Wisdom From the Middle Ages

In a world of digital technology and modern medicine, the Middle Ages may seem irrelevant. However, in reading St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Hildegard of Bingen, we see that their mystical theology, which is closely linked to love, can lead one to a greater understanding the sacrament of marriage.

Contrary to the hookup culture and liquid modernity, the sacrament of marriage is not meant to foster a self serving, utilitarian relationship; rather the ultimate goal of marriage for spouses to lead each other to God. The sacrament of marriage is a living sign to the Church of the marriage that took place on the cross. The theology of St. Bernard and St. Hildegard can lead couples to understand and live out their vocation more fully.

St. Hildegard, puts a significant amount of emphasis on the Eucharist. She understands that the Church is the bride of Christ and that the marriage between the two takes place on the cross. The Eucharist, then, is the wedding gift from the Bridegroom to his Bride.  To eat in faith, is to participate in this wedding feast. The consent to receive the Eucharist leads to a greater desire for God. She writes:

The Church, joined to God in the exercise of humility and charity, receives from Him the regeneration of the Spirit and water to save souls and restore life, and sends those souls to Heaven. . .the Only Begotten of God conferred His body and blood in surpassing glory on His faithful, who are the Church and His children, that through Him they may have life in the celestial city.

As we receive God, and as our desire for God increases, we are continuously conformed to His ways and His desires. In turn, we gain a greater capacity to love as He loves. This is necessary for all of us, but particularly for married couples who have vowed to love each other for the rest of their lives in sickness and health, for better or worse, for richer or poorer. Love, as demonstrated by Christ, is not an erotic emotion or feeling, it is a choice, a sacrifice.  Couples, whose marriage is rooted in the Eucharist, are united to Christ in a unique way. Their reception of the Eucharist strengthens their unity, their oneness, and sanctifies them.

St. Bernardo emphasizes the importance of conforming one’s earthly desires to spiritual desires. The ultimate goal for St. Bernardo, as O’Malley explains, is to delight in creation so much that the soul becomes the interior place for a mystical encounter with God. This seems particularly relevant to a married couple in a few ways. First, when married couples encounter each other and delight in the creation of another, this appreciation can lead one to adore and praise God for his creation, but can also to receive a glimpse as to what the love of the God is like:

Felicitous is that kiss of participation that enables us not only to know God but to love the Father, who is never fully known until he is perfectly loved…Let that man who feels that he is moved by the same Spirit as the Son, let him know that he too is loved by the Father (8.VII.9).

Secondly, as with the celibate life, there are periods in marriage that the physical desire cannot be satisfied and so that desire must also be shifted to the created order. Couples desires, then, should be rooted in their desire and longing for God.

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