The Silent MissionaryRead Now
It is rare to find a moment of silence in a household with a two-year-old. Last week, unusually, provided many quiet moments as my normally energetic daughter had a high fever and spent the day on the couch or sleeping only while being held. My wife and I took turns silently holding her to help her get much needed rest. Sitting in silence—without a phone or other distraction--was agitating at first. As the time went on, the simple time spent in silence holding a sleeping child became nourishing and awakened in me a hunger for silence that I often spend time avoiding.
This past Lent, I co-led an online small group for newly married men in DC. As we reflected on how the life of St. Joseph relates to us as men, we returned almost weekly to the challenge of finding silence amid phones and families. St. Joseph was not a character that most of us had taken seriously before being married or becoming a father. Yet in marriage and fatherhood, Joseph is the silent role model we need. Someone who understands us and who inspires us.
St. Joseph was not a loud or flashy saint. In the children’s books of saints we have for our daughter, the life of silent St. Joseph is hardly mentioned. How can he compete with traveling missionaries, miracle workers, religious founders, and the stories of martyrs losing their heads, eyes, and more? Though his life was not extroverted or bloody, it was no less meaningful. The life of Joseph was a life of daily martyrdoms and silent missions. Without having to leave his home or his workshop, he set out each day as a missionary to offer his life for Jesus and Mary.
This is reassuring to me as a husband and father of a toddler, who has been stuck at home during the last 12 months during the COVID pandemic. It is tempting to think that the only way to be holy is to be on the move or to be noticed, like the many Catholic social media influencers or popular Catholic priests or bishops. St. Joseph reminds us of a quieter, ordinary path to holiness that will earn us no new likes or followers. He shows us a hidden, silent example that we need in the noise of daily life.
Joseph’s silence teaches us to rediscover the silent mission work found in our own kitchens and living rooms. The artist and Oblate Brother Mickey McGrath has a beautiful image of “St. Thérèse Doing the Dishes.” In the painting, Thérèse is at the kitchen sink elevating a plate as the priest elevates the Eucharist at the altar. This image makes plain our mission as lay men and women to unite our daily work and sacrifices to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which we commemorate at each Eucharistic celebration.
Perhaps this image of St. Thérèse doing dishes stands out today because our dishwasher broke this week and my mission field has been researching dishwasher pumps and motor assemblies and spending extra time in soapy water. The image reminds me that God has called me to this mission, regardless of whether it is my preference or how qualified I feel for the task. Joseph must have felt the same way in the ordinary tasks of his workshop and home. St. Joseph is a role model for how we are called to integrate our lives, finding God in every moment of our day—whether doing dishes, praying the Rosary, updating spreadsheets, or building a table.
In the life of Joseph, daily work “is a kind of prayer, a way of finding God, a means of salvation…Joseph gave to his carts and yokes the same care he would have given to a tabernacle, since he understood perfectly that a word done in love goes straight to God” (Michel Gasnier, Joseph the Silent, 29). Pope Francis reminds us that, “working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us” (Patris Corde, 6).
St. Joseph is well known for not having a single word recorded in Scripture, but we cannot confuse his silence with a lack of mission. Joseph was a silent missionary who invites us in this Year of St. Joseph to join him in the quiet work. The silent mission of holding a sick child who has fallen asleep, of holding our tongue from an uncharitable word with a family member or colleague, of doing the dishes, or of going about our work with love. Silently. Without recognition. Like St. Joseph.
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