Q: Some people criticise the spousal language that St. Teresa of Avila uses when she is speaking to Christ. An example of this from the 16th century Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, occurs before her death when she exclaims: “O my God, my Spouse, finally I shall see You!” My question is: is there any foundation, both in the Scriptures and the Early Church, for the use of spousal language when speaking to God?
A: Not many Catholics are familiar with this dimension. It is not the only way many female consecrated saints see the Lord, but it is an important dimension. In general, only people called to live such a relationship with Christ understand it. As Jesus puts it in the Gospel: not many understand this language, only the person who is given it (see Matthew 9:11)! Otherwise, I am tempted to say, they wouldn’t marry, and would seek this love in a total dedication to Jesus. Indeed, a special grace is needed to understand it. Even if one hears about it and sees it in Scriptures and in Tradition, two major difficulties or obstacles remain which can stop us from understanding or accepting it.
First, one must understand that even if the language is very audacious it must be understood in purity, without involving any genitality. Some people are so trapped in their sensuality or so filled with Freudian psychoanalysis, that they can’t reach the purity of understanding that it is possible to love the Lord purely, in a nuptial way, without involving any sensuality or sexuality or genitality. This is the first obstacle to overcome.
Now, the second obstacle, regards heterosexual men: imagine if they admit that such a thing existed, what can they get from it? While it is easier for a woman than for a man to love Jesus with purity and spiritually as the Groom, for a heterosexual man, instinctively, it looks far beyond his reach.
Does this exist in the Scripture? Without a doubt, for in the Gospel Jesus is called “the Groom” various times. The problem is that the majority of people see it as symbolic. Sadly, this also applies to the imagery used for nuns when they consecrate themselves and are called “Jesus’ Bride”. People still think that it is rather symbolic; they don’t take it seriously. St. Paul says that the betrothed is like a virgin to Christ: “For I am jealous as to you with the jealousy of God. For I have betrothed you to one husband, to present a pure virgin to Christ.” (2 Co 11:2).
In addition, in the Old Testament an amazing secret book can be found – the Song of Songs. It describes a love relationship between a man and a woman, Solomon and his bride. Again, here too people take these images symbolically, instead of realistically, because they struggle to believe for the two above-mentioned reasons. The Christian Traditional interpretation says that the Groom in this book is Jesus, and the bride can be Mary, the Church, and the Soul. Also look at the beautiful and powerful passages of Hosea 2, and Ezekiel 16 where God expresses his jealous love for his people.
Now the Theological Tradition mentions it too, regarding the Sacrament of Baptism. St. John Chrysostom comments at length on Baptism and he sees it as St. Paul did in the quotation above, i.e. as a nuptial sacrament where we are betrothed to Christ who is the Groom. Consequently, therefore, the Baptised person wears a white alb, representing the wedding dress.
Because of the above-mentioned difficulties, you do not often hear about this dimension understood as a real loving relationship with Jesus the Groom. Even among priests and theologians it is rare to find it truly understood and believed. It is rather something that stays as the “secret” of the nuns. Of course, there are no secrets but since it is still a delicate matter, it tends to be referred to in hushed tones rather than proclaimed out loud.
Now the question is: is this real? Well, yes, the female saints talk to us about it and show it to us. Why not believe them? St. Agnes, Martyr, gently rejected a proposal of marriage because she wanted to stay a virgin and pure for Jesus. St. Catherine of Alexandria received from the heavenly Groom a mysterious ring – the nuptial ring. This is well known. If some people don’t want to see it, or can’t psychologically see it, this is totally acceptable for, again, one needs a very special grace to view it from this perspective.
I personally totally believe in this and even consider it as central in the way we entrust ourselves to God. Notice that the first commandment doesn’t consider our capacity to love, and that it should be divided into two parts: the divine part, which is addressed to God and the human part, which normally goes to the husband or wife, who can fill it. No. He says: you shall love me with all your heart! ALL… so, even the love that we think we can and should give to a human should, is to God. Our heart is created in the image and likeness of God, not of a human being. Therefore, our being is capable, because of how God made it, of fully loving God himself and only God can fill it properly and totally.
Does this mean that we are not supposed to ever marry? No, this means that the sacrament of Marriage is based on a previous sacrament, the sacrament of Baptism. And that the sacrament of Baptism is the sacrament where we are betrothed to the Lord, where we give Him all our heart! Once our heart is given to Him totally, and experiences how He can love us and fill our heart even humanly (not involving anything genital), then we are enabled to love in a true way and marry sacramentally. Of course, this is the ideal, but nothing stops us from aiming toward the real ideal and the real Groom, Jesus.
Even more significant is the fact that a husband will rarely die for his wife. Look at Jesus, He gave his Body, his Soul, his Spirit, and his Divinity and died for each one of us. Doesn’t this make of Him the real Groom? In Catholic Theology we define the Sacrament of Marriage as the mutual gift of oneself between a particular man and woman. The total and unique gift of oneself. Isn’t this realised by Jesus himself, totally and perfectly?
Receiving Communion, too, is in fact the mutual gift of ourselves. God and we are each entrusting his entire being to the other. He gives himself to us totally when the Priest offers us Holy Communion. We say “Amen”, but are we not then supposed to give ourselves to Him? In this sense, this sacrament is fully nuptial.
“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60)
We can’t deny that saying that “Jesus is really the Groom” constitutes a major difficulty for heterosexual men.
Nobody, however, addresses this issue in a satisfactory way. People say: – ok, there is Our Lady. While in fact Our Lady is not God, only Jesus is. Mary is not the bride of the Christian. She is not God. She can’t fulfil the criteria. In this sense, emotionally, the heart of Christian men, and of consecrated men, stays empty. Why? Because a heterosexual man can’t easily relate to Christ as the Groom. He can’t fall in love with Him, as the Groom.
If the heart and the emotions are not fulfilled and transformed, however, can there be proper Christian chastity?
More to the point, if a man hasn’t experienced Jesus’ love as the Groom, can he really preach Christ?
We hear different replies and explanations to this major difficulty: some say that there are different ways to see Jesus, and that Jesus-The-Groom is not the only one. Point taken. But the heart and the emotions of a man remain unfulfilled, unrealised.
There must be a solution for this serious problem. The core of the problem is that real holy chastity is in the heart first. Therefore, if the heart is not filled by this nuptial love, the desire for nuptial love will remain unfulfilled.
Others will say: the Community one serves takes the place of the Bride to love. This is not wrong, but this occurs at a later stage of development and growth, after “Jesus-The-Groom” has first been discovered.
As you can see, we try, we try, we repeatedly try to find answers, but they are false, or better said: they come from a good will but in reality, are incomplete, and therefore unsatisfactory.
The heart of a consecrated man, the heart of a Priest, is supposed to be filled with this unique love of Jesus. But he is a man. And if he is heterosexual (attracted to women only) how can he fall in love with another man? God chose to become incarnate in the human nature of a man, not a woman. Admittedly St. Paul says that there are no differences between men and women. Easily said than done, by contrast, when it comes to emotions, desire, desire to love and be loved.
In sum, therefore, half of our heart, so to speak, remains not given to anybody and very thirsty.
This is a serious issue! And strangely, everybody seems to be escaping from it. But on the contrary, there is a solution to this huge dilemma! Let us look at it closely.
In each one of us there is a feminine and a masculine side, regardless of our biological and psychological gender. This truth can, sometimes, be hard to take in, especially by heterosexual men in certain cultures. But it is a fact. A deep psychology fact and a spiritual fact. This of course doesn’t go against the fact that in each gender, the major traits and personality remain “genderised”. A man bears inside of him a feminine and a masculine side, but his body/biology and his psychology, his personality, are a man’s. It is not because we have both sides deep in us that our gender or appearance, or psychology become hazy, buoyant, or undetermined. A man stays a man even if he discovers that he has a feminine side inside of him, and a woman stays a woman even if she has a masculine side inside of her.
In a human being, too, the total person and the feminine/masculine sides in the person are not of the same category/dimension and proportion. The Person is “genderised”. A man has male traits, the psychology of a male, the biology of a male. The same is true for a woman. But inside of each one of them, there are these feminine/masculine sides: they are like entities, part of the whole. The part is not the whole.
Are these feminine and masculine sides in us developed, transformed, and fulfilled? Being created in the image and likeness of God means, that not only can He speak to and fulfil these two areas in us, but it means that He offers us role models, so to speak, for each one of them, examples of their fulfilments, in order to allow them to grow, develop and reach full realisation.
In order to discover ourselves better, let us not lose sight of Jesus Our God and Saviour, the Groom, but keep Him as the goal and centre of our life. He is our everything, fully man and fully God. A Unique being. One Person. He is the Groom; He is supposed to be loved also with all our emotions. Let us focus, then, on the disciple who follows Jesus, who is supposed to be loved and love Jesus. This disciple is what interests us. How can we become really and fully His disciples? How can we fulfil and realise all our being, masculine and feminine?
Note: There are two forms of love: Eros and Agape (please see Pope Benedict’s Encyclical letter: “God is Love”). Our erotic capacity to love (our eros) needs an object to love and who can return the needed love. This divine love then will elevate this capacity, transform it and purify it. Jesus’ Love for us makes our Eros become Agape – being capable of loving in an oblative way, Jesus in us loving our neighbour.
The Feminine Side
Let us start by addressing the feminine side as God presents it to us, in a role model. Let us remember that these so called “sides” (feminine and masculine) are not the whole person but deep aspects or parts of our being. They have their existence in our soul, functioning, acting and developing therein. They develop our attitudes, insights, perceptions and virtues.
In whom (and where) in the Gospel is femininity embodied to the maximum? This question is asked in a specific way: “to the maximum of perfection, according to God”. Because we have many other examples and moments in the Gospel or in the Bible of excellence, we need to maximise the most perfect and emblematic example.
The answer is: Mary in the Annunciation. There we find her in a receptive silence; she listens; she enters into a personal relationship with God and she is invited to receive life within her and take care of it, to which she offers herself and commits totally. Can Mary be here the role model of men and women? Yes. Would a heterosexual man have difficulty to make this prayer to God: “God, give me a heart like Mary’s in the Annunciation so I can listen to you and put what you say to me into practice, offer myself totally”? Absolutely not. Would he feel that something about his masculinity is taken away or diminished or changed? On the contrary, if he looks carefully, deeply inside himself, he will find that in this case, if he received a new heart like Mary’s one, he would become more of a human being (more authentically human and humane), more real, more complete. Let us say, in other words: he is developing his feminine side, according to God’s plan of creation and redemption.
The Masculine Side
Now, let us move on to the masculine side: Who (and where) in the Gospel embodies masculinity to its maximum? It is true that we can find many examples of masculinity in the Bible. But here again the question is to find it present to the maximum of perfection, and not just any masculinity. Paradoxically here also the person is the same: Mary. Where? At the foot of the Cross. The strongest person on earth the most resilient, (she is standing), with the most powerful capacity to forgive, is Mary at the foot of the Cross and during the hours which follow. Peter who said he would defend Jesus and die for him, showed his “masculine” side here to be an utter disaster. The power of virtue, by contrast, manifests itself in the most shining way in Mary at the foot of the Cross. Who can equal her? Who has this power and strength?
True Masculinity Comes from True Femininity
Now, let us notice that true masculinity blossoms and develops from true femininity and not the other way around. Peter, with a false masculinity, tried to be strong declaring that he would fight and die for his Master; his femininity was obviously not yet fully developed. He had not yet discovered Mary in the Annunciation as a role model. His masculinity was artificial, “machista” so to speak. He needed to discover Mary, her strength, but also to discover from where true strength came, and allow Mary to grow in him.
What a lesson is revealed here for both men and women. Mary starts the journey of our development and Mary shows us to which extent of transformation and virtue God can go and realise in us.
Mary the True Bride
In order to start the journey of transformation, Mary, we can now see, is the starting point. She shows us in the Annunciation how to listen to Jesus’ Word, how to be receptive to it, how to develop this “feminine side” in us. How to fall in love with Jesus. Jesus is Her God and Her Saviour; she loves Him also as the true and only bride of the God incarnate. In it because He is her God and her Saviour He can also be considered as her true Groom! We need to be careful here. These apparently human aspects should be taken in a pure, true, and divine way.
Mary herself is the true bride. There are no other brides. It is in Mary that we can fall in love with Jesus, allowing Mary the only Bride, to grow in us and through her to enter into a love relationship with Jesus.
Again, this is valid for both men and women. Our feminine side and our masculine side are led by Mary the true Disciple and the true Bride. She shows us the way to realise our being. She offers to our erotic capacity to love a way to be touched by Jesus’ Love, to grow, develop and reach its fullness. It is under her leadership, moulded and transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can really and truly become the true Bride, love and be loved by Jesus the Groom.
There is nothing wrong for a man, during the Prayer of the Heart, to allow Mary in Him to love Jesus as a true Virgin, a true Bride. There is nothing wrong, on the contrary, to allow Mary to grow, develop, under the power of Jesus’ Love. This way, not only female saints love Jesus, but also male saints can do so in Truth and in Spirit.
Discovering and Receiving The Groom’s Utter Love
To reiterate: God says to us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Dt 6:5). Jesus is God. Jesus is Our Saviour, and He loved each one of us in a unique way and died for each one of us, giving himself to each one of us totally. In this sense, we can hear the first commandment coming from Jesus who is our God and our Saviour: “You shall love me, your God and Saviour, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”.
He does not say: “love me with part of your heart. No. All of your heart should be involved! Not only the part of your heart that you give to God, but also this part of your heart that you, mistakenly, give to a human being – the lower half of your heart. Mary in the Annunciation didn’t leave out this part of her heart when she said to me: YES, here I am.”
Again, we can hear the first commandment said truly from above the Cross: “I am your God and Saviour, I am your Groom, you shall love me with all the capacity and energy and desire of your heart. (For greater development see this article) You can’t leave some desire to love and be loved unfulfilled. By being God and man, being your everything, I can fill this desire that I myself put in you to love and be loved. Look at my saints who discovered this and lived it. – St. Therese of the Child Jesus, St. Teresa of Avila, and thousands of others.”
We need to hear Jesus the Groom saying: “I Love you with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind….In the Eucharist, I give you all my heart, all my emotions, all my love, all my desire to love you and be loved by you”.
This is the Truth.
13th Mary 2022