Embodying the Pure Bride of Christ

Joanne Whittering FAITH Magazine January-February 2013

Joanne Whittering, a consecrated virgin and Oxford theology graduate, shows how such consecrated living is seen by the modern magisterium as a powerful embodiment of a key meaning of femininity.

The Catechism says of the vocation of consecrated virginity:

"From Apostolic times Christian Virgins, called by the Lord to cling only to Him with greater freedom of heart, body and spirit, have decided with the Church's approval to live in a state of virginity "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven". (Mt 19:12) Virgins who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop, according to the approved liturgical rite, are betrothed mystically to Christ the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church." (CCC 922-4).

In today's culture the language of spousal love is unlikely to be the most obvious way in which a young woman will understand or express her love for Christ, much less His relationship to her. It seems either a bit alien, or in fact a bit presumptuous! What came naturally to St Catherine of Siena and Elizabeth of the Trinity does not come naturally to us any longer. But perhaps that is because it hides a confusion. What is being spoken of here is not the state of "mystical marriage" of which so many of the great contemplative saints were writing.

When the candidate is asked by the bishop in the Rite of Consecration, "are you resolved to accept solemn consecration as a bride of Jesus Christ the Son of God?", what he is asking is whether the candidate is called to embody the vocation of the Church herself as the Bride of Christ the Bridegroom. The language is not that of ecstatic mystical marriage, it is that of St Paul and the Apocalypse, and of the Church Fathers. But it still needs some unpacking for all that.

St Paul writes to the church at Corinth: "I have espoused you to Christ as a bride to her only husband" (2 Cor 11:2). And he works that imagery through more completely in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, when he speaks of the mystery of the marriage between Christ and the Church providing the pattern for human marriage. There is background for this imagery in the Old Testament in the relationship between God and the people of Israel. It is an ambiguous image in that sometimes, as in Jer 14:17 and 31:4, it is the "virgin daughter Zion" or "Israel" who is betrothed to God in covenant fidelity, while at other times, as in the prophets Hosea and Ezekiel, Israel is the prostitute or adulterous wife.

The latter, however, is an image of infidelity on the part of the people, of breaking the covenant with God through sin. An image concerning sexual morality is not just about the moral value of chastity in itself. It connotes something beyond the morality of the particular act, namely fidelity or rejection of relationship with God.

So when St Paul picks up this language he also is using sexual purity, virginity, as an expression of ultimate fidelity to God: "I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband." And so he writes to the Ephesians:

"Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her having washed her with the cleansing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:22-30).

As Pope John-Paul wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem 25, the whole Church and all its members are the Bride. The Fathers understood this clearly, and one can find such beautifully expressive passages as this from Bl Issac of Stella:

"The Son, pleading for his bride, says to the Father, 'I desire that as you and I are one, so too they may be one with us.' The bridegroom [Christ] then is one with the Father, and one with his bride. All that he found alien in her he took away by nailing it to the Cross. He took upon himself what was her own proper nature and clothed himself in it; what was his own as God he gave to her. He took away what was of the devil: what was human he took upon himself; what was divine he conferred on her, so that all that belongs to the bride should become the bridegroom's" (Sermon 11).

That is a profound reflection for all the baptised in their relation to Christ, but what makes it applicable to the consecrated virgin in particular is that her virginity embodies the purity and fidelity of the Church to Christ. It is in that sense that it has a value beyond simply its own moral good. The prayer of consecration itself picks up this language when it speaks of this vocation in relation to marriage. It is careful to affirm that "the honour of marriage is in no way lessened", but it continues in a thoroughly Pauline language: "Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make the sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the Mystery of which it is the sign. They renounce the joys of marriage but cherish all that it foreshadows".

It is obvious from this embodiment that there must be, as Archbishop Burke has said, actual virginity to offer to Christ and his Church.[1] One cannot embody, or consecrate, something one does not possess. And once consecrated the virgin cannot be dispensed from her consecration. In all these senses it is a different charism from a religious vow of chastity, even if its practical prospective effect is similar. Of this distinctive vocation, Mgr Paul Marie Guillaum, wrote the following in 2006, reflecting on the teaching primarily of Pope John Paul II but also of Pope Benedict, drawing out much of the biblical and patristic imagery discussed above:

"From a certain perspective, the [consecrated] vocation is a call to 'an interior encounter with the love of Christ, which is a redemptive love'. Christ calls you 'with an immense interior love'; it is a 'love of election', which invites you to belong no longer to yourself, but to belong exclusively to Him" (Redemptions Donum n 3,7).

Vita Consecrata affirms that consecrated virgins "constitute an eschatological image of the Heavenly Espousal and of the future life, in which they find the final plenitude of life in Christ their Spouse."[2]

There is a very personal relationship here between the individual and Christ. Her embodiment of the Church's vocation is not simply functional or representative. It denotes the relationship which she is called to have with Christ, without presuming on any special mystical state, which is a separate matter. It is probably true to say that this is a relationship which only begins to make real sense, rather than just theoretical sense, after the consecration itself.

Something of its character may be grasped, however, in reflecting that the other dimension to the spousal relationship is that the Church is primarily embodied in a personal way by the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it is by immersing oneself in the Marian vocation - what has come to be called in the theology of von Balthasar and Pope Benedict "the Marian Profile"[3] - of the Church that the consecrated virgin will grasp the true spirit of her personal vocation to love and fidelity to Christ.

Marian Vocation

The Church has consistently referred all consecrated women to the Blessed Virgin as their model. And this teaching has recurred particularly in the teaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Blessed John Paul said to consecrated women:

"Love Mary of Nazareth, model of Christian Virginity ... She had the fullness, in her body and in her spirit, of that which you desire with all your might to be: virgin in her heart and in her body, espoused with a total and exclusive adhesion to Christ; Mother by the gift of the Spirit. My dear sisters, Mary is your sister, your Mother, the Mistress of your life" (Discourse, 2 June 1995).
"The example of Mary contains all the beauty of virginity and encourages all those who are called to the consecrated life to follow her example. The hour has come to re-evaluate virginity in the light of Mary. The hour has come to propose anew to young men and women [virginity as] a serious way of life. Mary is our aide to engagement, as in her appears the nobility of a total gift of the heart to God, and her fidelity strengthens our perseverance, always in moments of difficulty or danger" (29 March 1995, on The Virgin Mary and the Consecrated Life).

It is clear from the papal teaching that these two aspects, the Marian and the ecclesial, are inextricably linked. It is an inseparable link, which is clearly made in relation to the feminine in general in Redemptoris Mater 46:

"The Marian dimension of the Church's life takes on special importance in relation to women and their status. In fact femininity has a unique relationship with the Mother of the Redeemer... the figure of Mary of Nazareth sheds light on the vocation of womanhood as such by the very fact that God, in the sublime event of the Incarnation of his Son, entrusted himself to the ministry, the free and active ministry, of a woman. It can be said that women, by looking at Mary, find the secret of living their femininity with dignity."

At an essential level Our Lady's response is the perfect response of the created order to God the Father, in Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That perfect response is one which she, free from original sin, is able to make perfectly, but which we can only make by the redeeming grace of God, through our incorporation into the Body of Christ in its sacramental life. The life of redeemed humanity in the Church is one of full, humble, faithful, obedient response, one which Our Lady in her assent at the Annunciation, her faithful service of Christ in His ministry and in the life of the Apostolic Church, and her Assumption prefigures and exemplifies. It is that Christocentric Marian understanding which par excellence describes the vocation of consecrated virginityin particular.

"To give your undivided attention to the Lord."

St Paul's exploration of the vocation to Virginity in 1 Cor 7 provides the final aspect of the theological underpinning of this vocation. Fr Lucien Legrand explores this in depth in his The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity.[4] The Pauline view is that to be completely concentrated on the reality of salvation, that is to be completely concentrated on Christ, requires a certain extrication from worldliness which is more easily achieved in virginity than in marriage:

"The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs ... and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman, or a virgin, is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs ... I say this ... to secure your undivided attention to the Lord." (1 Cor 7:32-35).

The perspective here is that which the Catechism uses in referring to the words of Christ in the Gospel, that it is "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom" (Mt 12:19). Mulieris Dignitatem defines this as

"voluntary celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, in view of man's eschatological vocation to union with God. ... it represents an 'innovation' with respect to the tradition of the Old Testament... celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, or rather virginity, is undeniably an innovation connected with the Incarnation of God. From the moment of Christ's coming, the expectation of the people of God has to be directed to the eschatological kingdom which is coming and to which he must lead the New Israel."[5]

It is in such a context that 1 Cor 7 needs to be understood as a complete affirmation of the vocation to be wholly concentrated on Christ, in anticipation of that time when Christ will be "all in all" in the Kingdom of God. As with the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, virginity is a radical orientation towards Christ, living the Gospel in the here and now, which is thereby an efficacious sign in the present of that final salvation which will be fully realised in the eschatological Kingdom at the end of time.

[1]'Burke, R.L. Archbishop Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: the Rite of Consecration and the
vocation of Consecrated Virginity lived in the worldpaper given at Rome 2008 International
Congree of Consecrated Virgins (16 May 2008) para 15.
[2]Guillaum Mgr Paul Marie "D'un Pape a L'autre" 1 January 2006 Christi Sponas: Ordre
des Verges Consacrees from which I have made a rough translation.
[3]Von Balthasar and Ratzinger, Mary: the Church at the Source Ignatius Press 2005.
[4]Lagrand Fr Lucien MEP The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity Chapman 1963 pp 92-3.
[5]Mulieris Dignitatem 20.

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