01 March 2013

Are male Religious Espoused to Christ?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, do you think male religious are also espoused to Christ in the same way female Religious are? Isn't it significant that the consecration of Virgins is ONLY allowed for women? Doesn't this suggest that it is not the same as the consecration of Religious?]]

This is certainly an important series of questions.  My answers begin with the fact that traditionally male Religious HAVE been thought to be espoused to Christ as Bridegroom in a way similar to female religious though this has most often been much less explicit or emphasized than it has for women --- especially recently. Still, it is an outgrowth of the insight that everyone baptized in the Church is called to spousal union with Christ and the eschatological realization of that covenantal relationship. Male Religious have traditionally represented paradigms of this just as female religious do. (To see strong examples we have only to look at the writing of men like St John of the Cross, Origen, Bernard, et al) In the current Rite of Religious Profession for Men, the spousal language and imagery has been significantly toned down so that it tends to use language and imagery like "union with Christ," "remaining unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom of God", "being one with Christ in the bonds of love", "whole-hearted service to God and to God's People", being an "eschatological sign (or icon)," etc. Here it seems to me that we are still very definitely dealing with the foundational union with or espousal to Christ here.  The language is somewhat different (though John of the Cross would recognize it in an instant as bridal or nuptial) and it seems to me the graces and charisms associated with the person's expression of this espousal generally differ even more significantly than amongst women religious.

I am also not sure how much of this diminishing of spousal imagery is merely cultural or driven by a reluctance to speak in terms which may be considered "effeminate" --- though I suspect this is a big piece of it because much of the language  in the Rite has to do with stereotypically "male" virtues or characteristics. I think it is undisputed that men experience their sexuality (and also their commitment to celibacy) differently than women do and this is reflected in the language and symbolism of the Rite. Further, some parts of the Church have tended today to move further away from Paul's "neither male nor female" theology of Galatians or his affirmation of 2 Cor 11:2** made to the entire assembly, and may, as a result, be tending (or at least seeming to tend) to treat the profession of men as fundamentally different than that of women today. Still, this does not mean it is fundamentally different; what it more likely indicates, despite its clarity to me, is the obscuring of a dimension of religious profession and its loss to explicit expression and thus, perhaps even to imagination. This would be a development which I consider unfortunate.

This tendency is exacerbated today by the linking of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins to women only, sometimes with commentators mistakenly asserting that it is the female counterpart of male ordination where females marry Christ and males image Christ or serve as alter Christus. This kind of sexual fundamentalism is a betrayal of the Tradition, and contrasts crudely with the baptismal faith Paul articulated in Gal 3:28, however. Still, the Church has spoken of her openness to creating a similar Rite to the Consecration of Virgins for males (these certainly existed in the early church though in smaller numbers), so perhaps we will see the development of a Rite which 1) recovers the mystical tradition of espousal or betrothal to Christ for males living secular lives and 2) makes this spousal imagery explicit once again in a way which summons the entire Church to assume the truth of Paul's eschatological affirmation: "I have betrothed you to one husband to present you as the chaste virgin to Christ." (2 Cor 11:2). The nuptial or spousal imagery will NOT speak to or resonate with everyone, nor will everyone be called to the same affective and contemplative experience or praxis (i.e., there will be qualitative differences), but just as everyone is called to union with Christ, opening this language and imagery more explicitly to men living secular lives might help every Christian understand why Paul writes as he does as it assists us all to imagine the profound depths and extent of the relationship with Christ we all ARE called to.

Again, I don't think there is an essential difference between the consecration of virgins living in the world and that of Religious. (Qualitative differences and essential differences are not necessarily the same thing.) We must be careful not to use the Rite of Consecration in this way for this way leads to all kinds of problems with elitism, as well as asserting a kind of sexual fundamentalism which is contrary to the Gospel, etc. What it does open up to us is the notion that union with Christ is a universal call and that spousal language and imagery is a rich resource the entire Church can benefit from whether we are speaking of persons leading secular or religious lives and whether we are speaking of males or females. I can see such a development helping us in combating the very things misuse fosters. For instance it would be helpful for men to understand that contemplative experiences of espousal and union are not effeminate but profoundly human. It would be helpful for the whole Church to learn that mystical union or betrothal has never been ONLY the preserve of  Religious and especially not of Women Religious, but instead is a way of symbolizing the call of the entire Church and the nature of the entire Church's eschatological hope.

** "I have betrothed you to one husband to present you as the chaste virgin to Christ." (2 Cor 11:2)