St. Joseph: Happy Without Sex?

As many know, St. Joseph is one of my favorite Saints. It is no surprise to me that I am now the Campus Minister at the parish in Buffalo that bears his name. St. Joseph’s in Yonkers is the place that I was baptized as well. It’s the people at St. Joseph’s that have continued to remind me of the need for a renewed spirit of trust, to understand that God is always with us and will provide what we really need, not merely what we want.

Joseph is a hidden saint. Joseph has no lines in the gospel but he is a man of action based on reflection.

He finds his betrothed pregnant and instead of stoning her he decided to “divorce her quietly”. Imagine his disappointment! God brings him comfort in a dream and gives him the courage to marry Mary despite that embarrassment and shame that society undoubtedly thrust upon him and Mary.

Many people wonder about the marriage that Joseph and Mary lived together. The church’s traditional teaching is that Mary remained perpetually a virgin and therefore Joseph and Mary lived together as a sexless couple. While many question this as “sentimental religious hooey,” I’d like to think more deeply about this.

For Joseph, who was an “upright man of the law” everything that happens to him is unexpected and had to have stretched his belief that God really wanted what was best for him. Joseph was able to lose his need of certainty and expectation to be led by God’s plan for him, albeit a plan that led him into some suffering and uneasiness. In short, Joseph was able to come to believe that God really was all he would ever need. And with that in mind, perhaps he was able to find great bliss after simply seeing all that God had done for him with Jesus’ birth and youth. For Joseph, God is truly all that he needs.

So when we look at the relationship between Joseph and Mary it is not so unreasonable that perhaps the two never had sexual relations. God will provide all that we need and what God gives us may not be what we expect, but it will be what brings us bliss. Joseph has no lines in scripture simply because he needs not put words to what God has done for him. God has acted and it is more than enough and too much for his words to even try to express.

So today, let us pray to Joseph, the simple Carpenter, who simply rolls with God’s plan for him and finds contentment with all that God provides.

Named After St Joseph

As a parishioner of St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo these days, I was particularly disappointed to not be able to go to mass there on the Feast of the Holy Family. After all, St Joseph has no lines in the bible and has a feast day that is royally overshadowed on March 19th by the great feast of St Patrick just two days earlier. So Joseph is inclined to take any feast day that he gets a mention!

One of the more remarkable stories that I’ve heard on the Feast of the Holy Family comes from my good friend, Fr. Ron Franco, CSP. This Sunday, since we were visiting friends and family in NYC, I went to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulist motherhouse and the church that Marion and I were married in) and was hoping that perhaps this story would get a repeat performance in his homily. Alas, the good Father was not presiding. However, I will do my best to recall his story.

Back in the day, Fr. Ron’s grandmother was pregnant and she decided that she was going to name the baby after St. Joseph. Unfortunately, she miscarried. Pregnant again, she again vowed to name the baby after the foster-father of Jesus. But after a second miscarriage, she cried out, “That St. Joseph is a jinx! Never again, will I EVER name a child after St. Joseph.”

Who could blame her really?

When she became pregnant again the question presented to her was how was she going to decide the name of the baby since St. Joseph was persona non grata?

“That’s easy,” she replied. “I will just name the child after the saint whose feast is on the day that she or he is born!”

A simple solution, to be sure. However, when the baby was born on March 19, that idea presented her with a conundrum. St. Joseph’s Day. The dreaded jinx. But true to her word, Fr. Ron’s grandmother gave her little girl the promised name. And so she became Fr. Ron’s Aunt Josephine.

But even more remarkable was that Fr. Ron’s grandmother renwed her faith with a great devotion indeed to St. Joseph.

I too, have been quite close to Josephs in my own life. My parent’s were married in St. Joseph’s Church in Yonkers and I too, was baptized there. My college roommate and close friend is named Joseph. My financial adviser is named Joseph. And the young man who has been such a joy for me to listen to in spiritual direction as his director when I often feel very close to God the most is in fact, also named Joseph. And now I embark on a new phase in my life at a church where Joseph is the patron.

An interesting character, St. Joseph has no lines spoken in the gospels. We know he was a craftsman or artisan of some kind, some say a carpenter, but others say he was a bit more than simply a worker of wood. And indeed his life was one insurmountable task after another. It’s no wonder that Fr. Ron’s grandma was able to reacquaint with the great saint after some time of trouble.

Joseph was promised that Mary would be his wife and then, one day, out of the blue, she ends up pregnant. Joseph’s first reaction is to say simply, “Oh well. I’ll just end this marriage deal quietly and fade out of the picture.” We gloss over the fact that by law, Joseph had the right to stone Mary to death. Instead he shows mercy and restraint. I like to imagine Joseph tearfully, considering whether he should stone this woman that perhaps he has come to love, that in his old age he was looking forward to marrying. He can’t bear to even think of doing that and so he walks away. It is great foreshadowing for a later gospel story of the woman caught in adultery who Jesus forgives and in fact, saves from stoning.

Joseph chooses to simply back out. But during what was no doubt a restless sleep, Joseph’s insecurities play out in a dream. God comforts these insecurities by telling Joseph those words that we hear more than any other words in the bible: “Do not be afraid.” In this case, God tells him to take Mary into his home and to raise this son who he will name Jesus.

The man who wanted nothing to do with this relationship, who was dismissive of the whole thing, now becomes the protector of God himself. God places His human body in the strong sure hands of a simple carpenter who indeed designed the plan that would keep both Jesus and Mary safe indeed, especially in a poor society where infant mortality was very high and where people didn’t always live into their 30s.

Besides all this, imagine having to teach God! Imagine throwing a baseball to God and telling Him that he throws like a girl that first time out? Imagine teaching him how to make a chair–when you know full well that he probably knows 27 better and faster ways to do it? Imagine worrying if you were teaching him anything at all, or if you were actually doing a good job of protecting God from the ills of society? Would Joseph have to punish Jesus for being late? Would he have to help him discern his vocation in life? Would he be upset at his new ideas and his choice of ministry?

Joseph indeed has it tough.

But the fact that Jesus and Mary live as long as they do in no small way is due to this hidden saint. Joseph the silent provider does his job without any fanfare. We don’t hear much about Joseph after the infancy narratives. We presume him to be dead during Jesus’ passion and death because he is not with Mary at the foot of the cross. Joseph doesn’t live to see God’s plan fulfilled. But in my imagination, I often fantasize about Joseph sitting at the right hand of God the Father after the Ascension and after standing up, he runs, embraces his son and says, “Here you go, Son, I made this chair just for you.”

Could we be that unassuming? Could we trust that God has the plan for us when we can barely understand what is going on around us, when all seems strange and unexpected?

Could we take such good care of God and moreover, do we let God take good care of us?

Today my prayer is one of imagination. I imagine Joseph in his old age being comforted by a sad Jesus at his deathbed. I think it is there that Joseph got a special gift. He got to see God seconds before his death and then again seconds after it. May we all be comforted by Jesus in our final hours and each day that we live to serve God with all that we are…

Even when times seem difficult.

Your Favorite Saint…

Since it is all Saints Day I started to reflect on my favorite saints today and Fran from the Parish Blog of St Edwards had asked the same question of people on facebook. Paul Snatchko made a good point about it’s like picking your favorite child–you just can’t do it.

But I’d like to focus on two…

St Ignatius of Loyola is certainly one saint who has been a great influence on my life, not only because of his great intellectual contribution to the church but because he wanted his followers to be “contemplatives in action.”

Ignatius, a gallant soldier who was wounded and who had a profound conversion while recovering wanted his followers to be “men for others (and today we would add women to that mix).” So instead of locking themselves away in a monastery and praying the liturgy of the hours for the world, Ignatius wanted to be different. He wanted to maintain that prayerfulness while having his followers interact with the world.

That’s the real part of Ignatian spirituality that is attractive to me–being in the world but yet being a person of prayer. As a spiritual director, I hope that I can help people see God working in their everyday life.

The Spiritual Exercises resulted from that initial experience of being in the world. In particular, the Examen of Consciousness, a daily review of our actions focused on grace and thankfulness to God, became a maxim for the Jesuits who found it too difficult to keep up with the monastic liturgy of the hours due to the demands of the world being so great. Ignatius bound them to do the Examen daily, especially if they had no prayed at all that day. It is something that I often do in my own life. I try daily, usually when walking the dog or late a night after my wife has retired before I join her in bed. But thanks to the good St Ignatius I have been educated and continue to connect with God in my daily life–a great reminder and a great gift for us all.

I have a superficial but yet profound reason for liking St Ignatius: he’s bald! Folks say I resemble him–but it’s when I pray that they mention this.

Because when I pray, I cry.

Tears flow easily when I pray. I can’t explain it and I no longer am embarrassed by them. The tears are signs of the spirit and that God and I are intimately connecting, most of the time through others but sometimes in quiet and stillness too. This is something that Ignatius was in touch with as well. He called it the gift of tears and in fact, he said we should pray to be so moved in prayer. I often would say that if it is a gift I’d like to give it back. But now, I would not exchange it for the world. Because it is an expression of my soul. Thank you, Father Ignatius.

The second is St Joseph–the foster father of Jesus. In many ways he is the saint of the short shrift. We don’t know much of Joseph. We know he was an artisan of some sort, a tradesman who worked with his hands. Traditionally we used the word carpenter to describe him but he held a more intricate position than that some scholars say.

He reminds me of my own father, an unskilled laborer who worked for a living in helping his family make ends meet. Often my dad didn’t get enough credit for all he did for us and as he has aged, I’m starting to appreciate that more and more.

It is no surprise that I have ended up at a parish named after St Joseph with an Ignatian college not far away as well. The best of both worlds as far as I can see. Our Pope Benedict is also a Joseph, his given name and his papacy thus far holds the same promise that I think Joseph must’ve felt at the prospect of fostering Jesus: a daunting responsibility but also an anticipation of the great prospect of what lies ahead. We also tried adopting at one point and while it didn’t quite work out the way I would’ve liked, I learned so much about my own gifts and responsibilities and got in deep touch with St Joseph’s experience.

Joseph for me is all about anticipation. And anticipation often means that we remain in the tension of not knowing what comes next. Joseph presumably died before he could see the promise of the resurrection–a common motif amongst prophets and other searchers. But the fact that Jesus and Mary lived a long time when both poverty as well as infant and child mortality was extremely high in their culture points towards Joseph’s care and contribution for his family. He is a saint that the working class should come to love and resonate with especially in today’s economic climate.

So today let us pray to our favorite saints for they hold something personal and special for us all.

Who’s your favorite saint? And how have you connected with him or her so intimately?

Thanks to Chantal Stain Glass patterns for the pic of St Joseph.