Divine Relationships

A fallen-away Catholic once told me, “I gave up that religion for a relationship.” What she was saying is that Catholicism, with all its ceremonies, doctrines, and other “formalities,” did not give her a relationship with Jesus, which is exactly what she found in the non-denominational brand of Protestantism she embraced. I suspected, from the ready way in which she said it, that the expression was a pat phrase she had heard many times from the man who was currently her “pastor.”

The claim is a variation on the old Protestant theme of the Catholic Church putting doctrines and traditions of man in the place of the Word of God, departing from the Evangelical simplicity of the early Church, and otherwise obscuring the believer’s encounter with God by placing all sorts of institutional things in the way — saints, priests, sacraments, indulgences, etc.

For us Catholics, relationships are not inconsequential. Our religion is social. In the Creed, we call the Church the “communion of saints.” Further, the Divinity Itself is social, there being three Persons in the one Godhead. When the book of Genesis (1:26) records the divine utterance, “Let us make man to our image and likeness” (using the Hebrew plural name for God, Elohim), it transmits to us an internal counsel of the Three, who desire to share their divine life in a loving relationship with us creatures.

If only the poor lady who told me this had learned to appreciate how deep and intimate a relationship with Jesus (and through Him, with the Trinity) is achieved by the devout reception of Holy Communion! It is to her loss that she tossed aside the religion which constitutes the Christian soul in that relationship.

What I hope to accomplish in these few lines is to explore the general notion of “relationship” as it applies to God. I will then consider how the relations in the Godhead parallel the relationship that the Blessed Virgin Mary has with each of those Persons. In future pieces, I hope to continue on a theme of “sanctifying relationships” by applying the principles considered here to various human relationships. Let me say at the outset that when I speak of “sanctifying relationships” I am being deliberately ambiguous. I use the present participle “sanctifying” as both as an adjective and a verb. We are considering both relationships that are in themselves sanctifying (adjective), and the act of sanctifying (verb) our relationships.

There is on the Catholicism.org site a longer piece called “The ‘Relations’ in the Blessed Trinity.” This is an academic paper I wrote, so it makes for dry reading that is not particularly easy. I will summarize some of its most important points here, for the relations in the Trinity will frame our subsequent considerations on this topic.

In perennial philosophy, based on Aristotle, there are the famous “ten categories.” The first is substance, and the remaining nine are different kinds of accident. The nine categories of accident are quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, disposition, and habitus. You can see them explained briefly by Dr. Taylor Marshall or — in a longer chapter from a book — by Brother Francis.

Whereas a substance exits in itself, an accident exists in a substance. The quality of red, for instance, subsists in the apple, but the apple is the substance. The quantity of two-hundred pounds exists in a man, but the man is the substance. Relation is the accident inherent in a thing which orders it to another [Latin: ad aliquid].

Now, there are no accidents in God, who is pure substance, in whom all is essence. St. Thomas therefore applies relation to God only in the sense of “the ordering to another.” The Father is ordered to the Son in the relation of Paternity. The Son is ordered to the Father in the relation of Filiation. The Father and the Son (“as one principle”) are ordered to the Holy Ghost in the relation of Active Spiration, and the Holy Ghost is ordered to the Father and the Son in the relation of Passive Spiration.

To use the language of theology, each Person of the Trinity is a subsistent, incommunicable, internal divine relation.1 Therefore, without these relationships in the Godhead, there would simply be no Trinity. So, when I wrote above that “for us Catholics, relationships are not inconsequential,” I was not, as they say, blowing smoke.

The Blessed Virgin Mary’s trifold relationship with the Trinitarian Persons will help us better understand the Trinity, Our Lady, and our own relationship to the Three. Let us consider the beautiful prayer of Pére Jacques Marquette, S.J., which is a variation on a common prayer uttered by devotees of the Virgin:

Hail daughter of God the Father, hail Mother of God the Son, hail spouse of God the Holy Ghost, hail temple of all the Persons of the Trinity, by your holy virginity and your Immaculate Conception, make clean my heart and my song.

Note that it is precisely the point where we distinguish the three Persons that Mary is said to be related to each. She is Daughter of Him who subsists uniquely as Father (who, as a “subsisting relation,” is Paternity). She is Mother of Him who in Eternity is distinguished as Son (who is Filiation). She is the Spouse of the Holy Ghost (who is Passive Spiration).

Because “Passive Spiration” is not so familiar a concept to us, let us consider Mary’s relation to the Holy Ghost in terms of two titles commonly given the Third Person: “Uncreated Charity” and “Gift.” As the woman perfectly wedded to God, it is fitting that Mary be considered especially as the spouse of that Person whose “proper name” is Love, according to Saint Thomas. The Angelic Doctor goes even further and says that the Father and the Son love each other “by the Holy Ghost,” citing Saint Augustine (De Trin. vi, 5) to this effect: “The Holy Ghost is He whereby the Begotten is loved by the one begetting and loves His Begetter.”

Mary, the most beloved of God, is the Spouse of the Spirit of Love — of Him who subsists as a loving spiration (breath) of the Father and the Son.

Further, the Holy Ghost is God’s “Gift.” He is the “first Gift,” and by Him we receive those seven gifts known as “Gifts of the Holy Ghost.” Saint Thomas argues that “Gift, taken personally in God, is the proper name of the Holy Ghost.” Note well his reasoning for this name for the Third Person:

In proof of this we must know that a gift is properly an unreturnable giving, as Aristotle says (Topic. iv, 4)–i.e. a thing which is not given with the intention of a return–and it thus contains the idea of a gratuitous donation. Now, the reason of donation being gratuitous is love; since therefore do we give something to anyone gratuitously forasmuch as we wish him well. So what we first give him is the love whereby we wish him well. Hence it is manifest that love has the nature of a first gift, through which all free gifts are given. So since the Holy Ghost proceeds as love, as stated above (27, 4; 37, 1), He proceeds as the first gift. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. xv, 24): “By the gift, which is the Holy Ghost, many particular gifts are portioned out to the members of Christ.”

Consider that, in Holy Matrimony, spouses “give” themselves to one another. Of course, the intimate union of the marital act both signifies and effects this “giving,” but the gift of husband and wife goes far beyond this. It is primarily an act of the will, and not of the body.

Mary is the prefect recipient of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and perfectly gives herself to the Third Person as spouse. The result of this chaste and holy giving is the Incarnation of Jesus that occurred at the Annunciation, and the continual Mystical Incarnation that continues in the Church, whereby souls are born to God.

Theologians are generally agreed that Mary’s most important title — that from which all her other prerogatives flow — is Theotokos, God-Bearer or Mother of God. The Immaculate Conception, which makes her the perfect Daughter of the Father, was to prepare her to be the Mother of God. And, as we have seen, her espousals to the Holy Ghost were for that same end: the Incarnation.

Mary is the creature of the Creator, the redeemed of the Redeemer, the saved of the Savior, the sanctified of the Sanctifier, the member of the Head, the servant of the Master — and she is all that perfectly.

When we come back to this subject of “sanctifying relationships,” it will be to consider our relations with the Trinity and with Mary.

  1. All this is explained at greater length in the paper I wrote on the subject.