Written by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
(Sophia Institute Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
Last year the publisher of this fine work sent me a copy and I seem to have missed reviewing it here. I had not missed reading it, however. And, judging from the adoration chapel I attend, it is well read there too.
First, the author. Bossuet was an accomplished and much appreciated bishop who served the Lord in 17th century France. He was mostly known for his elegant preaching. He had been a tutor to the dauphin (first in line to the king) and entrusted with many important commissions from the king and the Church. One of his most treasured dreams was the reconciliation of Protestants with the Church, though in that fevered age little could be hoped for. And, although the French clergy were firmly in the control of the king, Bossuet managed to steer a moderate course between king and pope, which, however, we might nevertheless still consider smacking of caesaro-papism – the idea that the King should be in charge of the Church (called Gallicanism in its French form). We have to remind ourselves, however, that despite all of its faults, and despite what contemporary propagandists need to believe, the government was more Christian then than it is now.
The religious issues of the day, besides the split between Catholics and Protestants, and besides the jockeying for control by pope and king, also included the fight between so-called laxists (aka Jesuits) and rigorists (aka Jansenists). Another strange religious trend involved something called Quietism, a heresy eventually condemned by Pope Innocent XI. It is possible to define this heresy quite simply as a depiction of the spiritual life with undo passivity , that is to say, the the spiritual life cannot consist in anything other than passive contemplation, not apostolic action, not oracular prayer, or anything else. Bossuet took a leading role in exposing this error.
Opposition to Quietism, of course, does not amount to opposition to the spiritual life, as Bossuet’s writings clearly prove. The text is full of wonderful, and wonderfully easy and illuminating passages:
“If there was ever a trust worthy of the name sacred and of being guarded in a holy manner, it is the one of which I speak today, the one that the providence of the eternal Father committed to the faith of that just man, Joseph. His very house became a kind of temple that God deigned to inhabit. To guard such a treasure Joseph himself had to be consecrated. And truly he was, for his body was consecrated by purity and his soul by all the gifts of grace. O Mary, you saw the effects of the grace that filled him; I need your assistance to make them known.” (p. 142)
There are just over 40 short meditations in this volume, all relating to the Nativity in some way. It begins with a series of meditations on the Creation and Fall, then on to consider various prophecies about Christ’s coming, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Magnificat, and then on to the Nativity. I love his Christological observations. The final chapter is a homily on St. Joseph, from which I quoted above. This homily and ‘The Silent Wonder of Mary and Joseph’ (ch. 38) are exceedingly beautiful.
Sophia Institute Press has also published Bossuet’s Meditations for Lent, as well as a volume by Guardini and one by Newman. The four are inexpensive – you can even buy them as a set. Perhaps you too can read them and then donate them to an adoration chapel near you. They are good for a holy hour and even for a few holy minutes.