Part 26 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
In the midst of her dark night, St. Elizabeth received some welcome news: her younger sister Guite was engaged to be married. Elizabeth noticed how “radiant” her sister was. “Her heart,” she observed, “has been taken.” (letter 130) Her fiancé was Georges Chevignard, a banker and a cellist who fell in love with not only Guite but also her musical talent–and enjoyed her accompaniment on the piano. (Together, they would create a quite a score—nine children, including four nuns and a priest!) Thoughtful of Elizabeth, who would be unable to attend their wedding, they chose October 15 for the date—the feast of St. Teresa of Avila.
Elizabeth promised her sister: “We will have the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the chapel that day, and while the Church consecrates your union, the Carmelite, the happy one chained by Christ, will spend the day at His feet becoming whaling praying, wholly adoring, for those ‘two’ whom God wishes to be ‘one!’” (L 135)
The approaching marriage naturally made her think of her state in life, her vocation as a religious sister who would never be a wife and mother in the worldly sense. Did “the happy one chained by Christ” perhaps feel a certain small touch of wonder or longing for what might have been in her own life?
And yet, she knew that by forsaking those goods, she was giving a radical “yes” to a Christ, her Divine Bridegroom, setting aside “a whole life to be spent in silence and adoration, a heart-to-heart with the Spouse!” (L 149)
What she knew, and lived, was that every woman was created to be a bride. She wrote a meditation on this “divine reality” the summer before the wedding, reflecting on what it meant to be a bride of Christ and enter into a cooperative, generative union with Him: “(To be a bride) is to be fruitful, a co-redemptrix, to engender souls to grace, to multiply those adopted by the Father, those redeemed by Christ, to co-heirs of His glory.” She says, “it is a marriage, a fixed state, because it is the indissoluble union of wills and hearts.”
Later, after she had professed her vows, she would reflect: “I heard the Church say ‘Veni sponsa Christi” (Come, bride of Christ); she consecrated me, and now all is ‘consummated’. Rather, everything is beginning, for profession is only a dawn; and each day my ‘life as a bride’ seems to me more beautiful, more luminous, more enveloped in peace and love.” (L 169)
“One cannot correctly understand virginity – a woman’s consecration in virginity – without referring to spousal love,” writes Pope St. John Paul II. “The natural spousal predisposition of the feminine personality finds a response in virginity understood this way. Women, called from the ‘beginning’ to be loved and to love, in a vocation to virginity find Christ first of all as the Redeemer who ‘loved until the end’ through his total gift of self; and they respond to this gift with a ‘sincere gift’ of their whole lives. They thus give themselves to the divine Spouse, and this personal gift tends to union, which is properly spiritual in character. Through the Holy Spirit’s action a woman becomes ‘one spirit’ with Christ the Spouse.” (Mulieris Dignitatum, 20)
The Church understands a life of consecrated virginity not in sterile terms, but as a sincere, total, and fruitful gift of the self which is spousal in nature. It is Jesus himself who takes the consecrated virgin for himself, and she becomes a sign of the Church as bride and a foreshadowing of our own wedding feast at the eternal banquet.
This is a breathtaking reality that the world simply cannot see. The consecrated woman stands as a sign of contradiction: what it seems she has given up, she has actually gained in a way far more real than the rest of us can know this side of eternity.
The woman who embraces the religious life knows this secret and we catch a glimpse of it in Story of a Soul, when St. Thérèse of Lisieux recounts a visit to the convent by her newly married cousin, Jeanne Guérin. This was shortly after Thérèse had pronounced her vows as a Carmelite and had herself become a bride—a bride of Christ. Struck by Jeanne’s wedding invitations, she wrote her one of her own:
The Creator of Heaven & Earth
and Ruler of the World
THE MOST GLORIOUS VIRGIN MARY
Queen of the Court of Heaven
Invite you to the Spiritual Marriage of their August Son
JESUS, KING OF KINGS,
and LORD OF LORDS
Little Thérèse Martin,
now a Lady and Princess of the Kingdoms of the Childhood
and Passion of Jesus, given in dowry by her Divine Spouse,
from whom she holds the titles of nobility: OF THE
CHILD JESUS and OF THE HOLY FACE.
It was not possible to invite you to the Wedding Feast celebrated on Mount Carmel on September 8, 1890, only the Celestial Choir being admitted.
You are nevertheless invited to the Bride’s RECEPTION
tomorrow, the Day of Eternity, when Jesus, the Son of God, will come in splendor
on the clouds of Heaven to judge the Living and the Dead.
The hour being uncertain, please hold yourself in readiness and watch.
A consecrated woman is then, in her very being, prophetic. She points to a reality far beyond herself, one which we are all invited to see fulfilled in our own spiritual lives in heaven. She stands as a beautiful living icon of what we await at the end of time—a bridal mystery. She calls us by the example of her life to keep our lamps lit. And for that, we should be forever grateful.
Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love. You help the Church and all mankind to experience a “spousal” relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.
Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.