Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 40

Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 40

CHAPTER XL. Counsels to Widows.

SAINT PAUL teaches us all in the person of S. Timothy when he says,
“Honour widows that are widows indeed.” [171] Now to be “a widow
indeed” it is necessary:–

1. That the widow be one not in body only, but in heart also; that is
to say, that she be fixed in an unalterable resolution to continue in
her widowhood Those widows who are but waiting the opportunity of
marrying again are only widowed in externals, while in will they have
already laid aside their loneliness. If the “widow indeed” chooses to
confirm her widowhood by offering herself by a vow to God, she will
adorn that widowhood, and make her resolution doubly sure, for the
remembrance that she cannot break her vow without danger of forfeiting
Paradise, will make her so watchful over herself, that a great barrier
will be raised against all kind of temptation that may assail her. S.
Augustine strongly recommends Christian widows to take this vow, and
the learned Origen goes yet further, for he advises married women to
take a vow of chastity in the event of losing their husbands, so that
amid the joys of married life they may yet have a share in the merits
of a chaste widowhood. Vows render the actions performed under their
shelter more acceptable to God, strengthen us to perform good works,
and help us to devote to Him not merely those good works which are, so
to say, the fruits of a holy will, but to consecrate that will itself;
the source of all we do, to Him. By ordinary chastity we offer our body
to God, retaining the power to return to sensual pleasure; but the vow
of chastity is an absolute and irrevocable gift to Him, without any
power to recall it, thereby making ourselves the happy slaves of Him
Whose service is to be preferred to royal power. And as I greatly
approve the counsels of the two venerable Fathers I have named, I would
have such persons as are so favoured as to wish to embrace them, do so
prudently, and in a holy, stedfast spirit, after careful examination of
their own courage, having asked heavenly guidance, and taken the advice
of some discreet and pious director, and then all will be profitably

2. Further, all such renunciation of second marriage must be done with
a single heart, in order to fix the affections more entirely on God,
and to seek a more complete union with Him. For if the widow retains
her widowhood merely to enrich her children, or for any other worldly
motive, she may receive the praise of men, but not that of God,
inasmuch as nothing is worthy of His Approbation save that which is
done for His Sake. Moreover, she who would be a widow indeed must be
voluntarily cut off from all worldly delights. “She that liveth in
pleasure is dead while she liveth,” S. Paul says. [172] A widow who
seeks to be admired and followed and flattered, who frequents balls and
parties, who takes pleasure in dressing, perfuming and adorning
herself, may be a widow in the body, but she is dead as to the soul.
What does it matter, I pray you, whether the flag of Adonis and his
profane love be made of white feathers or a net of crape? Nay,
sometimes there is a conscious vanity in that black is the most
becoming dress; and she who thereby endeavours to captivate men, and
who lives in empty pleasure, is “dead while she liveth,” and is a mere
mockery of widowhood.

“The time of retrenchment is come, the voice of the turtle is heard in
our land.” [173] Retrenchment of worldly superfluity is required of
whosoever would lead a devout life, but above all, it is needful for
the widow indeed, who mourns the loss of her husband like a true
turtle-dove. When Naomi returned from Moab to Bethlehem, those that had
known her in her earlier and brighter days were moved, and said, “Is
this Naomi? And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi (which means
beautiful and agreeable), call me Mara, for the Almighty hath dealt
very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me
home again empty.” [174] Even so the devout widow will not desire to be
called or counted beautiful or agreeable, asking no more than to be
that which God wills,–lowly and abject in His Eyes.

The lamp which is fed with aromatic oil sends forth a yet sweeter odour
when it is extinguished; and so those women whose married love was true
and pure, give out a stronger perfume of virtue and chastity when their
light (that is, their husband) is extinguished by death. Love for a
husband while living is a common matter enough among women, but to love
him so deeply as to refuse to take another after his death, is a kind
of love peculiar to her who is a widow indeed. Hope in God, while
resting on a husband, is not so rare, but to hope in Him, when left
alone and desolate, is a very gracious and worthy thing. And thus it is
that widowhood becomes a test of the perfection of the virtues
displayed by a woman in her married life.

The widow who has children requiring her care and guidance, above all
in what pertains to their souls and the shaping of their lives, cannot
and ought not on any wise to forsake them. S. Paul teaches this
emphatically, and says that those who “provide not for their own, and
specially for those of their own house, are worse than an infidel;”
[175] but if her children do not need her care, then the widow should
gather together all her affections and thoughts, in order to devote
them more wholly to making progress in the love of God. If there is no
call obliging her in conscience to attend to external secular matters
(legal or other), I should advise her to leave them all alone, and to
manage her affairs as quietly and peacefully as may be, even if such a
course does not seem the most profitable. The fruit of disputes and
lawsuits must be very great indeed before it can be compared in worth
to the blessing of holy peace; not to say that those legal
entanglements and the like are essentially distracting, and often open
the way for enemies who sully the purity of a heart which should be
solely devoted to God.

Prayer should be the widow’s chief occupation: she has no love left
save for God,–she should scarce have ought to say to any save God; and
as iron, which is restrained from yielding to the attraction of the
magnet when a diamond is near, darts instantly towards it so soon as
the diamond is removed, so the widow’s heart, which could not rise up
wholly to God, or simply follow the leadings of His Heavenly Love
during her husband’s life, finds itself set free, when he is dead, to
give itself entirely to Him, and cries out, with the Bride in the
Canticles, “Draw me, I will run after Thee.” [176] I will be wholly
Thine, and seek nothing save the “savour of Thy good ointments.”

A devout widow should chiefly seek to cultivate the graces of perfect
modesty, renouncing all honours, rank, title, society, and the like
vanities; she should be diligent in ministering to the poor and sick,
comforting the afflicted, leading the young to a life of devotion,
studying herself to be a perfect model of virtue to younger women.
Necessity and simplicity should be the adornment of her garb, humility
and charity of her actions, simplicity and kindliness of her words,
modesty and purity of her eyes,–Jesus Christ Crucified the only Love
of her heart.

Briefly, the true widow abides in the Church as a little March violet,
[177] shedding forth an exquisite sweetness through the perfume of her
devotion, ever concealing herself beneath the ample leaves of her
heart’s lowliness, while her subdued colouring indicates her
mortification. She dwells in waste, uncultivated places, because she
shrinks from the world’s intercourse, and seeks to shelter her heart
from the glare with which earthly longings, whether of honours, wealth,
or love itself, might dazzle her. “Blessed is she if she so abide,”
says the holy Apostle. [178]

Much more could I say on this subject, but suffice it to bid her who
seeks to be a widow indeed, read S. Jerome’s striking Letters to
Salvia, and the other noble ladies who rejoiced in being the spiritual
children of such a Father. Nothing can be said more, unless it be to
warn the widow indeed not to condemn or even censure those who do
resume the married life, for there are cases in which God orders it
thus to His Own greater Glory. We must ever bear in mind the ancient
teaching, that in Heaven virgins, wives, and widows will know no
difference, save that which their true hearts’ humility assigns them.

[171] 1 Tim. v. 3.

[172] 1 Tim. v. 6.

[173] Cant. ii. 12. in the Vulgate, “Tempus putationis advenit; vox
turturis audita est in terra nostra.”

[174] Ruth i. 20, 21.

[175] 1 Tim. v. 8.

[176] Cant. i. 3, 4.

[177] “Quarn gloriosa enirn Ecclesia, et quanta virtutum multitudine,
quasi florum varietate! Habet hortus ille Dominicus non solum rosas
martyrum, sed et lilia virginum, et conjugatorum hederas, violasque
viduarum Prorsus, Dilectissimi, nullum genus hominum de sua vocatione
desperet: pro omnibus passus est Christus.”–S. Aug. Serm. ccciv., In
Laurent. Mart. iii. cap. 1-3. “How glorious is the Church, how
countless her graces, varied as the flowers of earth in beauty! This
garden of the Lord bears not only the martyr’s rose, but the virgin’s
lily, the ivy wreath of wedded love, and the violet of widowhood.
Therefore, beloved, let none despair of his calling, since Christ
suffered for all.”

[178] 1 Cor. vii. 40. “Beatior autem erit si sic