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  • Christopher West

Pope Francis: Marriage Can Lead to the Heights of Mystical Union

Image: Tony Nguyen, Creative Commons

In my past two posts on Pope Francis’s document The Joy of Love, I shared that I had yet to read what the Catholic and secular media were saying about it. I have since dipped my toe into those waters and, as you probably know, they are anything but tranquil.

I suppose I will eventually write about some of the controversies, but I don’t want to fall into the oh-so-easy-to-fall-into tendency of zooming in on those right away. I’d rather continue basking in the glory. This document is oozing with wisdom and insights that are sadly being overshadowed by all the chatter about what Francis did and/or didn’t mean by this or that statement in chapter 8.

Since I promised I would in a previous blog, let me say more about this marvelous passage:

[Christian] spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family. Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that [being married and raising a family] detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union. (316)

[tweetthis]Jesus, lead us all to the heights of mystical union with you![/tweetthis]

There is a long and difficult history behind this clear and compelling papal declaration. For centuries the difficulty of reconciling spirituality and sexuality (the two having been ruptured in the human being since the dawn of original sin) had lead to a faulty asceticism that falsely characterized celibacy as the “spiritual path” and only real vocation to holiness, while marriage was relegated to the “carnal path” of those who couldn’t handle celibacy (read: holiness). This was never the official teaching of the Church, but it is not difficult to find such sentiments in the writings of various historical Christian authors.

The modern theological effort to reconcile spirituality and sexuality (which culminated, I would say, in Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical God Is Love) coupled with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the “universal call to holiness” has made Pope Francis’s declaration less astonishing, perhaps. Still, even to this day, it is not unusual for me to receive pushback from various quarters in the Church for inviting ordinary, married couples to aspire to the heights of the mystical life.

“Holiness is one thing,” the sentiment goes, “but the mystical life is another” – as if there were a dichotomy between the two. It’s true, of course, that few will experience the “extraordinary signs” of the mystical life – like the stigmata or bodily levitations – but this does not mean only a few are called to the mystical life. As the Catechism makes clear:

Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called “mystical” because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments … and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all. (CCC 2014)

Saint John Paul II insisted that we “have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead … to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte 33). It only makes sense that marriage, as the sacrament of this union with Christ, would be efficacious in bringing about this union in the hearts of spouses who accept the painful purifications that lead to this union.

As Francis makes clear in The Joy of Love, spouses needn’t look very hard for these purifications. “Living in a family makes it hard for us to feign or lie,” he observes, and “we cannot hide behind a mask. If that authenticity is inspired by love, then the Lord reigns there” and marriage and family life become “a true path to daily sanctifications and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God” (315, 316).

Thank you, Papa Francis, for making this call to mystical union so clear!

Jesus, teach all married people around the world how to embrace the daily sufferings and purifications of our vocation and lead us all to the heights of mystical union with you; grant us even here on a earth a taste of the “nuptial union” that awaits us in your eternal marriage with the Church!


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