Part 15: The Spousal Mystery of the Universe

The following is part 15 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at thedivinemercy.org/feminism.

Throughout Holy Scripture, we find references and allusions to the spousal mystery at the heart of all things.

According to the Old Testament, for example, the Lord God is the faithful "Bridegroom" of Israel (e.g. Is 62:5; Hos 2:14-20) and in the New Testament Jesus refers to Himself in the same way (Mk 2:19-20). According to St. Paul, the Savior of the world is also the Bridegroom of His Body the Church, and St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that this "great mystery" finds an echo in the love between husband and wife in human marriage.

In the book of Revelation, at the consummation of history there is a great wedding banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb (19:7-9), and the New Jerusalem, the purified and sanctified Church, comes to earth as bride adorned for her husband (21:2).

In short, God has revealed to us through His Word, the Bible, that the story of the real universe in which we live is a love story: God wants to marry humanity, and draw all creation into His spousal love for us.

It is often said that most classical love stories take the same form: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl, and they finally marry and live happily ever after. We take delight in these traditional love stories, in part because they echo the true love story of the universe: God creates girl (humanity), God loses girl (through the fall of humanity into sin), God rescues her (through His Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection), and finally, with her joyful consent, they live together in love and peace forever.

Pope St. John Paul II explored this spousal mystery in depth in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), but he was not the first to teach about it: Origen of Alexandria in the second and third centuries, St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century, and St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila in the 16th century all insisted that in the deepest mystical union with God, Jesus Christ espouses the soul to Himself. Indeed, they all read the Song of Songs in the Old Testament as an allegory of the deepest union of love between Christ the Bridegroom, and his Bride, the human soul.

According to St. John Paul II, "The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride. The Eucharist makes present and realizes anew in a sacramental manner the redemptive act of Christ who 'creates' the Church, His Body. Christ is united with this 'body' as the bridegroom with the bride," for in the Eucharist Jesus Christ and his Bride become one flesh, analogous to the way husband and wife become one flesh in the conjugal act: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56; cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, section VII.26).

In this universal, spousal mystery, God becomes incarnate in the midst of His creation as a male human being. Savior of the world and Bridegroom of the Church, He offers Himself completely, to her and for her: His grace, His truth, and ultimately His broken body and shed Blood. And the Church is primarily feminine in response to His initiative of love, welcoming and receiving His grace in trustful surrender and cooperative friendship. The Church, in turn, nurtures all her members with the same truth and grace, and with His sacramental Body and Blood, so that in Catholic parlance she is called not just a "religious institution," but "Our Holy Mother the Church."

Not surprisingly, for Catholics the perfect image and archetype of the feminine Church is a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary, who sets before our eyes at the Annunciation the supreme example of trustful surrender in faith: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). She reigns now in Heaven beside her Son as Queen and Mother of Mercy, interceding for the needs of the People of God during their pilgrim journey on earth. Saint Francis of Assisi summed up the mystery of Mary as the archetype and Mother of the Church when referred to her in prayer simply as "Woman, who became Church."

Catholic author Genevieve Kinecke writes: "The Church, as bride, has always been understood to be feminine - in fact, all of creation is feminine in relationship to God because of its receptivity to his creative and loving initiative" (The Authentic Catholic Woman, p.143).

Theologian Manfred Hauke agrees:

[In the Catholic Tradition] the accent of feminine symbolism falls ... not on the representation of God but on the depiction of creation. In the first instance, man as creature, does not have a relation of active transaction with, or ready disposal over, God, but rather is a recipient of God's gifts. Receptivity, openness, readiness are the appropriate attitudes in the presence of the Creator. As we have seen, however, this receptivity is, to a higher degree, a characteristic of women. Consequently, the female human being is more likely to be a suitable representative of the state of creaturely being before God .... As the favored representatives of worldly being, women are simultaneously representatives of mankind in which all of creation can bestir itself in the direction of God and be brought to speak in praise before him .... It is, therefore, surely no coincidence that in monotheistic mysticism, man's soul never appears in relation to God as masculine, but rather always as feminine. (Women in the Priesthood?, p. 186-187)


If the focus of feminine symbolism in the Catholic Tradition is on sanctified creation, indeed, on sanctified humanity, more than on God, does this imply that women are inferior to men, in some lesser way capable of fulfilling the created "image of God" (Gen. 1: 27)?

On the contrary, paradoxically it implies that women have a distinct advantage in fulfilling the created divine image, and in the Christian spiritual life, since they are naturally predisposed to play the part in the great spousal mystery (the part we all need to play, both men and women) of responsive "Bride" in relation to the loving initiative of our heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Hauke explains: "As symbolic of human receptivity, women are simultaneously emblems of deep-rooted, personal devotion to God, for precisely in receiving, the soul simultaneously engages in a state of highest activity" (p. 187).

And this spiritual superiority of women did not go unnoticed by many of the saints. Saint Theresa of Avila, for example, once wrote (following the teaching of her spiritual director, St. Peter of Alcantara) that women more than men receive extraordinary graces, they are more receptive to God's voice and particularly capable of heroic donation when their heart is purified.

Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) once declared that "it is a great grace to be a woman, because more women are saved than men."

Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) put it even more boldly: "In virtue, women are often enough the instructors of men; while the latter wander about like jackdaws in the dust and smoke, the former soar like eagles into higher spheres" (Hauke, p. 428).

This is also the reason why, according to St. John Paul II, "In the hierarchy of holiness it is precisely the 'woman', Mary of Nazareth, who is the 'figure' of the Church. She 'precedes' everyone on the path to holiness" - and it is also the reason why she is called in Catholic Tradition "the Queen of All Saints" and the highest of all creatures, "higher than the cherubim and more glorious than the seraphim," because she embodies in her sanctified humanity the pinnacle of all created being. As Eve was the last and most blessed creature that God made, on the sixth day of the ascending scale of creation (Gen 2:21-23), so Mary is the pinnacle of the whole New Creation in Christ: the supreme tabernacle of divine love in all of earth and heaven (Rev 11:19-12:1).

Just look at the picture above of the statue of the Holy Family - a common theme in Catholic sacred art. Here we see another reflection of the great spousal mystery. Saint Joseph stands above the Madonna and Child, from one point of view in a leadership role: protecting them with his shepherd's staff, providing light for them in the stable in Bethlehem.

Indeed, in Catholic Tradition he is called "Head of the Holy Family" and "Patron of the Universal Church." And yet, Mary is clearly the one closest to Jesus: Joseph can only stand by in wonder and awe at the mystery of feminine holiness over which he keeps watch. His ministry of servant-leadership of the Holy Family, we might say, much like that of the ministry of priestly and episcopal fatherhood in the Church, exists only to preserve the context in which her feminine receptivity to Christ can flourish. When the Josephs in the Church are doing their job, then the greatest thing in the universe can happen: Christ can be born and nurtured in the hearts of all the faithful, cradled in the loving arms of Mary, the Mother of the Church.

We should not miss the extraordinary claim that the Catholic Faith is making here: Mary, as Queen of Heaven and of All Saints, as the highest of all God's creatures reigns above all the apostles. She is more powerful in the Church than all the priests and bishops together, and even more important than St. Peter, the head of the apostolic college, and all his successors in the See of Rome.

In his famous address to the cardinals and prelates of the Roman Curia on Dec. 22, 1987, Pope John Paul II explained that all this reflects the essential Marian "profile" of the Church, the Mary-like vocation to which Jesus Christ calls all of his disciples:

This Marian profile is also - even perhaps more so - fundamental and characteristic for the Church than the apostolic and Petrine profile to which it is profoundly united. The Marian dimension of the church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without being in any way divided from it or being less complementary. Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles. This is so not only because Peter and the apostles, being born of the human race under the burden of sin, form part of the Church which is 'holy out of sinners,' but also because their triple function [their prophetic, priestly, and ruling function] has no other purpose except to form the church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary." (quoted in Mulieris Dignitatem, footnote 55)


In short, what we find in the Catholic Tradition is a spiritual complementarity between masculinity and femininity that echoes the natural complementarity between men and women. On the spiritual level, however, the human feminine qualities, guided by the Holy Spirit, must always remain primary in our relationship with God - which means that women in general, and the Blessed Virgin Mary above all, lead the way for us to the heights of sanctity.

In her book The Privilege of Being a Woman, Alice Von Hildebrand sums it up like this:

Receptivity is a religious category par excellence. The key to holiness is to let oneself be totally "reformed" by divine grace, to say to God, "do with me whatever you will." Mary said to the servants at the wedding in Cana, "Do whatever He tells you." That is the way to holiness. Because this characteristic is so crucial in religious life, it explains why the liturgy calls women "the pious sex." As long as women are faithful to their "religious" calling, the world is safe. (p. 65)


Next Time: Exploring the Spiritual Priority of the Feminine

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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