Why Be Catholic? 6: Divine Intimacy
Among all the concepts of God the world has known, only one draws the believer into the most profound intimacy of love. This intimacy is completely dependent upon the unique way in which the Christian God interacts in its three persons, and in which the Catholic God interacts with men. I refer, of course, to the doctrine of the Trinity and its wonderful relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary, leading to the Incarnation of the Son who accomplishes our Redemption through a completely self-sacrificial love.
The Christian drama of intimate love begins with the Trinity. God’s nature, as Christians understand it and philosophers ought to, is such that a relationship among three persons in God is absolutely required. Taking the Father as the first in logical priority (though not in time), we can see that if God’s knowledge of Himself is to be perfect, then that knowledge must in fact be another person, coeternal and coequal with the first, and aptly named (in priority) the Son. But the Son and the Father must also love each other infinitely and perfectly, so this love must itself be a person, also coeternal and coequal with the Father and the Son. We call this infinite perfect love the Holy Spirit.
Philosophers might have figured this out on their own, though it is always dangerous to assert too much from natural reason about God. In any case, Revelation is ever an aid to reason, and reality does tend to be intuitive once it is known. The point to grasp here is simply that the Christian God is in very truth a family in a relationship of perfect love, a love that is also infinite in its very intimacy, in the depths to which the beloved is known and cherished by the lover, and to which the lover pours himself out to the beloved. Moreover, this love, being infinitely intimate, always desires to include others within its magnificent scope.
Thus has God created other persons to share in His love, both angels and men. While the very act of creation is an act of love, the subsequent relationship of God to His creatures reveals how God loves each creature in the manner most fitted to its nature, establishing an intimacy of love between Himself and creation. The most striking instance of this from our own point of view, of course, is how God has chosen to love man. Just as the Father created man as a composite being, material and spiritual, body and soul, so too does He love man—and each man and woman—most appropriately through the astonishing Incarnation of the Son, the Word made flesh, infinity made intimate to human persons.
And what does this Incarnate Christ do? He lives a life of self-sacrificial love in deep obedience to the Father, a self-sacrificial love for every other person. His purpose in doing so is to draw us all into the intimate fire of love shared by the Trinity, now dwelling in us through sacramental power, shaping us in love from within. Everything in the Divine plan is connected to this purpose. The sacraments, for example, are outward signs instituted by Christ to “give grace”—that is, to impart the Divine life, which is love. The Eucharist itself is a participation in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ, enabling us to eat His body and blood, so that we become what we have received: We are deified in intimate love.
In some measure all Christian groups retain much of this understanding, though many of them are gradually losing their sense of the Incarnation and of the persons in the Trinity as a rising tide of secularism minimizes the richness of the original apostolic teaching. But when it comes to the ultimate act of this drama of love, very few Christian groups understand the gift they have been given. For just as God loves in a manner wholly appropriate to a creature whom He has created body and soul, so too does He love in a manner equally appropriate to a creature whom he has created male and female. This is why the Catholic understanding of God, and of Love, includes a special and even pivotal role for Mary.
In order to bring about the Incarnation of the Son for the purpose of enacting His redeeming love, God adopts a plan which incorporates the power of the masculine and the feminine to which human nature was expressly designed to respond. And not only does human nature respond through maleness and femaleness, but it responds in this way with extraordinary power and attraction, seeking to be made whole. Therefore, Christ is brought into the world through the most appropriate loving intimacy of a woman and a mother.
Here God’s condescension is breathtaking. He creates for this purpose a woman whom He so fills with grace that she becomes, as Wordsworth so aptly wrote, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” In the deepest sense, then, is Mary the daughter of the Father. Next, God brings about the conception of the Word made flesh through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, an intimate marital union which equally makes Mary the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Finally, God the Son grows in Mary’s womb, being born in the course of time as an infant, and being raised by Mary, who is finally and rightly called the mother of the Son. Thus is the woman, Mary, drawn into the deepest intimacy of Trinitarian love in order to bring forth the Christ, who teaches us Who love is, and who sacrifices Himself for us out of deepest love.
Nowhere is this account of love, this deep understanding and experience of infinite intimacy, more fully represented than in the Catholic Church. The richness of her doctrine is a richness of the knowledge of love; the power of her sacraments is the power of the experience of love. The Church is not only the body but the very Bride of Christ; marriage becomes the human model of Christ’s relationship to the Church. People talk about Catholic guilt, and with so many blessings, I am sure we have much to be guilty about. But they ought rather to talk about Catholic intimacy. The hallmark of the Church is intimacy with the God of Love.
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