Though this series of articles focuses on Mary as Bride of God, we should also examine a related phenomenon: some monks and priests in past centuries saw Mary as their own heavenly “Bride” or “Wife”!
This view of Our Lady seems to have originated in the courtly love songs of twelfth-century France. Originally sung in praise of an unattainable noblewoman, this poetic genre soon became “spiritualized”, with Mary, the Queen of Heaven, as the new object of love and praise. Mary’s “troubadors” would sing of her as the ideal “Lady” in the heavenly court, all-beautiful with no flaws, and thus the ideal lady love or spouse.
Despite the occasional excesses of this genre, its presentation of Mary as a heavenly love interest seems to have appealed to certain priests and monks, who may not have felt entirely comfortable with the idea of having Christ as their Bridegroom. Thus began the devotion to Mary as Bride/Wife of priests, and the accompanying practice of “mystical marriage” to the Virgin. This provided some male mystics with their own equivalent to mystical marriage to Christ, common among their female counterparts. While Saint Gertrude the Great and other medieval nuns engaged in Theogamy (marriage to God), many of their male contemporaries sought what we might call “Mariogamy”, or mystical espousal to Our Lady.
Saint Robert of Molesmes, founder of the Cistercian order, is said to have entered into such a mystical marriage with Our Lady. A painting in San Bernardo alle Terme in Rome depicts an apparition of the Madonna and Child to St. Robert, in which Mary places a wedding ring on the saint’s finger1. Saint Edmund Rich, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1170-1240), took a vow of perpetual virginity before a statue of Our Lady and placed on the statue’s finger a golden ring with the words Ave Maria engraved on it 2.
Legends about men who plighted their troth to the Virgin abounded during the High Middle Ages. But as the centuries passed, the practice of Mariogamy gradually faded. By the Late Middle Ages, few engaged in this devotion. One noteable exception is Blessed Alain de la Roche (1428?-1475), promoter of the Rosary and founder of medieval Rosary Confraternities. Like male Marian devotees of the past, Alain wore a ring on his finger to symbolize his “marriage” to Mary 3.
But Mariogamy enjoyed a small comeback in seventeenth century France. Saint John Eudes (1601-1680) had great devotion to Our Lady, whom he considered the spouse of priests 4. On 28 April 1668, he wrote a “Contract of Holy Marriage with the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God”, and from then on wore a ring to signify this marriage 5. The contract opens with the following words:
O admirable and most loveable Mary, Mother of God, only Daughter of the eternal Father, Mother of the Son of God, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, Queen of heaven and earth, it is no wonder that thou art willing to be the spouse of the least of all men and greatest of all sinners, who had the boldness to choose thee from his tenderest years to be his most unparalleled spouse, and to consecrate his body, heart and soul wholly to thee. The truth is that thou dost wish to imitate the infinite goodness of thy Son Jesus who is willing to be the spouse of a sinful and wretched soul. May all the angels, saints, creatures and the Creator Himself praise and bless thee eternally for it, and atone for all my countless acts of ingratitude and infidelity toward thee. 6
I imagine some readers may have a problem with the idea of a consecrated celibate “marrying” Mary, even in a mystical sense. But it held real appeal for some priests and monks in the past, and perhaps for some present ones (Though I have never heard of any modern priests “marrying” Mary, it would not surprise me if some did). It is more commonly said that priests and bishops are “married to the Church”, for each priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ”. He mystically represents Jesus the Bridegroom to His Church/Bride on earth. So a priest, in some mysterious manner, participates in Christ’s espousal to Mother Church.
Now, as stated above, Mary is the Image and Model of the Church; she is Ecclesia’s loving Heart and pre-eminent member. In some ways she even “quasi-personifies” Holy Mother Church. So perhaps “Mariogamy” is some type of symbolic, ritual expression of the alter Christus’ “nuptial” relationship with the New Eve. In this ritual, the Blessed Virgin Mary represents Mother Ecclesia, much as she does in Apocalypse/Revelation chapter 12. Perhaps some may find “Mariogamy” easier to understand in these terms.
3/2002 Page Update:
A reader emailed me with the following question: “Is it conceivable that a married man could be espoused to Mary in the same sense that his wife is espoused to Christ as her Bridegroom?”
That’s a good question. I have never heard of married men taking Mary as their mystical Spouse, so I’m not sure. Though spiritual espousal to Mary parallels mystical marriage to Christ, the two practices are not exactly “equal”, even as Jesus and Mary are not equals. Espousal to Christ is a more widespread practice since the entire Church is the bride of Christ. Espousal to Mary seems more limited to priests, monks and other unmarried men.
Marian devotion for men often takes the form of either a Mother/son relationship or sometimes a kind-of Lady/knight relationship, with chivalrous overtones (any “warfare” aspect, of course, would be more spiritual, as described in Eph 6:10-18). This would be more a chaste, idealized “romance”, not an espousal per se, but involving dedication and devotion.
1Ibid 158.
2Peter Herambourg, Saint John Eudes: A Spiritual Portrait, trans. Ruth Hause (Dublin: Gill, 1960): 125.
3Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (New York: Sheed, 1964): 41.
4Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1982): 201.
5Graef 41.
6Herambourg 126.