synergy explorersCondren’s book traces the decline of female power in Western spirituality. In the process, she recounts descriptions of the “spiritual marriage” tradition in Ireland. This early practice once empowered women to carry out church functions – in contrast with later, rigidly patriarchal practices.

To unite in a spiritual marriage, male and female clerical pairs lived together in “sinless union” (chastely). They both conducted liturgical duties.

For more on this widespread practice in early Christianity see Agapetae or Subintroductae (1st – 3rd Centuries).


Available for purchase (the 2002 edition)


[pp.98-99] The new Christian revolution had offered opportunities to women not to be found within the native social structure. One such option was spiritual marriage, in which women lived together with their “consortia” or “spiritual husbands” and undertook liturgical functions….

The custom was not peculiar to Ireland. There is evidence that it existed throughout the early church. … According to St. Irenaeus in the second century, several heads of the Valentinian sect lived together with “sisters.” At the time of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, virgins who were dedicated to God “lived in the most intimate relationship with confessors, priests and laymen, and the rigorous Tertullian advised well-to-do Christians to take into their houses one or more widows as “spiritual spouses” who were “beautiful by their faith, endowed with their poverty, sealed by their age. . . . It is well pleasing to God to have several such wives.”

Sometimes a monk and a nun would retire together into the desert, seeking to unify their souls in a way that would bring them closer to God. The later church, seeking to suppress this custom, met with a lot of opposition. One poor bishop, Leontius of Antioch, castrated himself in order to be permitted to retain his beloved companion. …

The practice in Ireland

As late as the ninth century a Saxon saint named Bercert lived in County Cork with a “sister.” …

The old Irish church, according to one historian, made these relationships a “foundation pillar of its organisation”. In these relationships, at least in Ireland, no difference was made between men and women, and both were allowed to take part in church functions. When the Celtic mission moved to Brittany, the Gallican bishops were scandalised that the men when accompanied by women, who, like the men, assumed to themselves sacramental functions.

We have no clear dates for the ending of the spiritual marriage in Ireland, and the Irish apparently persisted in these relationships. Marriage, spiritual or otherwise, among the clergy proper (as distinct from monks and nuns) survived at least up to the twelfth century and in many cases up to the time of the Protestant Reformation.

St. Patrick did not approve of these relationships

At one time Patrick is said to have investigated the case Bishop Mel and his “sister” and ordered the parties to separate. The “sister” appeared before Patrick holding burning embers in her apron (a proof of her virginity). Patrick was singularly unimpressed and upheld his decision.

A more serious incident occurred when Patrick was enraged with a woman, Lupait, a “sister” who lived at the Fort of Macha and of whom he had heard rumours. He was away from his mission at the time. When he came back went out to meet him and cast herself down before his chariot. Patrick said, “Drive the chariot over her.” The charioteer did as he was told the chariot went over her three times.

The document concludes, ’She went to heaven at the Ferta.” Patrick also is said to have cut off, MacNisse, Bishop of Connor, who had such a sister and who had previously been baptised and ordained by Patrick. Patrick thereafter issued a decree: “Let men and women be apart so that we may not be found to give opportunity to the weak, and so that by us the Lord’s name will not be blasphemed, which be far from us.”

Saint Patrick, however, was not very successful, and the custom appears to have continued…

Although not reproduced entirely in Condren’s book, below is an old Irish poem translated by Kuno Meyer. It’s devoted to a spiritual marriage union.

To Crinog
Spiritual Marriage Kuno Meyer
Kuno Meyer

Crinog, melodious is your song.
Though young no more you are still bashful.
We two grew up together in Niall’s northern land,
When we used to sleep together in tranquil slumber.

That was my age when you slept with me,
O peerless lady of pleasant wisdom:
A pure-hearted youth, lovely without a flaw,
A gentle boy of seven sweet years.

We lived in the great world of Banva
Without sullying soul or body,
My flashing eye full of love for you,
Like a poor innocent untempted by evil.

Your just counsel is ever ready,
Wherever we are we seek it:
To love your penetrating wisdom is better
Than glib discourse with a king.

Since then you have slept with four men after me,
Without folly or falling away:
I know, I hear it on all sides,
You are pure, without sin from man.

At last, after weary wanderings,
You have come to me again,
Darkness of age has settled on your face:
Sinless your life draws near its end.

You are still dear to me, faultless one,
You shall have welcome from me without stint;
You will not let us be drowned in torment:
We will earnestly practise devotion with you.

The lasting world is full of your fame,
Far and wide you have wandered on every track:
If every day we followed your ways,
We should come safe into the presence of dread God.

You leave an example and a bequest
To every one in this world,
You have taught us by your life:
Earnest prayer to God is no fallacy.

Then may God grant us peace and happiness!
May the countenance of the King
Shine brightly upon us
When we leave behind us our withered bodies.

Related Synergy concepts on spiritual marriage are discussed in: