THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Holy Spirit Gives New Life To The Mutual Self-Giving Of Husband And Wife by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Holy Spirit Gives New Life To The Mutual Self-Giving Of Husband And Wife by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

All that we have said about the Holy Spirit as gift takes on a very special importance for those who are married.  Marriage is a state of life that occupies a singularly important place in the great processes of creation, “creatures flowing forth from God,” and then, “creatures returning to God.”  For that reason, the Holy Spirit occupies a very special place in marriage.

What makes a marriage a marriage is the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses, the gift of their bodies to each other that, in Biblical language, means the gift of their whole selves.  And so it is that, as analogously in any act of donation, the one who has given is no longer master or owner of what is given.  It is no longer the husband who has sole ownership of his own body, but his wife, and vice-versa, (see 1 Corinthians 7:4).  John Paul II, in one of his Wednesday catecheses, said:

The sexual nature of the human body, in its masculinity and femininity, is not only the root of fruitfulness and procreation as in all the rest of the order of nature, but from the very beginning has implied that special attribute of partners in marriage which is to express love: that love precisely by which human persons become gift, and by means of this gift, give actuality to the very purpose of their essence and existence.

As the sacrament of gift, marriage is by its very nature open to the action of the Holy Spirit.  How does the Holy Spirit sanctify marriage?  Not from the outside, but from within the marriage itself, in the very inmost core and essence of marriage that is the self-giving of the spouses, as we have just seen.  It is the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit that makes marriage a sacrament.  The Holy Spirit, who as the “Creator Spirit” is active in every human couple through the desire for each other, is active in every Christian couple also as the “Redeemer Spirit,” the Spirit of grace, expressing himself in the generous self-giving of the spouses which is the likeness of the mutual self-giving of Christ and his church, (see Ephesians 5:32).

Thus, the Holy Spirit is intimately present not only in the “celebration” or the rite of marriage, but also in the living and continuing reality of the marriage.  The Spirit is present not only at the moment when the marriage is contracted, but in every moment and every gesture of mutual self-giving of the spouses, and therefore in a very special way in the conjugal act which is the most intense realization of mutual self-giving.  In ancient times there were some who, influenced by the Rabbinical prescriptions regarding ritual purity, wanted to prevent married people from approaching the sacraments after conjugal intimacy, assuming that in such moments the Holy Spirit could not be present to them.  A canonical source contains a very forceful rejection of this view and practice: “Through baptism the spouses receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess him, and keeps them.”

If we look now to what Tradition can show us, in the light of these developments, we find them very strongly confirmed.  The theologians of the Latin Church were well aware of this very close link between the Holy Spirit and conjugal love, although they developed it in only one direction.  They started from the symbol – human conjugal love – in order to illustrate the reality, that is, the Holy Spirit.  Saint Hilary, for a start, drew the connection between the two concepts of “gift” and “enjoyment” and wrote: “Immensity is realized in the Father, manifestation in the Son, and enjoyment [fruitio] in the Holy Spirit.”  Augustine took up this intuitive insight and developed it:

The ineffable embrace of the Father and the Likeness is not without fruition, without love, without joy.  In the Trinity, all that delight, pleasure, happiness, beatitude – if only we had a human word able to express these things – that Hilary has called “fruition,” is the Holy Spirit who is not generated but who is the sweetness savored by the One who generates and the One who is generated, and who in his immensely abundant generosity floods out into all creatures according to their capacity, to preserve them in their order and to bring them back in their proper place.

The implication of this wonderful text is that whatever delight and joy there is on the face of the Earth is nothing else but a kind of echo, or the shining glow, of the Trinity’s embrace.  After this, it became quite usual for Latin writers to speak of the Holy Spirit in images reflecting the relationship of spouses:  embrace and kiss.  Saint Ambrose writes that “in the kiss, there is more than just the contact of lips; there is the desire of each to share their very breath with the other.”  And Saint Bernard exclaims, “What is the Holy Spirit if not the mutual kiss of Father and Son?”  As to the embrace, a medieval author comments:

This mutual delight, this sweet love, this happy embrace, this beatifying love through which the Father rests in the Son and the Son in the Father; I say, this rest that nothing can disturb, this incomparable goodness, this inseparable unity, this making of two one only, this finding again of self in that one unity; everything that we can say that is good and joyous and sweet, all of that is the Holy Spirit.

This symbolism, as we can see, has been used only as leading from the symbol to the reality, inasmuch as it attempts to throw light on the person of the Holy Spirit, taking as its starting point the nuptial gestures of the embrace and the kiss.  But it is possible to follow the line in the other direction, too, taking as starting point the Holy Spirit, gift of God, in order to throw light on the profound significance of human conjugal love.  The author just quoted on the matter of the divine embrace called it happiness, love, rest, sweetness, full satisfaction, perfect coming together in unity.  But is that not exactly what spouses desire with all their heart, when they come together in true love for each other?

The carnal embrace, of itself, is totally unable to achieve any of this, as the poet Lucretius was able to show in terms that were crude but nonetheless quite efficacious.  It is only when this dark, aggressive, and possessive kind of loving is raised up to become love in self-giving (and this is the very thing that the Holy Spirit comes to teach) that intimacy between spouses can be the realization of that sweet unity in peace that is a pale reflection on Earth of the divine embrace in the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, as gift of God, provides the basis for a theology of “pleasure” that, at least in principle, can set human experience of this kind free of the weight of ambiguity that presses upon it today.  The pagan poet Lucretius, to whom we have just referred, made note of a characteristic of every kind of pleasure, and especially of carnal pleasure: “Something of bitterness springs up at the heart of every delight / and sows anxiety among its flowers.”

Pleasure and pain follow one another in human experience, joined like the links in an iron chain.  But in the light of the Trinity, pleasure comes to us as the inseparable companion of gift and therefore, as long as we live this life, as the companion of the sacrifice that gift implies.  In that light, pleasure follows suffering as its fruit; it does not come before suffering as its cause; hence pleasure has the last word, not suffering or anxiety.  The joy that comes in the reciprocal self-giving of spouses should be of this kind, a small reflection of the joy shared in the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is “the enjoyment in the gift.”

What I have tried to outline here is not just a pretty theory of marriage.  In this case too experience has preceded theory, and it is theory’s most valid confirmation.  The Holy Spirit, who makes all things new, has shown that he knows how to make marriage new too, marred as it often is by weakness and by sin.  One of the most visible fruits of the coming of the Spirit is the revival of dead or dried-up marriages.  Matrimony, says Saint Paul, is a charism, (1 Corinthians 7:7), and, as with all the charisms, it is fired up anew by contact with the flame from which it comes.  It is important to listen to living testimonies, because they speak more clearly than any reasoned argument.  First, one from a husband:

My wife and I recognize that the Holy Spirit is the soul of our marriage; it is he, that is, who gives our marriage life, in exactly the same way as he is the soul of the church.  When we became engaged, we promised each other that we would pray the Pentecost sequence together every day, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and for twenty-two years, with very few exceptions, we have tried every day to do that, and we hope to continue to do so until death separates us.

For her part, the wife has this to say:

For me, the moment of conjugal intimacy is not different, as a moment of following the Spirit, from any other moment in our lives.  In our life as a couple it has become natural to pass from moments of intimacy to conversation, from prayer to silence, there is no break between one and the other.  Instead of considering certain moments, for example the Sunday Mass, “for God,” and other moments, for example our sexual intimacy, “for us,” all is for God, and we do it all freely and deliberately in his presence.  The Holy Spirit is not only the source of the tendernesses we show each other when it is “time for embracing”; he is also the one who helps us grow in mutual love when it is “time to refrain from embracing,” (Qoh 3:5), especially now when we are by no means as young as we used to be.

There is a wealth of hope for Christian couples in this kind of meditation on the Holy Spirit as “most high gift of God.”  Not only for some, like the couple quoted, but for all couples.  The times we live in, human impoverishment, and above all the inability to love tend to reduce spouses and their marriage to “dry bones.”  It is to them, therefore, that God addresses his promise in a very special way: “O dry bones [withered hearts in withered marriages!], hear the word of the Lord.  I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live,” (Ezekiel 37:4, 14).  The Holy Spirit wants to repeat for every couple the miracle of the wedding at Cana: the Spirit wants to transform the water into wine; the water of routine, of lowered expectations, of coldness, into the heady wine of newness and of joy.  Important to know, the Spirit is the new wine.

However, the most important thing that the Holy Spirit teaches Christian spouses is not how they can realize the full value of their marriage, but rather, how to transcend it.  “All that passes is only a symbol”; it is only in Heaven that “the unattainable becomes reality.”  Marriage is in point of fact one of the things that is passing: “The present form of this world is passing away,” (1 Corinthians 7:31).  It would be a huge mistake to make marriage an absolute upon which one depends and against which one measures the success or the failure of one’s very life.  If this is what we are doing, we are overloading marriage with demands that it cannot possibly meet and therefore condemning it to inevitable failure.  It is only in God that complete togetherness, perfect unity, utter self-giving, “the unattainable,” will become reality, and remain reality forever.

Let us entrust to the Holy Spirit all human couples, confident of the Spirit’s ability to lead them to a renewal of their mutual self-giving.  Let us do this in the words of a hymn that is sometimes sung in the Anglican Church when marriages are blessed:

The voice that breathed o’er Eden
that earliest wedding day,
the primal marriage blessing,
it hath not passed away.
Be present, Holiest Spirit,
to bless them as they kneel,
as thou for Christ the Bridegroom
the Heavenly spouse dost seal.

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