Innocence is a word that recurs again and again in the Office and Mass of the virgin Saint Scholastica. Innocence is the principle motif of the Collect:
Deus, qui animam beatae Virginis tuae Scholasticae ad ostendendam innocentiae viam in columbae specie caelum penetrare fecisti: da nobis, eius meritis et precibus, ita innocenter vivere; ut ad aeterna mereamur gaudia pervenire.
O God, Who, to show the way of the innocent, wast pleased that the soul of thy blessed Virgin Scholastica should enter heaven in a bodily shape, like a dove, mercifully grant that we, by her merits and prayers, may live so innocently, as to be found worthy of attaining unto everlasting joys.
The twin sister of our father Saint Benedict is said to have preserved her baptismal innocence. She passed through childhood, youth, maturity, and old age without harm to her innocence. This innocence confers upon the soul of Saint Scholastica a freshness, a beauty, a charm that Saint Gregory aptly describes as a pure white dove in flight towards heaven.
Assaults on Innocence
The preservation of holy innocence is something that has become increasingly rare. Today, more than ever before, or so it seems to me, there are assaults on innocence even in the sanctuary of childhood. Few children emerge from adolescence unscathed by violence, greed, impurity, and cruelty. Children who witness violence are likely to become violent; children raised in a climate of greed become greedy; children who see impurity will grow up to be sexually vulnerable; children subjected to cruelty will develop a penchant for cruelty. Saint Scholastica was preserved from all that might have tainted her innocence. We can, for this reason, pray to her for children whose innocence is at risk. Not infrequently pure white doves are circled by hawks, vultures, and other dark birds of prey.
The word “innocence” derives from the Latin “nocere”, meaning to harm. One can be passively innocent of evil, not having been harmed; or one can be actively innocent, not having caused harm. Saint Scholastica was both. She passed through life in this vale of tears, and straight into heaven, like a pure white dove. One marvels at such an innocence, scarcely daring to believe that anyone can go through life untainted. Though such innocence be rare, one need not go all the way back to Saint Scholastica in the sixth century to find examples of it. The examples of little Nellie Organ and of Saint Thérèse comes to mind, but there are others, even today.
Who Shall Dwell in Thy Tabernacle?
The psalms set before us the portrait of the innocent man:
Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest in thy holy hill? He that walketh without blemish, and worketh justice: He that speaketh truth in his heart, who hath not used deceit in his tongue: Nor hath done evil to his neighbour: nor taken up a reproach against his neighbours. (Psalm 14:1–3)
Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord: or who shall stand in his holy place? The innocent in hands, and clean of heart, who hath not taken his soul in vain, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and mercy from God his Saviour. (Psalm 23:3–5)
Every day at Holy Mass I pray the Lavabo psalm, a psalm of innocence, recalling that Christ Himself is my innocence. He is the innocence of the Church, the innocence that shines on the faces of His saints:
Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in my innocence: and I have put my trust in the Lord, and shall not be weakened . . . . I will wash my hands among the innocent; and will compass thy altar, O Lord.
Psalm 118, Beati immaculati in via, is, from beginning to end the song of one who loves innocence:
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. (Psalm 118:1)
It is clear from Holy Scripture, from the sacred liturgy, and from the writings of the Fathers that innocence is highly prized, most desirable, and pleasing to God.
It is also clear, with the passing of the years, from one’s experience of the human condition and from one’s personal record of sin that the “gardens enclosed” into which the ancient serpent has not introduced the venom of corruption are as rare as they are precious.
The Disturbing Question
This obliges us to ask the disturbing question: Can innocence be recovered? It is clear from the lex orandi of the Church that innocence can be recovered. Were the recovery of innocence not possible, the Church would not pray for it in her liturgy. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Today’s Collect is the perfect example of such a prayer, but there are many others. The Collect for the feast of Saint Aloysius also comes to mind, in which we ask that “we may recover by penance the innocence that we have lost by sin”. The most compelling — and I think, comforting — example is in an Oratio Super Populum of the Gregorian Sacramentary in which we address God as the Deus innocentiae restitutor et amator, “God, the restorer and lover of innocence”. This ancient prayer gives me extraordinary hope. If the Church prays this it is because one can believe thus, and live ones life accordingly. Not only Does God delight in innocence, He also so loves it that He wills to restore it wherever it has been compromised or even pillaged.
How can innocence be recovered?
The sacraments, beginning with holy Baptism, restore innocence. Baptism restores the innocence lost by Adam in paradise. How beautiful is this state of innocence that delights the eyes of the Father and brightens the whole Church! The Church sings in the Exultet:
The sanctification of this night blots out crimes, washes away sins, and restores innocence to sinners, and joy to the sorrowful. It banishes enmities, produces concord, and humbles empires.
Again, by the cleansing virtue of the Blood of the Lamb, the words of sacramental absolution after confession make the guilty innocent. Sacramental absolution frees the sinner from having to drag after him the heavy record of past misdeeds. It sounds too good to be true, but it is true: one’s past record is completely expunged. One is declared innocent.
Holy Communion is a restoration of innocence: the innocent and perfect Lamb makes innocent those who receive the adorable mysteries of His Body and Blood. The beautiful prayers before Mass contained in the Roman Missal evoke the purifying effect of the holy mysteries:
O King of virgins and lover of chastity and innocence, extinguish in my body by the dew of Thy heavenly blessing whatever may kindle the burning of wanton desire, so purity of body and soul may abide in me.
The Divine Office is, in its own way, an ongoing restoration to innocence. The words of the sacred psalmody act wash the soul clean. The monk who perseveres in going to choir seven, even eight times a day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, will begin to experience a cleanness of heart produced by these constant washings in the Word of God. He begins to experience Our Lord’s promise: “Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament
Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, be it hidden in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance, is a real contact, by faith, with the radiance of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb who is Innocence itself. One becomes what one contemplates. Contemplate the the Innocence of God hidden beneath the sacramental veils and, imperceptibly, the Lamb will wash you of guilt and of all its ugly residue.
The Immaculate Virgin
Finally, innocence is in the giving of the Immaculate Mother of God. She is the Mediatrix of All Graces; there is no good thing that she cannot give. It is her maternal Heart’s desire that her children should participate in the innocence of the Lamb. The Tota Pulchra, the all–lovely Virgin who is “younger than sin” as Bernanos said, would see all her children innocent and clean of heart. For one who would ask the Mother of God for innocence of heart, there is the simple prayer of the rosary. Like the psalmody of the Divine Office the repeated Aves of the rosary wash away the vestiges of sin and dissolve the hard crusts of our guilt.
Hid with Christ in God
The soul restored to innocence seeks the things that are above, minding the things that are above and putting to death all those things that threaten a holy innocence of life.
Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols.(Colossians 3:1–5)
Saint Benedict saw the soul of his sister Scholastica penetrate the heavens in the form of a pure white dove. The Patriarch of Monks recognized in the transitus of his dear sister the innocence that had characterized her whole life. May the brother and the sister obtain for us the innocence of heart without which no man can see God.