The term “conjugal spirituality” is relatively new. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the Magisterium of the Church articulated it, though in reality the concept is as ancient as the very sacrament of matrimony: if all God’s faithful receive the vocation to sanctity, it follows that not only religious and consecrated are called to a particular spirituality, but also those called to marriage have a spirituality particular to their own vocation.
We can define conjugal spirituality as the path by which husbands and wives, through their unity in the sacrament of matrimony, grow together in the faith and in the rest of their virtues in order to share in the experience of God. Their very lives will serve as testimony of Christ’s love for us. Conjugal spirituality is, then, a journey that leads spouses towards a united holiness. Each partner assumes the responsibility of saving the other, as the other become a part of the self—the other self.
Conjugal spirituality does not ignore the personal faith of either spouse. Nor does it pretend to be the sum of both spouses’ spiritualities. It rather refers to a new reality, since novelties have become the norm through of the sacrament of matrimony. From the very moment of marriage, each spouse becomes a place of encounter with God, a channel of grace, and a path of salvation for the other. Through marriage, each partner should recognize and contemplate the face of God in the other.
And the pillar that sustains the spouses in the long run is sacramental grace, a grace that belongs to the marriage itself. The sacrament’s power enlivens the marriage, enriching both the acts and the words that comprise the spousal life. And if the marriage is fueled by grace, the force that moves each spouse is charity. Marriage is a vocation toward a specific type of love: conjugal love. Through this grace, a couple can participate in the love as God Himself loves, in the mystery of creation and redemption.
All of this gives birth to a communion between the spouses that cannot be reduced to two individuals with free will forming a contract; it rather entails the discovery that the freedom of one partner in the couple is dependent upon the freedom of the other partner, and vice-versa. Even more so, the joyful discovery that this conjugal communion is the goal of freedom in the new reality enfolds them both.
Because of this, “There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord” (Amoris Laetitia, n 320). As we avoid any attempt to dominate the other, we recognize that only God can affect our freedom without violating it, because God is the Creator of our freedom.
Christian spouses marry each other before God, not only as a testimony to human love and loyalty but also as an embodiment of the rich love between Christ and His Church. Through and as a result of their mutual donation, spouses enter into a union with God. For spousal love is the image of God’s love revealed precisely through human love. And reciprocally, this expression of human love has as its font a response to a love that originates in God. Our Lord is a necessary foundation for any love.
The goal towards which spouses aspire is to become “one flesh” (Gn 2:24). This donation of one’s self to the other takes place partly through the language of the body as an expression of the complete self. Christ’s gift of his body as a complete donation of self dignifies the human body and allows the analogy of Christ’s marriage with the Church.
Conjugal spirituality requires one to acknowledge the dignity of the conjugal act. As articulated in the Second Vatican Council, the love between spouses “is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony…” such that “it far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away” (GS, 49). Through loving each other, giving themselves to the other in a sincere spirit, spouses live out their gifts of grace and charity.
In addition to this, Humanea Vitae enriches our view of spirituality by reminding us of both the human and supernatural aspects of conjugal love. It takes into account our biology and our call to chastity; it reflects upon the interior matrimonial harmony produced by the “double significance of the conjugal act: the unitive and the procreative” (HV, 12). This deepening of the harmony of the “language of the body” that was articulated by St. John Paul II allows a spousal love to progress to its ultimate maturity.
In this sense, marriage is also a Christological sign. It manifests God’s proximity—a proximity that united itself to and became human in the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection. Similarly, each married couple becomes one flesh, one entity united with the other. Each individual offers him or herself to share in everything until the last moment; each person is always present as a companion to the other throughout their lives in love.
But this existence as one flesh cannot be simply reduced to a conjugal union; rather it includes the union of emotional experiences and daily activities that create communion between the couple. The sacrament of matrimony should be a continual experience and not a singular event that occurs at a particular predetermined moment. In other words, the couple is called towards a manifestation of the First Love that is continually expressed in words and deeds. It is a vibrant communion, permanently dynamic, growing through the acts that each spouse offers in and with the other. This permits the couple to grow in intimacy as the richness of their affective life deepens and their understanding and acceptance of each other increases; they grow in that which unites them. In this way, their entire conjugal life converts itself into a sacred event.
Our fatherly frame is grace; our corporal motor is charity. And who is it that guides the driver of the marriage down the path towards holy matrimony? The Holy Spirit. The evidence of the Trinity in marriage is clear when a couple lives in charity. As St. Augustine said, “Where you see charity, there you see the Trinity.”
We can say that marriage is a particular reflection of the Trinity because it consists of a complete unity, the diversity of distinct persons, and the plenitude of a vital communion. As St. John Paul II said, “Man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning…. Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right "from the beginning, he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons” (Audience, 11/14/1979). He adds, “Obviously, that is not without significance for the theology of the body. Perhaps it even constitutes the deepest theological aspect of all that can be said about man.” The mission of the Holy Spirit in married life is to actualize in each spouse’s hearts the desire to grow in his or her conjugal vocation. The Holy Spirit introduces each spouse to the depths of God’s message and permits them to perceive a new dimension of God’s spousal love.
St. John Paul II said, “Those two that, according to the most ancient expression in the Holy Bible, ‘became one flesh’ (Gen 2:24), cannot come to the full fruition of their own beings except through the providential graces of the spirit; to be specific, the Holy Spirit that purifies, vivifies, corroborates and perfects the strengths of the human spirit.” As we read in John 6:63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” As such, conjugal spirituality springs from the same docility to the Holy Spirit that is required of each spouse as an individual at the heart of their beings. It must be kept clear that the fullness of matrimony and the richness of the marital acts, according to God’s plan, are not possible without each spouse seeking a deep spiritual life that permits God’s divine grace to heal their wounds and sins, such as egoism, self-centeredness, and narcissism.
The Holy Spirit is present in a couple’s married life such that, “as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God” (Gaudium et Spes, 48).
My blog “God’s plan for the family”
I belong to the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother since its foundation in 1990, and have been a priest for 21 years. I am licensed in Pharmacy from the University of Madrid and hold a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Cross University in Rome. I am committed to the lay apostolate and give retreats for youth and adults.
Fr. Félix López is author and editor of the Blog "God’s Plan for the Family", which can be found on the website www.familiesfullyalive.com.
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