The Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Discourse VII: On the Assumption of Mary
by St. Alphonsus de Liguori
On this day the Church proposes to us to celebrate two solemn observances in honor of Mary: one, her happy departure from this earth; the other, her glorious assumption into heaven. In the present discourse we shall speak of her departure from this earth, and in the next of her assumption.
How precious was the death of Mary! 1st, On account of the special graces which attended it; 2d, On account of the manner of it.
Death being the punishment of sin, it would seem that the divine mother, all holy and exempt from every stain, should not be subject to death, nor suffer the same misfortune as the children of Adam, who are infected by the poison of sin. But God, wishing Mary in all things to be like to Jesus, required, as the Son had died, that the mother should also die; and because He wished to give to the just an example of the blessed death prepared for them, He decreed that the Virgin should die, but by a sweet and happy death. Hence we will enter upon the consideration, how precious was the death of Mary. 1st. On account of the special graces by which it was accompanied. 2d. On account of the manner in which it took place.
Point First.–Three things render death bitter, namely, attachment to earth, remorse for sin, and the uncertainty of salvation. But the death of Mary was entirely free from any such causes of bitterness, and was attended by many circumstances which rendered it precious and joyful. She died as she had always lived, entirely detached from all earthly things; she died in the most perfect peace of conscience; she died in the certainty of eternal glory.
And in the first place, there is no doubt that attachment to the goods of earth renders the death of the worldly bitter and miserable, as the Holy Spirit says: “Oh, death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that hath peace in his possessions (Eccli. xli. 1)!” But because the saints die detached from the things of the world, their death is not bitter, but sweet, lovely, and precious; or, as St. Bernard explains, it is worth being purchased at any price. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: “Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur (Apoc. xiv. 13).” Who are they that being dead, die? Precisely those happy souls that pass into eternity, already detached, and, as it were, dead to all affections for terrestrial things, having found in God alone their every good; as St. Francis of Assisium, who exclaimed: My God, and my all: “Deus meas et omnia.” But what soul was ever more detached from the things of the world, and more united to God, than the beautiful soul of Mary? She was indeed entirely detached from her parents, since at the age of three years, when children are most dependent on their parents, and have the greatest need of their assistance, Mary with so great resolution left them, and went to shut herself up in the temple to attend to the things of God. She was detached from riches contented to live always poor, and supporting herself with the labor of her hands. She was detached from honors, loving an humble and abject life, although queenly honor belonged to her, for she traced her descent from the kings of Israel. The Virgin herself revealed to St. Elizabeth, a Benedictine nun, that when she was left in the temple by her parents, she resolved in her heart to have no other father, and to love no other good but God.
St. John saw Mary represented in that woman clothed with the sun, who held the moon under her feet. “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet (Apoc. xii. 1).” Interpreters explain the moon to signify the goods of this earth, that are uncertain, and change as the moon does. All these goods Mary never had in her heart, but always despised them and kept them under her feet; living in this world as a solitary turtledove in a desert; placing her affection on no earthly thing, so that it was said of her: The voice of the turtle is heard in our land: “Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra (Cant. ii. 12).” And again, “Who is she that goeth up by the desert (Cant. iii. 6)?” whence Rupert says: “Thou hast gone up by the desert, that is, having a solitary soul.” Mary, then, having always lived entirely detached from the things of earth, and only united to God, not bitter, but very sweet and dear to her was death, which united her more closely to God, by the eternal bonds of paradise.
Secondly, peace of conscience renders the death of the just precious. The sins committed in life are those worms that the most torment and gnaw the heart of poor dying sinners, who, about to be presented at the divine tribunal, see themselves at that moment surrounded by their sins, which terrify them, and pursue them with cries, as St. Bernard says: “We are thy works, we will not desert thee.” Certainly Mary could not be afflicted in death by any remorse of conscience, for she was always holy, always pure, and always free from every shade of actual and original sin; hence it was said of her: Thou art all fair, oh my love, and there is not a spot in thee: “Tota pulchra es, arnica mea, et macula non est in te (Cant. iv. 7).” As soon as she had the use of reason, that is, from the first moment of her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Ann, from that time she began with all her powers to love her God; and thus she continued to do, ever advancing more in perfection and love through her whole life. All her thoughts, her desires, her affections, were wholly given to God; not a word, not a motion, not a glance of the eye, not a breath of hers that was not for God and for His glory, never departing one step, nor separating herself for one moment from the divine love. Ah! in the happy hour of her death how did all the lovely virtues which she practised during her life surround her blessed bed! That faith so constant, that affectionate confidence in God, that patience so strong in the midst of sufferings, that humility in the midst of so many privileges, that modesty, that meekness, that compassion for souls, that zeal for the divine glory, and above all, that perfect charity towards God, with that entire uniformity to the divine will–all, in a word, thronged around her, and consoling her, said: We are thy works, we will not desert thee: “Opera tua sumus, non te deseremus.” Oh Lady and mother, we are all children of thy loving heart; now that thou art leaving this miserable life, we will not leave thee, we also will go to attend thee and honor thee in paradise, where, by our means, thou wilt be crowned queen of all men, and of all the angels.
In the third place, the certainty of eternal salvation renders death sweet. Death is called a passage, since through death we pass from this short life to life eternal. And, as the dread is great of those who die in doubt of their salvation, and who approach the solemn moment with just fear of passing into an eternal death, thus, on the other hand, very great is the joy of the saints at the end of life, hoping with some security to go and possess God in heaven. A nun of the order of St. Theresa, when the physician announced to her that death was near, was so full of joy that she said to him: “And how does it happen, sir, that you tell me this good news and ask no fee for it?” St. Lawrence Justinian being at the point of death, and seeing his friends weeping around him, said to them: “Away, away with your tears, this is no time for tears.” Go elsewhere to weep; if you will remain with me you must rejoice, as I rejoice, in seeing the gate of paradise open to unite me with my God. And thus, also, a St. Peter of Alcantara, a St. Louis of Gonzaga, and so many other saints, on hearing that death was at hand, burst forth into exclamations of joy and gladness. And yet they were not certain of the divine favor, nor secure of their own sanctity, as Mary was secure of hers. But what joy must the divine mother have felt in learning that her death was at hand; she, who had the fullest security of enjoying the divine favor, especially after the angel Gabriel had assured her that she was full of grace, and already possessed God! “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . . thou hast found grace (Luc. xxviii. 30).” And well did she herself know that her heart was burning continually with divine love, so that as Bernardine de Bustis says, Mary, by a singular grace not granted to any other saint, loved, and was always actually occupied in loving God every moment of her life, and so ardently, that, as St. Bernard says, it required a perpetual miracle to preserve her life in the midst of such burning flames.
It was before said of Mary in the sacred Canticles: “Who is she that goeth up by the desert as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh, and frankincense, and of all the powders of the perfumer (Cant. iii. 6)?” Her entire mortification was prefigured in the myrrh, her fervent prayers were signified by the incense, and all her holy virtues united to her perfect charity towards God, kindled in her a flame so great, that her holy soul, wholly devoted to, and consumed by divine love, arose continually to God as a pillar of smoke that on all sides breathed sweet odor. As a pillar of smoke, oh blessed Lady, wrote Rupert, thou hast breathed forth a sweet odor to the Most High. And Eustachius still more strongly expresses it: A pillar of smoke, because burning interiorly as a holocaust with the flame of divine love, she sent forth a most sweet odor. As the loving Virgin lived, such she died. As divine love gave her life, so it gave her death; for she died as the holy Doctors and Fathers of the Church generally affirm, of no other infirmity than pure love; for St. Ildephonsus says, that Mary either ought not to die, or only die of love.
Second Point.–But let us now see what were the circumstances of her happy death. After the ascension of Jesus Christ, Mary remained on earth to attend to the propagation of the faith. Hence the disciples of Jesus had recourse to her, and she resolved their doubts, comforted them in their persecutions, and encouraged them to labor for the divine glory and for the salvation of the souls redeemed by her Son. She, indeed, willingly remained on earth, understanding this to be the will of God for the good of the Church; but she could not but feel the pain of being far from the presence and sight of her beloved Son, who had ascended into heaven. “Where your treasure is,” said the Redeemer, “there will your heart be also (Luc. xii. 34).” Where any one believes his treasure and his happiness to lie, there he always holds the love and desire of his heart fixed. If Mary then loved no other good than Jesus, He being in heaven, in heaven were all her desires. Taulerus wrote of Mary: The cell of Mary was heaven: “Mariae cella fuit caelum,” for being in heaven with her affection, she made of it her continual abode. Her school was eternity: “Schola aeternitas,” for she was always detached from temporal possessions. Her teacher, divine truth: “Piedagogus divina Veritas,” for she was always guided in her actions by the divine light. Her mirror, the Divinity: “Speculum divinitas,” for she looked upon nothing but God, in order to conform always to the divine will. Her ornament, devotion: “Ornatus ejus devotio,” for she was always ready to fulfil the divine commands. Her repose, union with God: “Quies unitas cum Deo,” for her peace was only in uniting herself with God. In a word, the place and treasure of her heart was God alone: “Cordis illius locus et thesaurus solus Deus erat.” The most holy Virgin consoled her loving heart during this cruel separation, by visiting, as it is narrated, the holy places of Palestine, where her Son had been in his lifetime: she often visited now the stable of Bethlehem, where her Son was born; now the workshop at Nazareth, where her Son had lived so many years poor and despised; now the garden of Gethsemane, where her Son commenced His passion; now the hall of Pilate, where he was scourged; the place where He was crowned; but more often she visited Calvary, where her Son had expired; and the holy sepulchre, where she finally had left Him. And thus the most loving mother used to soothe the pains of her cruel exile. But this was not enough to satisfy her heart, which could not find its perfect rest upon this earth; hence her continual sighs were ascending to her Lord, as she exclaimed with David, but with more ardent love: “Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest (Psal. liv. 7).” Who will give me wings like a dove to fly to my God and there to find my rest?” As the hart, panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee, oh God (Psal. xli. 2).” As the wounded stag pants for the fountain, so my soul, wounded by thy love, oh my God, desires and sighs for Thee. Ah, the sighs of this holy turtle-dove could not but reach the heart of her God, who loved her so much: “The voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Wherefore not being willing to defer any longer consolation to His beloved, behold, he graciously hears her desire and calls her to his kingdom.
Cedrenus, Nicephorus, and Metaphrastes, relate, that the Lord, some days before her death, sent to her the angel Gabriel, the same who once announced to her that she was the blessed woman chosen to be the mother of God: My Lady and Queen, said the angel to her, God has already graciously heard thy holy desires, and He has sent me to tell thee to prepare to leave the earth, for He wishes thee with Him in paradise. Come then, to take possession of thy kingdom, for I and all its holy citizens await and desire thee. At this happy annunciation what should our most humble and holy Virgin do but conceal herself more deeply in the centre of her most profound humility, and reply in those same words with which she answered St. Gabriel when he announced to her that she was to become mother of God: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: “Ecce ancilla Domini’?” Behold, she again answered, the servant of the Lord; He in His pure goodness has chosen me and made me His mother; now He calls me to paradise. I neither merited the one nor the other honor; but since He wishes to manifest His infinite liberality towards me, I am ready to go where He wishes. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord;” may the will of my God and Lord always be fulfilled in me.
After receiving this precious intelligence, she imparted it to St. John, and we may imagine with what grief and tender emotion he heard this news; he who for so many years had been near her as a son, and had enjoyed the celestial conversation of this most holy mother. She then visited anew the holy places of Jerusalem, tenderly taking leave of them, especially of Calvary, where her beloved Son had died. And then she returned to her poor dwelling to prepare for death. During this time the angels did not cease to come and visit this their beloved queen, consoling themselves with the thought that they should soon see her crowned in heaven. Many authors assert, that before she died, by a divine miracle, the apostles and also some of the disciples came from the different places where they were dispersed, and all assembled in the apartment of Mary, and that when she saw all these her dear children united together in her presence, she thus addressed them: My dear children, for love of you, and to help you, my Son left me on this earth. But now the holy faith is spread throughout the world, already the fruit of the divine seed is grown up; hence my divine Son, seeing that my assistance was no longer needed upon the earth, and compassionating me for the pain of separation, has graciously heard my desire to depart from this life, and go to see Him in glory. If I leave you, my heart does not leave you; I will carry with me the great love I bear you, and it shall always remain with me. I am going to paradise to pray for you. At these sad tidings, who can realize how great were the tears and lamentations of these holy disciples, knowing that they were shortly to be separated from their mother! Then, they all in tears exclaimed, then, oh Mary, thou wilt leave us! It is true that this earth is not a worthy and fit, place for thee, and that we are not worthy to enjoy the society of a mother of God; but remember that thou art our mother; thou hast until now enlightened us in our doubts, consoled our sorrows, strengthened us in persecutions, and how canst thou now abandon us, leaving us alone without thy comfort in the midst of so many enemies and so many conflicts? We have already lost on earth Jesus, our Master and our Father, who has ascended into heaven; we have since been consoled by thee, our mother; and now how canst thou leave us orphans, without father or mother? Oh remain with us, oh our Lady! or take us with thee. Thus writes St. John Damascene. “No, my children (thus sweetly the loving queen began to speak) this is not according to the will of God; content yourselves to do what He has appointed for you and for me. To you it yet remains to labor on the earth for the glory of your Redeemer, and to perfect your eternal crown. I do not leave you to abandon you, but to help you more by my intercession with God in heaven. Be satisfied. I commend to you the holy Church; I commend to you the souls redeemed by my Son; let this be my last farewell, and the only remembrance that I leave you. If you love me, labor for souls, and for the glory of my Son; for we shall one day meet again in paradise, never more to separate throughout eternity.”
Then she begged them to give burial to her body after death, blessed them, and directed St. Jonn, as Damascene relates, that after her death he should give her two garments to two virgins who had served her for some time, and then she decently composed herself upon her poor little bed, where she laid herself to await death, and with death the meeting with her divine spouse, who shortly was to come and take her with Him to the kingdom of the blessed. Behold, she already feels in her heart a great joy, the forerunner of the coming of the spouse, which overwhelms her with a great and new sweetness. The holy apostles, seeing that Mary already was about to depart from this earth, burst forth into fresh weeping, and knelt around her bed: some kissed her holy feet, others asked her special blessing, one recommended to her some particular necessity of his, and all wept bitterly, for their hearts were pierced with grief at being obliged to separate forever in this life from their beloved Lady. And she, their most loving mother, compassionated all, consoled all, promising to some her protection, blessing others with peculiar affection, and encouraging others to labor for the conversion of the world; especially did she call St. Peter to her, and as head of the Church, and vicar of her Son, she recommended to him in particular the propagation of the faith, promising him her special protection from heaven. But in a very special manner did she call to her St. John, who felt a greater sorrow than all the others at the moment of separation from that holy mother; and the most grateful Lady, calling to mind the affection and attention with which this holy disciple had served her through all the years they had passed on earth since the death of her Son, said to him with great tenderness: My John, I thank thee for all the assistance thou hast afforded me; my son, be certain that I never will be ungrateful to thee for it. If I leave thee now, I am going to pray for thee. Remain in peace in this life until we meet in heaven, where I will await thee. Do not forget me; in all thy necessities call me to thy aid, for I never will forget thee, my beloved son. My son, I bless thee, I leave thee my benediction; rest in peace–adieu.
But the death of Mary draws near. The divine love, with its blessed and ardent flames, having almost entirely consumed the vital spirits, the celestial phoenix is going to lose her life in the midst of this fire. Then the hosts of angels come to meet her, as if to be ready for the great triumph with which they were to accompany her to paradise. Mary was indeed consoled at the sight of these holy spirits; but not fully consoled, for she did not yet see her beloved Jesus, who was the whole love of her heart. Hence she often repeated to the angels who descended to salute her: “I adjure you, oh daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him that I languish with love (Cant. v. 8).” Oh holy angels! oh blessed citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem! ye come in hosts kindly to console me, and ye all console me with your sweet presence; I thank you, but ye all do not fully satisfy me, for I do not yet see my Son coming to console me. Go, if you love me, return to paradise, and tell my beloved, from me, that I languish and faint for His love. Tell Him to come, and come quickly, for I am dying with my desire to see Him.
But behold, Jesus himself comes to take his mother to the kingdom of the blessed. It was revealed to St. Elizabeth, that the Son appeared to Mary before she expired, with the cross in his hand, to show the special glory he had obtained from the redemption, having by his death made the acquisition of this great creature, who through the ages of eternity was to honor him more than all men and all angels. St. John of Damascus relates, that he gave to her the viaticum, saying to her, tenderly: Take, oh my mother, from my hands, that same body which thou hast given me. And the mother having received with the greatest love that final communion, with her last sighs said to him: My Son, into Thy hands I commend my spirit; I recommend to Thee this soul that Thou, in Thy goodness, didst create even from the beginning, rich in so many graces, and by a peculiar privilege hast preserved from every stain of sin. I commend to Thee my body, from which thou hast deigned to take flesh and blood. I commend to Thee, also, these my dear children (speaking of the holy disciples who were around her); they are afflicted at my departure; do Thou console them, who lovest them more than I do; bless them, and give them strength to do great things for Thy glory.
The end of the life of Mary having now arrived, there was heard, as St. Jerome relates, in the apartment where she lay, a great harmony; and also, as it was revealed to St. Bridget, a great brightness was seen. By this harmony and unusual splendor the holy Apostles perceived that Mary was then departing, at which they broke forth again in tears and prayers, and raising their hands, with one voice exclaimed: Oh, our mother, now thou art going to heaven, and art leaving us, give us thy last benediction, and do not forget us in our misery. And Mary, turning her eyes around upon them all, as if bidding them for the last time farewell, said: Adieu, my children: I bless you; do not fear that I shall forget you. And now death came, not indeed clothed with mourning and sadness, as it comes to others, but adorned with light and joy. But why death, why death? Rather should we say that divine love came to cut the thread of that noble life. And as a lamp before going out, her life, amid these last flickerings, flashed forth more brightly, and then expired. Thus, this beautiful soul, her Son inviting her to follow Him, wrapped in the flame of her charity, and in the midst of her amorous sighs, breathed forth a greater sigh of love, expired and died; and thus that great soul, that beautiful dove of our Lord, was released from the bonds of this life, and entered into the glory of the blessed, where she sits, and will sit, as queen of paradise, for all eternity.
Now Mary has left the earth, now she is in heaven. From thence this kind mother looks down upon us, who are still in this valley of tears, compassionates us, and promises us her support if we wish for it. Let us pray her always that by the merits of her blessed death she may obtain for us a happy death; and if it please God, that she may obtain for us to die on a Saturday, which is dedicated to her honor, or on a day of the Novena, or of the octave of some of her feasts, as she has obtained for so many of her servants, and especially for St. Stanislas Kostka, for whom she obtained to die on the day of her glorious Assumption, as Father Bartoli relates in his life of the saint.
During the lifetime of this holy youth, who was wholly devoted to the love of Mary, it happened that on the first day of August, he heard a sermon of Father Peter Canisius, in which, preaching to the novices of his society, he fervently urged upon all, the important advice, to live every day as if it might be the last of their life, after which they were to be presented at the divine tribunal. The sermon being finished, St. Stanislas told his companions that this counsel had been for him especially the voice of God, for that he was to die on that very month. He said this either because God had expressly revealed it to him, or at least because he gave him a certain internal presentiment of what afterwards happened. Four days after, the blessed youth went with Father Emmanuel to St. Mary Major, and beginning to speak of the approaching festival of the Assumption, he said: “Father, I believe that on that day there is seen in paradise a new paradise, the glory being seen there of the mother of God crowned queen of heaven, and seated so near the Lord above all the choirs of angels. And if it is true that every year, as I believe it to be certain, this festival is renewed in heaven, I hope to see the next one.” The glorious martyr St. Lawrence, having fallen to the saint by lot as his monthly patron, according to the custom of that society, it is said that he wrote a letter to his mother Mary, in which he prayed her to obtain for him that he might be a spectator of this festival of hers in paradise. On St. Lawrence’s day he received communion, and after it supplicated the saint to present that letter to the divine mother, by interposing his intercession that the most holy Mary might graciously hear his prayer.
At the close of this very day a fever came upon him, and although it was very light, he, however, from that hour esteemed it for certain that he had obtained the favor asked for him, namely, an early death. Indeed, on going to bed he said joyfully, with a smiling countenance: “From this bed I shall never arise.” And speaking to Father Claudius Aquaviva, he added: “I believe that St. Lawrence has already obtained for me the grace from Mary that I should be in heaven on the festival of her Assumption.” But no one thought much of these his words. The vigil having arrived, his malady continued to appear light, but the saint told a brother that he should die the next night, and the brother answered: “Oh, brother, it would be a greater miracle to die of so slight an illness, than to be cured.” But, behold, after noon he fell into a deadly swoon, and then came a cold sweat, and he entirely lost his strength. The superior hastened to him, and Stanislas prayed him to order him to be placed on the bare floor, that he might die as a penitent, which was granted in order to satisfy him, and he was laid on the floor on a mattress. Then he made his confession, received the viaticum, not without the tears of all present, for when the divine sacrament was brought into the apartment, his eyes kindled with celestial joy, and his whole countenance was radiant with holy love, so that he seemed a seraph. He also received extreme unction, and meanwhile did nothing but now raise his eyes to heaven, now look upon, kiss, and lovingly press to his breast, an image of Mary. A father said to him: “Of what use is it to wear that rosary around your hand, if you cannot recite it?” He answered: “It serves to console me, for it is something belonging to my mother.” “Oh, how much more,” said the Father, “will you be consoled by seeing her, and kissing, in a short time, her hands in heaven!” Then the saint, with his countenance all on fire, raised his hands, thus to express his desire of finding himself soon in her presence. Then his dear mother appeared to him, as he himself declared to those around him, and soon after, at the dawn of day on the fifteenth of August, he expired as a saint, his eyes fixed on heaven, without a motion, so that not until afterwards, when the image of the most holy Virgin was presented, and he made no movement towards it, it was perceived that he had already gone to kiss in paradise the feet of his beloved queen.
Oh, our most sweet Lady and Mother, thou hast already left the earth, and hast reached thy kingdom, where thou sittest as queen over all the choirs of angels, as the holy Church sings: She was exalted above the choirs of angels in the celestial kingdoms: “Exaltata est super chores angelorum ad caelestia regna.” We know that we sinners are not worthy of having thee with us in this valley of darkness. But we know also, that thou in thy grandeur hast never forgotten us in our misery, and by being exalted to such glory hast never lost compassion for us poor children of Adam, but rather that it is increased in thee. From the high throne then, where thou dost reign, turn, oh Mary, even upon us, thy pitying eyes, and take compassion upon us. Remember, too, that on leaving this world, thou didst promise not to forget us. Look upon us and succor us. See in what tempests and in how many dangers we are, and always shall be, till the end of our life arrives. By the merits of thy holy death, obtain for us holy perseverance in the divine friendship, that we may finally depart from this life in the grace of God, and thus come one day to kiss thy feet in paradise, and unite ourselves with the blessed spirits in praising thee, and singing thy glories, as thou dost merit. Amen.