Imagination, Prayer, and the Spousal Gift

In and through Christ’s Spirit, St. Joseph stands ready to assist any priest in going to Mary, thus concretizing the priest’s own spousal identity.


In this essay, I will explore the identity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her powerful role as a priest’s spiritual spouse. While her role as spiritual mother is well-known within the clergy, her mission as spiritual spouse is less recognized. This mission, however, carries significant truths for the spiritual and human formation of priests; thus, seminaries ought to affirm this mission of Mary in both the external and internal fora of seminary culture. This mission is mediated to the priest through the love and prayers of St. Joseph, husband of Mary. He stands with the priest as one who gives himself completely in chaste love to Mary—the primordial image of the Church, Bride and Mother.

St. Joseph, Husband of Mary, Brother to Priests

St. Joseph assists the priest to receive his spousal identity because Joseph himself knew the surprise of being called into the same paradoxical vocation: the virgin-spouse (cf. Mt 1:20).  Joseph desired to be married to Mary, and committed himself to such. Mary, however, may have deeply desired a life of consecrated virginity, while possessing no clarity as to how this desire would be fulfilled since she was betrothed to Joseph. After the Annunciation, it fell to her to tutor Joseph in the mystery that God prepared for them: to be married, yet called to virginity in the company of the Son of God. In his prayer life, the priest is rightly called to entrust to Mary, as did St. Joseph, the processes and struggles of becoming a man of complete self-donation. In so doing, the priest experiences Mary’s heart as a place of emotional and spiritual formation. As the priest’s companion, Joseph intercedes and inspires the priest to share his entire heart with Mary, to receive healing wisdom about such a vocation from her, who is full of grace. In this kind of praying, it is the imagination, in concert with Scripture, which mediates insight, communion, and healing.

In and through Christ’s Spirit, St. Joseph stands ready to assist any priest in going to Mary, thus concretizing the priest’s own spousal identity. In a real sense, there is a conspiracy of the Holy Family to affect the priest in his own development as chaste spouse and spiritual father. Mary’s love is affectively and spiritually formative because she lives only to do what the Father wills (cf. Lk 1:38), thus participating in the grace of Christ’s own sacrificial love, which was given to her before her birth. Christ himself desires that each priest share in his own spousal disposition, his own virtue of self-donation. As Jean Jacques Olier wrote, “Now, by coming into man, this Spirit of our Lord spreads there the virtues, inclinations, and feelings of our Lord; he paints in us, so to speak, the same qualities that are in our Lord.” 1 Like Bl. Dom Marmion, seminary formation affirms that Christ wants to live his Mysteries over again in the priest. As a gift for all bishops and priests of the Latin rite, Christ wants to share his mystery of virginal, spousal love. What he lived by nature, the priest will live by grace. 2

Beyond Christ and St. Joseph, a third figure emerges who is related to Mary’s spousal character: St. John the evangelist at the cross of Christ. Joseph Ratzinger noted that the apostle John allowed the fullness of Mary’s feminine identity to be received into his heart at the cross (Jn 19:27: “He took her into everything that was his own”). This taking “implies a … personal relation between the disciple … and Mary; a letting of Mary into the inmost core of {his} own mental and spiritual life; a handing {of himself} over into her feminine and maternal existence; a reciprocal self-commitment that becomes the ever-new way to Christ’s birth and brings about Christ’s taking form in man.” 3 If Christ wanted such a spiritually intimate relationship between Mary and one of his first priests, St. John, it is reasonable to conclude that he wills such a relationship for all those who share in his sacred priesthood, even in our present day. Pope Benedict XVI commented: “The Gospel tells us that from that hour, St. John, the beloved son, took his mother Mary ‘to his own home.’ This is what it says in the {English} translation; but the Greek text is far deeper, far richer. We could translate it: he took Mary into his inner life, his inner being, ‘eis tà ìdia,’ into the depths of his being. To take Mary with one means to introduce her into the dynamism of one’s own entire existence, it is not something external, and into all that constitutes the horizon of one’s own apostolate.” 4

Here we have the “taking” of Mary by John into “his inner life,” but in St. Joseph, we have another form. This related “taking” by Joseph is less utilized in the imagination of priests at prayer, but in our age is appearing more and more. Unlike the bond between St. John and Mary under the cross, where he is given by Christ specifically as mother, Joseph is given to Mary in an explicit nuptial bond. No woman can have her spousal-maternal bond separated, and in the case of Mary, she is my mother as she forms me, through her prayers, into her “son.” Here, she is also my spiritual spouse, as she tutors me in how to donate the self out of love for the Bride. God, through a dream, told Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Mt 1:20). Another way of phrasing what God said to Joseph might be, “Even though you are right to reverence Mary as Mine, I give her to you, so that you, too, might be led into the intimacy we have, while at the same time protecting and defending her from external danger.” These words are also addressed to the priest in his own prayer.

Going to Mary as spiritual spouse and, with her, to Christ is a new image for many priests in the depths of their prayer. And, yet, Christ himself is related to Mary as spouse in that she represents the Church, his Bride. Christ, as noted above, wants to share all of his mysteries with the priest; now he wishes to invite men, as was St. Joseph, into this spiritual espousal. It is an espousal that essentially calls forth complete trust and complete self-giving. Christ gave his entire being in sacrifice for the salvation of the Church, his Bride.

St. Joseph’s humility operates very powerfully here. He, more than any other, understands the struggle of the priest to offer his spousal-paternal identity to the Church in a commitment to lifelong chaste celibacy. It was Joseph who had to learn from Mary herself what new kind of marriage 5 was being given to them from God. Each priest also needs to be tutored by Mary, along with the intercessory prayer of Joseph, to receive in joy this new kind of marriage that is offered to him by God. There is much in Joseph’s own experience that priests should invite into their contemplative intimacy with Mary. Note what Fr. Marie-Dominique Phillipe says:

The Virgin belongs to God alone and God has every claim on her. In Joseph’s resolution, we see the divine love that he has for Mary; he loves her for herself; he loves her in order that the will of God be fulfilled in her. He does not love her for himself; his love gives him no claim on her. … The angel explains to Joseph that he is still to consider Mary in the same way: she is his wife. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. He is not to distance himself from her. 6

Even though Mary is given wholly to God, Joseph is still her spouse because he loves her within the parameters of God’s claim upon her. His love is still real, his desire to cherish her is still reverenced, his reception of her love is still spousal at its roots, his paternal character still binds him to her in their mutual love for Jesus, and his protection of her as mystery still envelops him in God’s grace as it does for all husbands. For her part, Mary teaches Joseph how to be with her, how to be with, and for, her who has been taken up into the prevenient grace that is her Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity. She reaches Joseph and leads him into the depths of loving her from within the truth that she has already been reached by Love itself in an exceptional fashion. 

She is the New Eve 7 and will form the priest, as she did Joseph, in what it means to be spousal in this new way of celibate, chaste giving. Despite any initial disquieting feelings around imagining Mary as spiritual spouse, the priest should entrust his own desire for spousal love and paternity to Mary, just as Joseph did. This kind of entrusting was established by Christ himself when Mary (Church) was given to the priesthood under the cross, and the priesthood was given to Mary. 8  Here is what Father Philippe, O.P., says, “Joseph loved Mary as no other man on earth has ever loved a woman, as no husband ever loved his wife. He loved her madly.” 9 Father Philippe goes on to echo the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Sanctifying grace not only suppressed in her all movements of sensuality; {this grace} was even efficacious for others, such that, as beautiful as she was in her body, Mary was never able to be desired {in a carnal way} by man (Commentary on the Sentences, III, Dist. 3, q.1, a.2, q.1, ad 4).” 10 In, and by way of grace, Joseph wants the priest to “madly” love Mary as well.

Joseph as Model Spouse

What Joseph wants to share with the chaste, celibate priest is this: Mary is your helpmate (cf. Gn 2:18). 11 Mary is the spiritual spouse of the “priest,” particularly in her embodying Christ’s one Church as Bride. 12 It is to her that the priest must go in prayer to receive the grace of giving himself completely to Christ’s spouse, the Church. Or, as then Cardinal Ratzinger said about St. Joseph’s own “priesthood” in relation to Joseph’s spousal love: “Joseph is … the prototype of the Christian bishop. For her part, Mary is the living church. … Mary is the bride. {Joseph} thus becomes the icon of the Bishop, to whom the bride is betrothed; she is not at his disposal but under his protection.” 13 The Church’s welfare is entrusted to priests. Their Bride, Christ’s own Church, has a “Marian countenance.” 14 Beholding this face in prayer becomes a way for the priest to receive, not only the grace he needs to be sustained in his spousal identity, but Mary’s face becomes the real object of his masculine commitment to the woman. The priest is called to protect, serve, provide for, and sacrifice for, Mary. To invite the seminarian to desire such a depth of contemplative beholding ought to be the true compass of all spiritual formation in the seminary.

Joseph’s prayerful aid is particularly lodged around issues of chastity, self-donation, and the release of courage needed by each priest to share his own interior life with Christ and the saints.  Just imagine the essential, intimate conversations Joseph needed to have with Mary. Conversations about who she was, about their own unique marriage. These conversations must have been ongoing as befits the mystery that Mary and Joseph were to one another, conversations that led to their deepest communion, and conversations that became prayer. Joseph wants to introduce the priest to this level of intimacy in his prayer with Mary as well.

St. Joseph brings the priest to Mary so that he can know the same love that Joseph did; he desires to bring the priest into the loving conspiracy that is Nazareth, the love within the Holy Family.  “Mary does not forbid Joseph to love her! The fact that a person is totally given to God does not prevent us from loving him or her; we love that person in the light of his or her consecration to God. Mary responds to Joseph’s love with a great intensity of love.” 15 Such love will satisfy the priest as man, as spouse. We see this love’s power in what Pope John Paul II said about Joseph’s love life with Mary in Nazareth: “The deep spiritual closeness arising from marital union and the interpersonal contact between man and woman have their definitive origin in the Spirit, the Giver of Life (cf. Jn 6:63). Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man. And this love proved to be greater than this ‘just man’ could ever have expected within the limits of his human heart.” 16

These are stunning sentences about an even more powerful grace that is given to Joseph. Due to the nature of the communion of saints, Joseph wants to intercede, that this grace be given to all those who bind themselves in love to the Bride, the Church: “Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man.” For the celibate priest, his spousal identity is satisfied in having spiritual communion with the Bride, Mary, in the Spirit, who loves his priesthood more than he does himself. His erotic desires, if need be, are purified and ordered toward the source of love and not toward any one woman exclusively. Mary will order the priest toward the Source and ask this Spirit to come to him and bring to him “the conjugal love” he wants to experience as a man.

This spousal mystery carries with it the fullness of Christ’s own identity as being fully human and fully God. By way of the flesh he received from Mary, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was placed in communion with humanity in a new way, in a way that would eventually lead to the total self-donation of his body and blood for the salvation of his Bride, the Church. From, and in, Mary, his mother, came his communion with his chosen Bride, humanity. Above, I pointed to this arresting sentence in the Catechism: she now knows the humanity which, in her, the Son of God espouses. I did so because its truth is being experienced in the prayer lives of some priests for whom I serve as spiritual director:  Mary comes to them in prayer as spouse. 17 the Song for she espouses all the sentiments that Christ crucified has for His Father and for humanity.  (…) Mary is transformed into Jesus without ceasing to be herself.”  –Fr. Antonio Carvalho, A Pessoa E A Missão Da Bem-Aventurada Virgem Maria No Livro AOS Sacerdotes Filhos  Prediletos De Nossa Senhora De PE. Stefano Gobbi ,( Dayton Ohio: STD dissertation, International Marian Research Institute, 2008) 113. The author is quoting from: Philippe, Card. Pierre Paul.  The Virgin Mary and the Priesthood, Translated by Rev. Laurence J. Spiteri, Society of St. Paul, Staten Island, NY, 1993, pp.52-53.  Some might argue it is “better” to relate to Mary as mother because she “forms” one into Christ. It is also, however, a powerful role of the woman to “form” the man she marries into her “spouse.” There is in the woman a formative power ordered toward the complete man, son and spouse.] 

The Spiritual Aid of Mary

Since Mary is the New Eve, the Woman (Jn 2:4; 19:26), she desires to order men correctly toward their spousal-masculine identity. In the case of the priest particularly, she wants to see her Son’s Church secured in salvation through his grace given to priests in their commitment as chaste spouses. Hence, in prayer, many priests turn to Mary to assist them with their commitment to chaste celibacy. She knows the spousal nature of man is under attack within western culture (androgyny, homosexual “unions,” high divorce and remarriage rates, addiction to pornography, etc.). It appears that the movement of the Holy Spirit in, and through, the Holy Family, endeavors to counteract this attack by securing the spousal nature of the priesthood. Mary’s love for the priesthood, a priesthood which embodies her own Son’s sacrificial gift of himself, draws her to be the strongest of “helpmates” (Gn 2: 18) for the priest. 

The erotic energy of the chaste celibate reaches its rest only in, and through, the truth of his vocation itself. The man called to priesthood must live in reality. He will never have a spouse to hold, and yet, as a man, he desires with all his heart to give himself to woman. If such good and natural desires are not acknowledged directly, truthfully, and in the context of one’s vocation, they have the potential to break out in underground ways, ways filled with distortion and lies (e.g., the viewing of pornography as a habit, or other acts of infidelity). 18 Those seminarians or priests who have become alienated from their masculine and spousal identity by repression can be invited to open their hearts to Joseph and Mary so that their fears or shame can be healed. Alternately, those men who have courageously suffered the coming of sexual integration, chastity, and desire to deepen their intimacy with God can count on Mary and Joseph to intercede for them. In prayer, the celibate approaches Mary in the Spirit and asks for St. Joseph’s intercession to overcome any fear he might have in sharing with Mary his deepest longings for a bride. Since in faith, hope, and love, imagination connects the priest to the Paschal Mystery, he can be assured that his communication with the saints about his deepest affective movements, and his need to love and be loved, will be received in all truth. They will also be received by the saints in accord with any affective and spiritual healing needed by the priest as well. Here, of course, is where the skilled spiritual director can be most helpful as he encourages the priest to hide nothing from Christ and the saints in his prayer. The spiritual intimacy carried by deep contemplative prayer in the Spirit, and in the company of the saints, carries with it a healing that purifies the sinfully disordered, 19 erotic drive, leaving a man free to give himself in mature love. If such contemplative prayer becomes a way of life, the purified eros becomes characteristic of a man, established as a virtue, a virtue longing to be completed in holiness. As Benedict began his pontificate, he states: “An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide, not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” 20


Since marriage does not exist solely for the reproduction of another member of the species, but for the creation of a communion of persons, those who live consecrated to priesthood are sustained, too, in a communion of persons, in intimacy with their friends, saints, and God. Issuing forth from a life of such communion is much spiritual fruit for the sake of the Church. To enter such intimate prayer with the Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is to have the very rationale for a celibate clergy born anew in the priest’s heart, obliterating all doubt that such a call exists simply for pragmatic reasons. The priest, sacramentally sharing in Christ’s own self-donative love, continues the love that Christ had for his Church: a singular, pure, and satisfying love for both Spouse and Bride. Such a love calls out to society that this passing age (cf. Rm 12:1-2) does not exhaust the meaning of life. There is more. There is the hope of complete rest in divine love. Mary’s earnest hope is to bring all priests to love like her Son did … a Bridegroom giving all, even unto death itself.


  1. Quoted in John O. Barres, Jean Jacques Olier’s Priestly Spirituality: Mental Prayer and Virtue as the Foundation for the Direction of Souls (Roma: Pontificia Universitas Sanctae Crucis, 1999) 105.
  2. Dom Marmion, OSB, Christ in His Mysteries (St. Louis: Herder, 1939) 248ff.
  3. Hans urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005) 58.
  4. Benedict XVI, General Audience,  August 12, 2009.
  5. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos (1989) n. 7.
  6. Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, OP, The Mystery of Joseph (Bethesda: Zaccheus, 2009) 12-13.
  7. St. Irenaeus says that Eve “by disobeying became the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so also Mary . . . was obedient and became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race” (Against Heresies 3.22.4). Later he says of Eve and Mary, “Just as the human race was subject to death by a virgin, it was freed by a virgin, with the virginal disobedience balanced by virginal obedience” (ibid. 5.19.1).
  8. There is a helpful summary of the relationship between Mary as Mother and Mary as spouse in John O’Donnell, SJ, Hans Urs von Balthasar (London, Continuum, 1991) 117-119.
  9. Philippe, 135.
  10. As quoted in Philippe, 188, note 291.
  11. See below commentary from note 23.
  12. Lumen Gentium §63-65. See also Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant (NY: Alba House, 1992) where he says, “In Revelation 12 the relationship of who Mary personifies is inverse. Here in the foreground is the ecclesiological aspect: the Woman Zion, the Church, will become the Spouse of the Lamb in the definitive conclusion of the Covenant (cf. Rev 21:1-9).
  13. Hans urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: Church at the Source, footnote 5, 88.
  14. Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, 263.
  15. Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, OP, The Mystery of Joseph, 103-4.
  16. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, (1989) n. 19.
  17. “… Although Mary remains the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross, it is necessary to have another term to delineate precisely the particular bond which unites her to Christ.  Tradition and Liturgy have found this term in the Song of Songs: “spouse”.  Mary is truly the spouse [in
  18. See William Lynch, SJ, Images of Hope (Ind.:Univ.of Notre Dame, 1987) 244-245.
  19. Here, we are arguing that for the affectively normal and maturing male prayer can assist with the integration of his sexual identity moving him from vice to virtue. Obviously, sexual deviancy as a mental or emotional illness needs psychological treatment outside of priestly formation.
  20. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, (2005) n. 4.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, NE.


  1. Dear Deacon Keating,

    Thank you so much for this beautiful article. It was a blessing to read the insights of those whose works you have referenced, as well as to read of your own experience and the work of the Holy Spirit in the formation of priests. I hope many priests, deacons and seminarians will be blessed by your article. Personally, as a married lay woman, it gave me an even deeper appreciation for the Holy Family and the unique relationships we all, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, can have with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

    • Fr. Smolenski spma Fr. Smolenski spma says:

      Many years ago, while at meditation in my parish church, I realized that I, as ‘Father’, was a “single parent”…. I did not feel comfortable with that thought. I recalled that several Saints ,such as Herman and Edmund, had espoused Our Lady. So I took her as the spiritual mother of my “children”. She is such officially by Christ’s words from the Cross. When he said to his disciple, “Behold your Mother” he created a spiritual relationship between her and each of his disciples. Those entrusted to my ministry are to be formed by me into disciples and therefore children of Mary… therefore my “fatherhood” should be joined to her maternal vocation and mission. – But to have a proper relationship, I realized I needed St. Joseph to form it. He was her authentic spouse and virginal father of her Child.- a perfect model for all spiritual spouses and fathers…. The article by Deacon Keating certainly delves into the profundutiy of this subject….

      • Fr. Smolenski,

        I am a seminarian currently, and when this thought of Mary as spouse entered my head I was so afraid. I didn’t want to taint her…how could I, a man (boy really) think to engage Mary in such a way. My brother seminarians thought me mad, but it was thanks to the many priests here at the seminary, my Formator, my Spiritual Director, and my mentor in spirituality (as I dubbed him), that I had the courage to do so. I believe that the Total Consecration played a big part in my reception of this call. Well, time went on, and the relationship has deepened, as any relationship does. It’s no longer the honeymoon, but the constant realization, yes, she is there for me as she was for St. Joseph. I venture to say, though, that Mary wants to go further. She allows herself, at least she has for me, to be the gateway to seeing myself more as the one whom the Bridegroom gives Himself too. She has purified my eros, which was in desperate need of it, and is around me, in class, working on papers, even and especially in the chapel, leading me deeper into herself, until that moment when hearts unite. This is not a union of the flesh, but of the heart! How amazing is this!? And when that happens, her pure, intense love of her Bridegroom, her Only One, is united to my love uniquely. Now, during Holy Hour, not a word is needed, but she runs to me, and prepares me to receive the True Love of my life, that is Jesus Christ. She is indispensable in this movement. She allows the priest, or seminarian in this case, to be passionate with a woman, to see her as a woman, not as plaster. And just like any good marriage, she leads her husband to Jesus Christ, who is our true end. Therefore, you could say, in my masculinity, Mary is my future bride, but in my soul, I AM SOUGHT FOR BY THE SECOND PERSON OF THE TRINITY HIMSELF! This, as St. John Eudes would point out, is the beauty of the Two Hearts (that of the Immaculate and Sorrowful Heart with the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus); they are so close that they are almost the same. Ergo, what one receives is enjoyed by the other too. Deacon Keating, thank you so much for your reflection, and the spreading of this love…it needs to be spread. Mary is too important to be left behind in any aspect. Father, Deacon, know of my prayers for you both, and I beg yours for me and my formation!

        Ad Iesum Per Mariam

  2. Deacon Keating:

    To my mind, some of this language smacks of the Theban plays and Oedipus, more than it does of 1st century AD Jewish/Hebrew history and imagery. Jesus does not take, for example, Miryam, His mother, as a spiritual spouse, He takes the Church as His mystical Bride, the “Body of Christ” (cf. Eph. 5). In ancient Israel, a Jewish king ruled the kingdom, NOT with his spouse (particularly during the Davidic reign kings had multiple spouses and did so to enter into concordats with nearby kingdoms to secure alliances). It was the king’s MOTHER, the Jewish “gebirah” (the Great Lady, the Queen Mother) who ruled with him. As the heir to the promise of God to king David that a descendant of his would sit upon his throne forever, Jesus Christ rules over His kingdom, the People of God, not with His spouse the Church, but with His mother, the “Woman”, the new Eve, the new GEBIRAH (the Queen Mother). His mystical or nuptial union is with His spouse, the Church.

    I understand the theological / spiritual need to sublimate the sexual faculty so that it is not turned to perverse forms – whether it be pornography, or fornication, or more perverse practices. However, planting Greco-Roman imagery of ALL priests taking Mary as spiritual spouse, to my mind, fosters a kind of “Diana of Ephesus” imagery where everyone is feeding at the “teat” of a single bride. Mary is spiritual Mother, Yes!, and as such, is the Gebirah of the kingdom (cf. Rev. 12), but the priest’s “bride” or spouse is the “body” that he serves at the local parish. He is hypostatically united to the “bride” he locally serves and is to be spiritually fruitful. Now, we have each priest with his own bride, instead of all priests, mystically united to one spiritual bride. Jesus would have found the idea that he was somehow mystically married to his mother abhorrent (remember the proscriptions in Tanakh regarding coming near one’s father’s spouse – either God the Father / or St. Joseph). I realize that the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) allowed that Gentiles did not need to become Jews to become Christians, but Jesus’s heritage and, humanly speaking, understanding is specifically Jewish (I have not come to abolish but to fulfill / not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all become fulfilled). I believe the ancient Davidic conception of the Gebirah (the king’s mother) ruling with Him in His kingdom and the idea of the king having a spouse is more in line with the ancient Jewish, messianic fulfillment understanding of channelling priestly sexual energy toward a healthier understanding of or more in line with biblical imagery.


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