When I was discerning religious life and heard nuns use the terms “husband” and “spouse” for God, it gave me the heebie-jeebies
You have often heard that God spiritually espouses souls: may he be praised for his mercy in thus humbling himself so utterly. Though but a homely comparison, yet I can find nothing better to express my meaning than the sacrament of matrimony although the two things are very different.
—Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
When I was discerning religious life and heard nuns use the terms “husband” and “spouse” for God, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
At the time, the HBO show Big Love, which depicted a Mormon man and his relationships with his three wives, was popular. So I imagined God was like Bill Paxton, a guy with a harem of wives and adjoining backyards in heaven.
Thankfully I had a French friend discerning religious life with me who had some of the same misgivings.
One day my friend and I went to a “come and see” event put on by a congregation of sisters in my area.
My friend asked one sister in her accented English: “If you are a sister, do you have to think of Jesus as your spouse?”
The nun replied in shock, “No?!? Why would you think that?”
My flustered friend tried to explain herself, but we both couldn’t understand why she was offended.
Eventually it came out that the sister had heard “Jesuit” not “Jesus.” We all had a good laugh, but my friend’s question, and mine, remained unanswered.
Despite the resistance I felt to spousal language, during my time of discernment I wore a silver tri-band ring I had received when I was confirmed just a couple years earlier. It was like wearing the Trinity on my ring finger. My first “engagement ring” from God.
When I joined the convent, my feelings on the subject did not change however. Some of the other women who entered with me referred to Jesus as their “boyfriend” and talked about him with such sentimentality that I began to wonder if something was wrong with me.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Jesus. My love for him was intense. I loved him like I had loved no one else. But to compare him to a boyfriend? That just felt so incomplete, so strange, so … icky.
On one retreat as I neared the profession of vows, I felt an invitation from God to draw nearer to him, to be open to a more intimate relationship. I was surprised at my visceral reaction. Although I deeply desired to know God, to draw near to him, I was disgusted at the thought.
Sexuality and desire are profoundly spiritual. In a sex-saturated world, you would think we would be more spiritual rather than less. The problem is that the sex of the modern age is a poor imitation of the real thing.
The love of a sexual relationship is meant to mirror the unconditional love of God himself; a love that is faithful, fruitful, a love that is forever.
As Pope Francis once said: “Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us.”
The abuse of sex in our world not only affects marriage, family and vocations—it affects something even more basic, every individual’s relationship with God. When we lose sight of the true meaning of sex, the respectful use of sex, we lose sight of how to relate to God.
In our world, rather than being a promise of eternal love, sex is often a mutual use of one another. So when God invites us to draw near, in intimate relationship, we too can assume he wants to use us, or that he is not trustworthy. It is only through prayer and growing in knowledge of God that our suspicion gradually abates.
Over the past several years in the convent I have grown to trust God more. I have realized that his love is not utilitarian at all. He wants to draw close to me simply because he loves me.
I now can say with comfort that my relationship with God is spousal; that is the closest analogy we have and God meant it to be that way. In fact, we are all ultimately called to a spousal relationship with God through our different vocations.
But I still don’t use terms of endearment or sentimental language to describe my relationship with God. That’s just not me. I’ve never been much of a romantic. But beyond personality, there is also the fact that, for me, the spousal language still seems to falls very short of the immense, inscrutable reality.
Nevertheless, in some mysterious way I have bound myself to God through my vows and he has bound himself to me.
He stooped to grasp my hand, said, “Talitha koum” and lifted me into the dynamic of the Trinity.
I have discarded all the usual trappings of life and walked freely into the mist of divine mystery.
As I wrote shortly after making my vows: It is as if my vows pressed my soul upon God like a small wildflower between the thick pages of an ancient book.
He is mine and I am his.
Next Tuesday in my column I will share the surprising stories of my other three “engagement rings” from God.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth.