourscore years and four, her own house was not her home, even if she had a house she could call her own. The temple was her home. It was rarely that she left its hallowed precincts. She performed in her single self the offices of a whole religious community; for she carried on the unbroken round of her adoration through the night as well as through the day. Long past the age when bodily macerations form an indispensable element in holiness, her life was nevertheless a continual fast. Prayer was the work of her life, and penance its recreation. Herod, most likely, had never heard of her, but she was dear to God, and was known honorably to His servants: God has widows like her in all Christian cities.

Simeon also was worn out with age and watching. He had placed himself on the battlements of Sion, and, while his eyes were filled with the sweet tears of prayer, he was ever looking out for Messias that was to come. Good people knew him well, and they said of him that he was a just man. Even and fair, striving for nothing, claiming no privileges, ready to give way, most careful to be prompt and full and considerate and timely in all his dealings with others, giving no ground for complaint to anyone, modest and self-possessed, attentive yet unobtrusive, such was the character he bore among those of his religious fellow-citizens to whom he was known. But to the edification of his justice he added the beautiful and captivating example of the tenderest piety. Devotion was the very life of his soul. The gift of piety reigned in his heart. Like many holy persons, he had set his affections on what seemed like an earthly beatific vision. He must see the Lord’s Christ before he dies.

There is a look of something obstinate and fanciful in his devotion: it is in reality a height of holiness. He has cast his spiritual life in one mould; it was a life of desire, a life of watching, a life of long-delayed but never despondent waiting for the consolation of Israel. There is a humble pertinacity about his prayer, which is to bend God’s will to his own. It was a mighty fire of love which burned in his simple heart, and the Holy Ghost loved to dwell among its guileless flames. It was revealed to him that his obstinate waiting had been a dear worship to God, that he should have his will, and that he should see with his aged eyes the beauty of the Lord’s Christ, before he was called away from earth. He therefore was a haunter of the temple; for where should he be more likely to meet the Christ than there? How God always gives more than He promises! Simeon did not only see the Christ, but was allowed to take Him up in his arms, and doubtless to plant a kiss of trembling reverence upon the Creator’s human lips How else could his lips have ever sung so beautiful a song, a song so sunset-like that one might believe all the beauty of all earth’s beautiful evenings since creation had gone into it, to fill it full of peaceful spells? He was old for a poet; but his age has not dried or drained his heart.

The infirm old man held bravely in his arms the strength of the Omnipotent. He held up the Light of the world on high in the midst of His own temple, just before he himself was lost in the inaccessible light of a glorious eternity. His weak eyes, misty with age and dim, with tears, looked into the deep eyes of the Babe of Bethlehem, and to his faith they were fountains of eternal light. This was the vision that he had been seeing all his life long. He had wept over the drooping fortunes of Israel, but much more over the shepherdless wanderings of the souls of his dear countrymen. But he had ever seen through his tears, as we may see through a thick storm of rain, waving like a ponderous curtain to and fro, while the wind is slowly undrawing it, a green mountain, bright and sun-stricken, with patches of illuminated yellow corn upon its sides, and strips of green, ferny moorland, and jutting knolls of purple heather, and the wet silvery shimmering on the roofs of men’s dwellings.

Now the evenings of life was come. The rain was passed away, and the Lord’s mountain came out, not bright and radiant only, but so astonishingly near that he might have thought his eyes were but deceiving him. But no! the face of Jesus was close to his. Heaven had come to him on earth. It was the heaven of his own choosing. Strange lover of his land and people! he had preferred to see Jesus on earth, and so be sure that now poor Israel might possess Him, rather than have gone long since by an earlier death to have seen the Word through the quiet dimness of Abraham’s bosom. Was it not the loveliest of mysteries to see those arms, that were shaking and unsteady with long lapse of time, so fondly enfolding the ever-young eternity of God? Was it not enough for Simeon? Oh, was it not unspeakably more than enough? As nightingales are said to have sung themselves to death, so Simeon died, not of the sweet weariness of his long watching, but of the fullness of his contentment, of the satisfaction of his desires, of the very new youth of soul which the touch of the Eternal Child had infused into his age; and breaking forth into music which heaven itself might envy and could not surpass, he died with his world-soothing song upon his lips.

There is a little world of such souls as Simeon and Anna within the Church. But it lies deep down, and its inmates are seldom brought to the light, even by the honors of canonization. It is a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own under our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it. So that, as sight goes for little in the world of faith, in nothing does it go for less than in the seeming evil of the world. Everywhere evil is undermined by good. It is only that good is undermost; and this is one of the supernatural conditions of God’s presence. As much evil as we see, so much good or more do we know assuredly lies under it, which, if not equal to the evil in extent, is far greater in weight, and power, and worth, and substance. Evil makes more show, and thus has a look of victory, while good is daily outwitting evil by simulating defeat. We must never think of the Church, without allowing largely for the extent of obscure piety, the sphere of hidden souls. We can form no intellectual judgment of the abundance of grace, of the number of the saved, or of the inward beauty of individual souls, which even intellectually is worth anything, unless we form our estimate in the light of prayer. Charity is the truest truth; and the judgments of charity are large. The light of our own unsanctified judgment is at best but as moonlight in the world of faith, strangely distorting, grotesquely disfiguring everything. The light of prayer is as the beam of steadfast day. Who does not know how sunshine positively peoples mountain-side and wood; how, as it rests, it builds homes we could dwell in, so our fancy deems, in the rifted crags or under the leafy shades; how, wherever it has touched, it has located a beauty, and has left it when it passes on? So is it with the light of prayer, when it plays upon this difficult questionable world around us. It alone lights up for us continually this incessant heaven upon earth, this precious region of obscure souls, in which God is always served as if it were one of the angelic choirs. Who does not remember when a supernatural principle first unveiled itself before him, and showed that it was a thing of God? It was some one moment in a dawn of prayer, which was like day’s first inroad upon night. So will it be with us to the end. Faith has a sort of vision of its own; but there is no light in which it can distinguish objects, except the light of prayer.

We must always, therefore, keep our eye fixed on this obscure world of holy hidden souls, that private unsuspected stronghold of God’s glory upon earth, where so much of His treasure is laid up. Simeon and Anna are disclosures to us of that hidden world. They have a place, an office, and a power in the life of the Church, which is not the less indispensable because it is also indefinable. The Father’s glory would not have been adequately represented at the court of the Infant Jesus, if this obscure region had not sent thither its embassy of lowly beauty and of venerable grace.

Much of our most intimate acquaintance with the adorable character of God arises from our observations of this hidden world. It is the richest of all worlds in its contributions to the science of divine things. If we may venture so to speak, God is less upon His guard against our observations there than elsewhere. He affects secrecy the less Himself, because the particular world in which He is working is itself so secret. He is content with the twilight round Him, without pitching His well-known tent of darkness each time He vouchsafes to camp. In the case of the Shepherds we saw how they came up out of darkness, stood for a moment in the splendor of Bethlehem, and then passed on into the dark again. Here we see, with Simeon and Anna, what a long preparation God makes in the soul for what appears to be only a momentary manifestation. It shows of what deep import a brief transient mystery is, when a novitiate of perhaps fourscore years is barely long enough to fit those for their part in it, who are after all but accessories and incidents. If it be true to say that with God all ends are only means, because He is Himself the only veritable end, so also is it true in a sense that all means with Him are ends, because He is present in those means. Thus, these long lives of preparation for one momentary appearance on the stage of the world’s drama are, when we view them supernaturally, ends themselves, and each step of grace in the long career, each link of holiness in the vast chain, is itself a most sufficient end, because it holds in itself Him who is the only end. But this is not the way men judge of history. With them it is a wandering humanity which is made to confer the importance on the actors in the world’s theatre, and to confer it in proportion to the visible results between the actors and humanity. With God it is His own glory which is the hidden centre of all history, and it requires a special study, with a strong habit of faith and a steady light of prayer, to enable us to read history in His way.

But, besides this long preparation for a momentary and subordinate appearance in a divine mystery, we must observe also how God often comes to men in their old age. They have lived for that which only comes when real life seems past. What a divine meaning there is in all this! The significance of a whole life often comes uppermost only in the preparation for death. Our destiny only begins to be fulfilled, after it appears to have been worked out. Who knows what he is intended for? What we have dreamed was our mission is of all things the least likely to have been such. For missions are divine things, and therefore, generally hidden, generally unconsciously fulfilled. If there are some who seem to have done their work early, and then live on we know not whv, there are far more who do their real work later on, and not a few who only do it in the act of dying. Nay, is it not almost so in natural things? Life for the most part blooms only once, and like the aloe it blooms late.

Neither must we fail to note under what circumstances it is God’s habit to come to these hidden souls. The devotion of Simeon and Anna is eminently a devotion of prayer and church-frequenting. In other words, God comes to holy souls, not so much in heroic actions, which are rather the soul’s leaping upward to God, but in the performance of ordinary, habitual devotions, and the discharge of modest, unobtrusive duties, made heroic by long perseverance and inward intensity. How much matter for thought is there in all these reflections; and in divine things what is matter for thought is matter for practice also! Thus, if the angelic song was the opening of heaven before our eyes, this apparition of Simeon and Anna is the opening beneath our feet of an exquisite hidden world, a realm of subterranean angels, a secret abyss of human hearts in which God loves to hide Himself, a region of evening calmness and of twilight tranquillity, a world of rest and yet of power, heated with the whole day’s sunshine and giving forth its fragrance to the cooling dews, a world, which not only teaches us much, but consoles us also, yet leaves us pensive (for does not consolation always leave us so?) casting over us a profitable spiritual shadow, like the melancholy in which a beautiful sunset so often steeps the mind, breeding more loving thoughts of others, and in ourselves a more contented lowliness.

The lake lies smooth and motionless in the quiet light of evening. The great mountains with their bosses of mottled crag protruding through the green turf, and the islets with their aerial pines, are all imaged downwards in the pellucid waters. Even the heron that has just gone to roost on the dead branch is mirrored there. The faintly rosy sky between the tops of the many-fingered firs is reflected there, as if it were fairy fret-work in the mere. But upon yon promontory of rock a little blameless boy, afraid of the extreme tranquillity, or angry with it, or to satisfy some impulsive restlessness within him, has thrown a stone into the lake, and that fairy world, that delicate creation, is instantly broken up and fled. So is it with that spiritual world of placid beauty, which we have been contemplating in the worship of Simeon and Anna.