Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Brides of Christ Closing the Year of Consecrated Life

Today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, is also the closing of the Year of Consecrated Life. This year of Church attention on the various forms of special consecration got a little lost in the excitement of the unexpected Jubilee Year of Mercy, but today's feast gives us one last chance to reflect on the mystery of a consecration rooted in the baptismal consecration. And I received an invitation to reflect a little further on this when a sister from another community asked for some input on a paper she is writing as part of her graduate studies.

Sister said that in Africa, religious sisters are frequently referred to as "Brides of Christ," but in her studies in North America, she observed that this language was not exactly the title of preference. Instead, she was told, Sisters prefer to be identified as "women of the Church," this reflecting the option for social justice. And so she put the call out to women religious in a very modern fashion: via Facebook message! " I would like to know  your congregation's view on the 'bride of Christ' metaphor. Do you still use it? Do you have another model that you use to refer to women religious?"

Interestingly enough for me, her question came the day after I myself was musing on the title "Bride of Christ," so I was delighted to give it some more thought. And since that generated way more than a Facebook message's worth of content, I am just referring Sister to the old Nunblog for my reflections on her question. (As the Lady Alice More said in "A Man for All Seasons": "If anyone wants to know my opinion...he only has to ask for it!")

Dear Sister,

Thank you for your question. I really benefited a lot from thinking it over. In fact, just the day before your inquiry, I had been reflecting on the image of the “Bride of Christ” in connection with another project. Your question just gave me the excuse I needed to delve a little further into my own convictions.

I had never ever heard the expression “women of the Church” used to substitute for “Brides of Christ.” It seems a very poor, pale replacement. In fact, it is the very weakness of the substitute that triggered most of my reflections. “Women of the Church” is valid enough as it stands, but it is nowhere near as evocative and rich as the term it is meant to replace. Frankly, it doesn't say very much to me.

First vows for Paulines in Pakistan (Jan 25)
In my community (Daughters of St Paul) we do not use this expression very much, but we do not use a “replacement” for it either. We tend to think of ourselves more in apostolic terms, and identify ourselves charismatically (as “Paulines” or “media nuns”), taking the relationship with Jesus as a matter of fact and of the public record. (Since “apostle” means “one who is sent” the Sender is automatically included!)

Personally, I do not use the expression “Bride of Christ.” I am not a particularly romantic type of person, and do not identify too much with the expression, which I think I have heard mostly from much older people (i.e. my parents' generation) and found in books published fifty or more years ago. Given our highly sexualized culture, I have also found that when the expression is used today in secular media (for example, in an article or post about a group of sisters or about women religious in general), it is used with an air of bemusement or mild ridicule. Today's culture being as unhealthy as it is, the expression “Bride/s of Christ” can even be distasteful (outside of extremely fervent Catholic circles).

The expression “Bride of Christ” may have fallen by the wayside in the affluent world, but it is making a comeback among some younger women religious. It is possible that some of the younger sisters are taken with the romance of all things “retro” and might be somewhat uncritical about old things, but I think they are also telling us something very important about the imagery of the “Bride of Christ” and we need to listen to that.

I believe (very strongly!) that the language of the “bride of Christ” ought to remain part of our self-understanding as women religious, but not flaunted or used casually in secular contexts where it can be either grossly misinterpreted or treated as the quaint but bizarre belief of a marginal culture. The language is based on an analogy; it is not a bare fact that stands on its own.

Among the values of the “Bride of Christ” image:

The virgin/bride is an archetype: a foundational human symbol that simply cannot be done away with or replaced. Assumption of this image makes a powerful statement about Christianity. I think it is especially unwise to reject ancient insights in light of modern sensibilities which may be (to use biblical language) “passing away.”

What does the virgin/bride archetype “say”? I believe this image speaks of both present and future realities:
Present realities:
Beauty (when is a woman more lovely than on her wedding day?)
Gift of the “whole” self, and one's whole future
Focus on the Groom!

Future realities:
Fruitfulness (children)
Fidelity (lifelong)
Fidelity (exclusivity)

At the center of all these present and future realities is the one word that sums it all up: LOVE. A bride is a woman whose existence is practically synonymous with love. To say “bride” is to speak of love: a love that is somehow new, dawning, brimming with promise. To say “bride” is to evoke a happy future: a future which is the full flowering of the love that is promised on the wedding day. (That happy future is the main reason we celebrate other people's weddings with so much joy!)

All of the above are subsumed into the Church's use of the image of the bride of Christ, an image which started not with Christ, but in the Old Testament. The image of the human bride of the divine Bridegroom is a biblical image, especially significant in the prophets, in St Paul (especially 1 Cor 7 and Eph 5), and in the book of Revelation, the last divinely inspired words we have from the early Church.

St Paul saw the married couple, husband and wife, as a “type” or symbol-in-person of Christ and the Church. So the primary “bride of Christ” is not the religious sister, but the Church. It doesn't take much to then see the consecrated woman as a “type” of the Church-as-Bride, and it didn't take long for the Fathers of the Church to make this explicit. Thanks to them, the spousal language became a part of the Liturgy of the Hours and Office of Readings for Virgins and Religious. This is especially clear in the antiphons and the use of Psalm 45 (an ode for a royal wedding) for the Common of Virgins.

The image of the bride evokes election (being called personally, by name). It is the relationship, not the work that is primary. I think this is lost when “women of the Church” is chosen because it is presumed to speak of social justice. No, my primary relationship in life is not with my ministry (or even with my fellow believers, co-members of the Mystical Body), it is with the Lord Jesus in whose name and for whose sake I am baptized and am engaged in ministry. This relationship with the Lord is one of communion, not the one-flesh union of natural marriage, but a communion that hopefully grows toward that undivided union with the Lord that is the nature of heaven.
Then there is the mystical tradition of the Church in which the spousal image (and the biblical Song of Songs!) plays such an important part. Although men like Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross contributed powerfully to this mystical tradition of the soul as beloved spouse of Christ, women are the icon of the virgin/bride/Church. Even the liturgical designation of “virgin” for women only (even though there are many virgin men saints) underlines the importance of this image. The liturgical title is not about a woman's biological status, but about what Facebook would call her “relationship status” and then, more profoundly, not about the woman at all, but about the Church: The woman depicts the Church as Bride in a way that a virginal man cannot. (The male priesthood, then, is the counterpart--is there a correlation between rejection of the title "Bride of Christ" and resistance to the male priesthood? Just wondering.)

Just as the image of the bride evokes the hope of future happiness, the “Bride of Christ” is an eschatological sign (cf. Mt 22:23-33). Humans are designed for marriage. The bridal image says that the woman religious is not a shriveled, lonely, unfulfilled person who devotes herself to work because she never found a partner in life; she is united to her life-partner and at the same time, she evidently “awaits” him as her most “blessed hope” (cf. Tit 2:13): her apparent single state speaks of the one who is coming. This is a huge sign of hope to those who understand the Christian faith, and enough of a question mark for those who do not to provoke them to approach the woman herself and ask their questions—which they do—giving the sisters an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. It is also significant that women religious find the vow of chastity the most meaningful of the three evangelical counsels (1993 Nygren and Ukeritis study of Religious in the US). I even read once that the psychological profiles of women religious match those of married (not single) women!

So the image of the "Bride of Christ" is liturgically and biblically rich; our state in life is not marginal to the Bible. Instead, with a self-understanding as "bride" we women religious find ourselves spoken to powerfully across the arc of divine revelation. It is fitting that there be in the Church a living "key" to the Scriptures.

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As we close the Year of Consecrated Life during this Jubilee of Mercy, it was a special grace for me to have the opportunity to reflect a bit more on this title, to recognize more explicitly how rich it really is, and what grace it suggests for me and for the Church.

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