I believe that neither a more beautiful nor a more accurate expression can be found to define a religious than to call her a spouse, “Spouse of Christ.” Now I want to put in writing a sermon that I have often preached, which is loosely taken from a classic sermon given by John of Avila in Montilla, in the monastery of Saint Clare.
The honor of the espoused is the honor proper to her spouse, because what affects the espoused also affects her spouse as if it were her own. And so, anything that shames, affronts, wrongs, offends or reviles her is all done to her spouse as well, and anyone who does a favor for the espoused so honors her spouse as if it were done for him instead.
In other words, he who works against a religious works against Christ Himself; whether he hinder their living the religious life, slander them, try to meddle in their community life, work to separate them from their Spouse, which makes him like those who are in favor of divorce, doing the work of the devil. Sometimes, when God permits these actions: they only do the work of carrion crows weeding out false religious who, as if they were masquerading, have only the exterior dress – those who are not Spouses, but widows of Christ. “Widows more than married; not a spouse, but an adulteress to Christ,” says St. Cyprian.
On the contrary, he who helps religious sisters spiritually or materially helps Christ. And “whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42). All that we can do for religious, the Divine Spouse will receive it as though it were done for his service.
We will only look at three points:
1. We must understand the greatness of such a high occupation
Yes, religious are Spouses of Christ, as Christ Himself proudly calls them, because it is so, he is their Spouse. That Christ Himself would call a specific person to be his Spouse is such a great and excellent grace, that as much as she thinks she understands it, she still is very lacking in her knowledge of its true greatness.
Before the religious was born, before she was begotten, long before the world was created – from all eternity God had written on his bosom all those he predestined to be his Spouses. Their fasts, disciplines, and prayers did not merit this, since at this time they did not exist, rather God alone, who chose them and called them from among millions of people to be his Spouses, could have merited this. He separated them from the world and liberated them from the occupations of marriage so that all of their time would be spent loving the Sweet Spouse.
Just as in Christian marriage the man and woman leave their father and mother: “And the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one” (Mk 10:8; Cf. Mt 19:5–6), so in the spiritual marriage there should be no longer be two, but only one. In the world when two people want to get married, people ask: Are they two of a kind? Are they made for each other? And they have good reason to ask.
Since they are Spouses of Christ, they should have His qualities. They should imitate Him in everything in order to configure themselves to Him, just as a wife should configure herself to her husband; but with even greater reason, for he is Jesus Christ.
The Spouse is to have the qualities of a Lamb (Jn 1:29): meek, humble, obedient, patient. The Wife is to have the qualities of a dove (Song of Songs 2:14; 5:2; 6: 9; 1:15; 2:12), a dove without bitterness, humble, patient, simple. The angry, impatient, annoyed, and rough religious, who is troublesome and scheming, who talks a lot and frivolously and is a gossip and a schemer does not have the qualities of her husband, and is not a good spouse of Jesus Christ. A religious is compared to a dove because her song is a sigh. If she is a noisy and dissipated, she is not a good spouse. “The song and the laugh of the religious must be to cry for her spouse Jesus Christ. In the choir, in the garden, in the dinning room, in the cell, and everywhere, she has to sigh for Jesus Christ her Spouse. This must be her office and her song. And when she is singing in the choir with still sweeter melody, her heart must be pining with deep interior sighs for her most beloved Spouse, whose memory and wishes must never leave her heart. She must lie down at night with them, and she must dream of them while sleeping, and they must be the first thought to be recalled to her mind; her heart always melting with His love, and her mind occupied with nothing but her beloved Spouse” (St. John of Avila).
This is a project that can fulfill an entire lifetime and completely fill those hearts with the greatest dreams and most magnificent hopes! Jesus Christ offers this to the purest souls, the most generous souls, those who risk everything for Him alone! It is worth it!
The religious must make herself like Christ, imitating all of his life of works, sorrows, poverty, humility, and “love for the espoused so great that for this love He poured out His blood, in order that by it He might make her who was ugly beautiful. He died on the cross in order to give her life, because she was dead” (St. John of Avila).
For this reason the religious should always keep in mind Who her Spouse is, how great His love is, and how much He loves her. What spouse has there been in the world who has taken blood from his veins to make his spouse beautiful? Religious sisters have a Spouse who, for love of them, ripped his veins, opened his side, allowed his hands and feet to be pierced, received lashes and a crown of thorns, and died on the cross. This is why the true spouse should even shed her blood for her Divine Spouse if it is asked of her. If the Spouse went by this road, she who did not follow would be a bad spouse. Moreover, the delight of the true Spouse has to be willingly suffering for her beloved Spouse. In this she shows how much she loves Him; and so she should not look for consolation on the earth, nor comfort from creatures, so that she might receive them from the Spouse.
3. Falling in love with the Spouse
For what purpose are they chosen by God and taken by his hand to enter the convent? Some will say, “They entered to pray and fast, to be obedient and to live in poverty for Jesus Christ.” It is true that they have entered the convent for that, but not only for that. That is not even the main reason they entered, and it has little or no value without the other. Do they know why young and not so young women enter the convent? They enter the convent to participate in the highest thing that there is on earth. What? The highest occupation of all occupations. What is this? To fall in love with their Spouse Jesus Christ.
This is the occupation of the angels; everything else, fasting, discipline, abstinence, vigils, the choir, is to mortify the flesh in order not to be impeded in relating with these divine loves and to be better able to approach these divine loves. This is why they entered the convent: to be Spouses of Christ, to fall in love with the Spouse. This is the occupation of the espoused.
For this reason the religious can only be understood for what she is, not for what she does. Therefore our constitutions remind us that: “A short time of true worship has a greater value and more spiritual fruit than the most intense activity, even our apostolic activity itself.”
Who could tell of the gentle and loving whisper and conversations that should take place between the Spouse and his Espoused? Who could tell of the sweet embraces and gifts that pass between these two lovers? Or the sweet music that the Espoused hears from the cross of her beloved? This occupation is theirs, it is unknown to us; it belongs to them to know it. And if there is a religious who does not know it, then she is not a true Spouse. Just as God gave the Israelites manna from heaven only when the flour brought from Egypt had run out, so the Sweet Spouse will not give the manna of consolation until we run out of everything apart from God.
In the world young women often look in the mirror out of vanity. The religious sister should also use a mirror, but in a different way. The mirror is Jesus Christ and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. Wherever a religious goes she should look in this mirror. If she cares for the sick in hospitals, if she cares for disabled children in homes of mercy, if she cares for the elderly, if she cares for the poor of every type, if she teaches in schools, if she missions in villages, if she helps pregnant women, if she comforts the dying, if she is in her cell, in the choir, in the refectory – wherever she goes and wherever she is. In this mirror they must look at themselves carefully and see if they are meek like He was, if they love each other, given that he loves them so much; in short, if in everything they do they walk in step with what He taught and did; in obedience, purity, fortitude, spirit of service, and prayer…protecting themselves from birds of prey who, disguised with spirituality and mysticism, try enter the dovecotes, not to help the doves but to take advantage of another’s nest. They must never forget the teaching of the Lord, “Be as shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16).