The following chapter talk was written by the same religious superior who wrote “The Symbolism of Religious Clothing: Why Nuns Wear What They Do.” Here she shows her keen understanding of philosophy, theology, and Catholic tradition, which come together to yield something unsurpassably beautiful. The text has been edited by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.
The imagery of the religious Sister as a bride plays a significant role in our Rite of Investiture. The one to be clothed presents herself as a bride, dressed in white. After having received the religious habit and her religious name, she is given a candle. As he hands her the candle, the celebrant says to her: “May a bright light be in your hands, so that when the Bridegroom comes, you may go to meet Him and enter with Him to the wedding feast.”
The image of the virgin as bride of Christ is ancient. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul alludes to the metaphor of the Church as Bride of Christ by addressing the congregation: “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” This text is heard frequently at Mass, because it is the Epistle for the Common of Virgins. The Church Fathers, speaking of consecrated virgins, already apply bridal imagery. We read in Saint Ambrose’s De Virginibus (Bk. 1, ch. 5): “Imagine a loveliness greater than the beauty of her who is loved by the King, approved by the Judge, dedicated to the Lord, consecrated to God; ever a bride, ever unmarried, so that neither does love suffer an ending, nor modesty loss.”
The Office for the Feast of Saint Agnes, from which so many elements in the traditional rite of female monastic profession are drawn, is replete with bridal imagery. The third antiphon of Lauds reads: “With His ring, my Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me, and He has adorned me with the bridal crown.” The Office of the Common of Virgins rings out, too, with bridal imagery.
In logic class, we spoke about univocal, equivocal, and analogical word use. In what sense is the word “bride” used when it is referred to brides as in human marriage, brides as in religious Sisters, and bride as in the Church Herself? It is clear that the use is not univocal: the three are not brides in the same way. The use is not equivocal, because the three meanings are related, even if not the same. The use is analogical, two or more meanings that are partly the same and partly different and related to each other.
The essence of being a bride is the same in all of the uses of the word mentioned above. A bride is one who is given to a bridegroom. The heart (essence) of being a bride is being given and belonging. One cannot be a bride without a bridegroom. Being a bride presupposes a bridegroom. A bride is a relational reality. The bridal gift is total: including all that one has, all that one is, all that one will be. Bride and bridegroom are united. The gift is given at a particular time and extends into the future.
Being a bride is exclusive. It means being given and belonging to one, not to more than one. A bride can have only one bridegroom. One cannot give oneself totally to more than one person, or else the gift would not be total, but partial. The gift of self for life must be total and therefore exclusive.
The manner in which the gift of self is expressed differs in each case, depending on the nature of the bridegroom, and it is in this sense that the three uses of bride are analogical. The manner in which self-gift takes place is not the same for a human bride, a religious Sister, and the Church as Bride.
In many religious communities, bridal imagery was removed from ceremonies of investiture following the Second Vatican Council, which meant especially that the bridal gown was not worn. The reason for removing bridal imagery was a misunderstanding of the analogical use of the word. It was thought that bridal dresses would be misunderstood, that the image would be taken in the sense of a human bride. Yet removing the bridal imagery is seriously problematic, when both Sacred Scripture and the saints very freely use this imagery! How could one understand The Song of Songs or Saint John of the Cross’s poem at the beginning of the Ascent to Mount Carmel without understanding the use of the image of bride? We draw upon earthly models not because they are sufficient as they stand, but because they are capable of servings as symbols that point beyond themselves to something transcendent.
I compared the Rite of Investiture of a good Novus Ordo community—one genuinely trying to be faithful to Catholicism—with our Rite of Investiture. In the Novus Ordo Rite of Investiture, there is not a single bridal reference, neither in words nor in any other way during the ceremony. In the blessing of the habit, which takes place before the ceremony, there is a bridal reference in the text of the blessing of the veil: “May they [the Sisters], by Your protection, always with equal purity of body and mind, preserve that which is mystically signified thereby: that when, with the prudent virgins, they come to the everlasting recompense of the saints, they may also be worthy to enter, conducted by You, to the nuptials of endless felicity: Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.” The emphasis in the ceremony itself seems to be on “following Christ more closely,” rather than on being His bride. When handing the postulants their new habits, the celebrant says: “You are called to follow Christ in the religious life, not because of your good works, but because of the grace of God. Receive the habit as a sign of your dedication to God and wear it with humble hearts.” Obviously, we do wish to follow Christ more closely, and this, too, is the meaning of our life; but without bridal imagery, the Rite lacks beauty, lacks femininity. In the deepest sense, it lacks emphasis on being totally given and belonging to one in the most intimate way possible.
A rather obvious objection presents itself. Given that bridal love is exclusive, how can it make sense for all religious Sisters to call themselves “bride of Christ”? Does Christ have thousands, even millions, of brides? We could take the objection further: don’t we also say that not only religious Sisters and consecrated virgins but indeed every soul is espoused to Christ in virtue of baptism? How, then, do we make sense of the multiplicity of brides with one Bridegroom?
The difference is the Divinity of Our Lord. Unlike the finite love of creatures, the love of the Triune God poured out in Jesus Christ is always total but not exclusive. He loves totally and inclusively, which is why we can say that He loves each human person with all the fullness of His love. In the state of glory, we will be taken up into the inclusive love of the Triune God, so that we will no longer be able to give ourselves exclusively to an individual human person, but will give ourselves entirely to God and, in Him, inclusively to all human persons. The reason that there is no marriage in heaven (cf. Matthew 22:30) is that total self-gift will no longer be exclusive, but we will enter into the inclusive love of God.
Our referring to ourselves as “brides of Christ” reveals that we understand that the mutual self-gift between ourselves and Christ can be total without, on His part, being exclusive. For our part, as creatures, as baptized Christians, as consecrated virgins, the gift is exclusive: we give ourselves wholly to Him as His bride, and since our Bridegroom is in glory, we, being bound to Him, participate, through Him, in this glory and are “not given in marriage” in the earthly sense. It is for this reason that our vocation is called an eschatological vocation: in it one may see, as in a mirror, an image of the final destiny of the saints.