By: Christopher West
Recently, while preparing for a long drive, I decided to look through my old collection of tape series for something to listen to (yes, I still have a cassette deck in my car). My eyes landed on a box set called “Passion for God” by a Carmelite Abbess named Mother Tessa Bielecki. When I arrived at my destination before the tapes were over, I didn’t want to get out of the car.
Passion for God
“Passion for God” is an introduction to the spousal mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila. Here’s how the back cover of the series describes it: “Inside the great medieval monastary at Avila, Spain, one of history’s great love affairs took place. For it was here, within these turreted stone walls, that the Christian mystic St. Teresa surrendered her ‘ensouled body’ to God. What emerged from this divine union informs our spiritual lives to this day through the ecstatic ‘spousal prayer’ form that St. Teresa embraced so fiercly. … Mother Tessa takes listeners far from the hard pews of dutiful worship and into a lush marriage chamber, where God is mystically experienced as spouse.” Regular readers of my articles are certainly familiar with the biblical analogy of spousal love as a way of understanding God’s love for us. God’s eternal plan is to “marry” us: the Church is the Bride and Christ the Bridegroom. “Spousal prayer” means, very simply, to open oneself wholly and completely to Christ, surrendering to him in a union of love like a bride surrenders to the loving embrace of her bridegroom.
And, yes, as uncomfortable as this might seem for men at first, this includes us too. As John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem, “According to [the spousal analogy], all human beings — both women and men — are called through the Church, to be the ‘Bride’ of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way ‘being the bride,’ and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is ‘human’” (MD 25). (Don’t worry, guys — it doesn’t mean we have to wear a wedding dress or anything. It means, essentially, that we, as creatures, have to learn how to open and “receive” the love of the Creator. This is not a threat to our masculinity, but the key to authentic masculinity.)
The Love of the Bridegroom & His Bride
Spousal prayer, as St. John of the Cross put it, leads to “a total transformation in the Beloved, in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love. The soul thereby becomes divine, God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life.” Then he makes the analogy more explicit: “Just as in the consummation of carnal marriage there are two in one flesh, as Sacred Scripture points out (Gen 2:24), so also when the spiritual marriage between God and the soul is consummated, there are two natures in one spirit and love” (Commentary on stanza 22:3 of the Spiritual Canticle).
Oh to what astounding glory God calls us! God is an eternal “explosion” of life-giving love, and he calls us to participate in it. That’s where spousal prayer takes us — into the heart of God who not only loves us, but is love. When we see the union of husband and wife for what it is, we see that it is a “great mystery” that reveals the master plan of God to become “one” with us in Christ (see Eph 5:31-32). It’s an icon of something divine, a window into heaven. And that’s precisely why our sexuality is under such attack in our world: the enemy wants to blind us to the divine “iconography” of our masculinity and femininity.
As Tessa Bielecki said so well in this tape series, we mustn’t repress or try to annihilate our sexual desires. Rather, in and through Christ, we must sublimate them — that is, make them “sublime,” noble, holy. Indeed, spousal prayer takes us on a journey of painful trials and purifications through which erotic longing becomes more and more a yearning for God, a path to holiness. This is what John Paul II was positing when he said, “The sexual urge is … a vector of aspiration along which [our] whole existence develops and perfects itself from within” (Love and Responsibility, p. 46). The great mystics of the Church not only understand eros as a longing for God, they live it as such. They live eros as “prayer.” For prayer, as Pope Benedict put it, “is nothing other than becoming a longing for God” (Mary: The Church at the Source, p. 15).
Letting Go of our ‘God Substitutes’
Spousal prayer invites us to enter more and more deeply into union with Christ the Bridegroom as a member of the Church, his Bride. But for this to become a lived experience, we must learn how to let go of all of our “God substitutes” and open our deepest desires for love to the One who alone can fulfill them. The Greeks called that deep yearning for love eros. As Pope Benedict wrote, “eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine…; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing. Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? … Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics” (Deus Caritas Est 5, 6).
The great mystics of the Church love the Song of Songs because it speaks of an experience that’s near and dear to them — the experience of eros lived as “prayer.” For prayer, as Pope Benedict put it, “is nothing other than becoming a longing for God” (Mary: The Church at the Source, p. 15). When eros is lived as a longing for God, we have “spousal prayer.” In laying out his great pastoral “program” for the new millennium, John Paul II stressed the importance of such deep, intimate prayer: “Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine ‘schools’ of prayer where the meeting with Christ is expressed … [in] ardent devotion until the heart truly ‘falls in love.’” Indeed, we “have a duty,” John Paul said, “to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.” And to show these depths, he turned to mystics:
“The great mystical tradition of the Church … shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved.” — As an aside, I’d bet that the word “possessed” reminds you of demonic possession. But possession by evil spirits is simply a diabolic mockery of what we are all called to: possession by the Holy Spirit, which means “vibrating at the Spirit’s touch,” as John Paul wrote. Learning how to surrender to the divine in this way means learning how to enter into “spousal prayer.” This is “a journey totally sustained by grace,” John Paul insisted. At the same time it “demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the ‘dark night’). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union.’ How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila?” (Novo Millenio Ineunte 33).
Beware of Idols
Such deep, intimate prayer is not only reserved for those in a convent or a monastery. It “would be wrong,” John Paul said, “to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.” In fact, when we fail to enter into the depths of prayer, we are “not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk’ … [of] succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes’” (Novo Millenio Ineunte 34). Mother Tessa observes that one of the biggest “substitutes” on the market for intimacy with God is sex. Sex is meant to be an icon — an earthly sign that points us to the heavenly reality of union with God. But we so often treat it as an idol. That is, we go to sex as if it were our ultimate fulfillment, as if it were God. Don’t we see this kind of idolatry everywhere in our media culture?
The way out of this trap for all of us — whether single, married, or consecrated celibate — is precisely the intimacy of spousal prayer. If we lived spousal prayer to its depths, Mother Tessa observes, consecrated celibates would have their longings for love beautifully fulfilled in God rather than being prone to sexual frustration and bitterness; single people would be freed from a terribly destructive promiscuity; and married people would stop expecting their spouse to be God. We have two choices as a culture, Mother Tessa believes: Mysticism or neurosis; sublimation of erotic desire or sexual chaos; spousal prayer or social upheaval. In the end, she’s absolutely right. Oh, Lord, teach us to pray!