Brandon Hopkins

Metaphysical Marriage and the Elasticity of Tradition


Cimabue, detail from The Capture of Christ, second half of 13th century

Legend, the murmuring brain of religion and social custom, frequently explores the shadowy territory at the juncture of human spirituality and terrestrial desire. Because the secular yearnings of individuals are often at odds with the collective spiritual needs of their community, traditional practices are needed as a mediating force. Thus religious tradition evolves in a dynamic with the transgressive elements of the community it services, so that aberrant individuals are either demonized or, preferably, folded back into the community–in either case they are incorporated into the religious system and given significance within it. Several religious cultures imagine romantic relationships, and even marriages, between humans and otherworldly beings, relationships that can be read as symbolic compromises between secular or counter-traditional desires and an embrace of religious orthodoxy. These stories offer consolation and a “way out” for both aberrant members of society and their families, replacing shame with respect, if not pride.

In the legend of St. Catherine of Siena, such a dynamic between individual desire, social expectation, and religious fulfillment is outlined with keen psychological insight. The mystical marriage of St. Catherine was a popular subject in Christian art and storytelling from around St. Catherine of Siena’s own lifetime in the mid-fourteenth century through the seventeenth century, though the earliest images date from a few years prior to Catherine of Siena’s birth and depict the mythical St. Catherine of Alexandria, fabled to have lived a thousand years earlier. The images are frequently bizarre and always fascinating, depicting the women’s visions of their heavenly marriages to Christ. Often, the heavenly bridegroom is the Christ child supported by an obliging mother, and occasionally, he weds both Catherines at once, shattering the restrictions of time and monogamy. Each St. Catherine was a model for religious unorthodoxy and a patron for Christian women: St. Catherine of Alexandria was tortured on the Catherine Wheel for besting the Emperor’s philosophers in a debate and was an inspiration for Joan of Arc; St. Catherine of Siena was interrogated for heresy, and appears as a notable eccentric in a contemporary account of her life, The Miracoli of Saint Catherine.

The Miracoli of Saint Catherine, written by an anonymous resident of Siena around 1347, depicts her conversion to faith as a controversial affair within her family and community, as a moment not of religious deliverance but of psychological uncertainty. In the tale, the seven-year-old Catherine is depicted as an odd and reclusive child, suffering from fear of divine punishment after seeing a vision of God perched in a cave.

More predominant than Catherine’s spiritual anxiety is her distaste for human company, an overpowering hermetic impulse that causes her to avoid her family, eventually run away from home, and seek refuge in a cave. It is there, in this isolation, that she prays to the Virgin Mary, begging that she be permitted to wed Mary’s son, Christ. Upon making this entreaty, Catherine ascends into the air where she is greeted by an image of the heavenly Virgin presenting her son, who extends a wedding ring and actively espouses Catherine. Not only has Catherine requested and received a blessing directly from heaven, but she has also proposed marriage to a man, albeit through the intermediary of his mother, inverting the established gradient between divine and terrestrial, masculine and feminine. After the vision of her mystical marriage, Catherine returns home.

One of the most strikingly unusual elements of the Miracoli’s account is its focus on Catherine’s psychological motivation to retreat from her surroundings, rather than her piety. She would rather live in a dark rift in the earth than marry a man on earth, and finds a middle ground in religious monasticism. Earlier in the story, we learn that Catherine had a “married sister” (always enigmatically identified as “married,” though we known nothing else about her) who dies soon after Catherine’s mystical marriage. When a friar visits her family to offer his consolation, Catherine confesses her vision to him. He responds by encouraging her in her desire to turn her back on the world. The author tells us with understandable amazement that the seven-year-old Catherine suddenly makes a vow to Christ: “I promise to give you my virginity forever and you will be the guardian of my purity.”

Hereafter, we’re told, Catherine becomes even stouter in her avoidance of her father, mother, and other family members, not to mention outside society. But her family pesters her to look forward to finding herself a nice man like any normal child, and as she grows older, she continues to pray to God that he protect her and allow her to keep her vow, retreating into the upper floor of her house and avoiding her family for days at a time. She also refuses to eat, and her anorexia later finds spiritual expression in her decision to subsist solely on her daily host.

As described in the Miracoli, St. Catherine appears to be led by a neurotic preference for solitude and nervous anorexia, which find an appropriate expression under her social conditions in the monastic life. Conceivably, a whole class of woman walked in St. Catherine’s shadow in the middle, becoming a “bride of Christ” as the only alternative to marriage, out of shame of some imagined impurity, or for other reasons beyond mere piety. Such women do appear elsewhere in medieval literature, most notably in The Canterbury Tales, in which the character Emelye, tugged between the brothers Palamon and Arcite, prays to Diana that she be saved from having to marry either of them.

Nor is this paradigm unique to Christian communities whose members are governed by harsh traditional oversight. Chinese traditions rooted in ancestor worship have similarly offered women the option to opt out of the religious system by taking advantage of superstition. According to Janice Stockard’s Daughters of the Canon Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, the “spirit marriage” offers women in traditional South Chinese communities an escape from the expectation that they take a husband. In the theology of ancestor worship, a family can only honor the spirits of male family members and their wives—the souls of unmarried women are unattached to a home in the afterlife, and doomed to limbo.

Hence, prior to marriage, women had no future lineage to pray for their soul, and to remain unmarried was to damn one’s soul to an eternal limbo without descendants to welcome and care for one’s ghost. Stockard defines “bride-initiated spirit marriage” as a “marriage-resistance practice” in which a woman could take control of her destiny by entering into a marital bond with a deceased bachelor—after death, her soul would be cared for by the buried husband’s family, but she would obviously continue to live a unmarried life in all but name.

These two instances of metaphysical marriage, the St. Catherine paradigm and the spirit marriage, likely do not simply conceal a personal inclination to remaining unmarried, but instead bind the individual’s earthly desires to the community’s spiritual needs, generating acceptable patterns of behavior. The dynamic between, on the one hand, a secular desire that runs counter to tradition and community pressures, and, on the other, the adoption of a lifestyle rooted in superstition, is complex.

On the one hand, St. Catherine resists orthodoxy through an exaggerated show of obedience to it (her refusal to take a husband alienates her family, though it is also evidence of her radical faith). Jesus Freak cults of the 1960s like David Berg’s Children of God are another example of this paradigm, legitimating their unconventional sexual morality and other alternative lifestyle choices in biblical interpretation. The Children of God’s “flirty fishers” were religious prostitutes who acted as “bait” to lure new converts into the cult, and whose existence Berg justified with a line from Matthew that compares the act of proselytizing to fishing, arguably bending the obliging and stoned faith of cult members to feed his own megalomania, but nevertheless shattering religious tradition from within itself.

Instances of secularly motivated religious action like Catherine’s mystic marriage could also have a conservative, stabilizing influence on traditional societies, reaching out to fold secular desires and cultural aberration into systems of cultural orthodoxy. Catherine’s bizarre behavior isn’t seen as anti-social by visitors to her monastery, but rather as prophetic; while the women with spirit husbands gain a degree of freedom from their decision to take a spouse without the responsibilities and entanglements of a flesh and blood husband, they also make a compromise to the religious community by acknowledging the necessity of securing a spiritual future. By creating the “brides of Christ” paradigm that Dominican nuns and other sects of consecrated virgins would adhere to, St. Catherine created a new traditional function for a St. Catherine type to aspire to beyond becoming a wife and mother.

Finally, much like the Children of God, the fertile crescent’s cults of Ishtar and Astarte worshipped fertility by visiting a temple staffed by prostitutes, to whom visitors paid obeisance by partaking of her divine love by proxy. Here, the distinction between spirituality and earthly desire is most obscured, as Ishtar’s temple creates a space for both worship and the fulfillment of the earthly urges of the cults’ priests.

Of course, traditional systems tend not to be floating monoliths of law in the first place, but rather dynamic playing fields that adapt to transgressions and abnormalities in order to survive and provide order. St. Catherine is a model for how myths rationalize hazy psychological territory by fitting it into a standard language. Rather than cast its aberrant members out into the wilderness, traditional systems frequently prefer to carve out a space for them, to call them back from self-imposed exile and house them in impromptu enclaves, whether at society’s spiritual core or on its social periphery. Tradition’s adaptive ability permits it to evolve with historic forces, and its ability to incorporate challenges to itself allows it to adapt in the face of new challenges. Tradition cannot afford to function as a hegemon, by excluding the worldly and the psychologically unorthodox, since it lives in human belief and practice, and since people embrace spiritual tradition as a way to establish social unity. The marriage myth’s popularity can be attributed to its structural function in traditional communities, in which it opens space for both orthodoxy and tolerance. 

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.