Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Countercultural Way of Looking at Womanhood

Strength, independence, ambition, these are the traits in women which are constantly promoted by our feminist culture. To the overwhelmingly dominant culture of such constant promotion and insistence I tend to take issue. This is not, however, because I do not see strength and independence in the wonderful creature known as woman. In the best and holiest of the Church's long history of great women no one can fail to see such attributes, whether we are thinking of Saint Rita or Saint Monica or Katherine Luther or Joan of Arc or Saint Lucy or the Blessed Virgin Mary, traits of strength and independence are in plain view and are indeed virtues. Yet I do take issue with our modern culture at precisely the point of its insistence on these traits in women. Let me explain.

Strength and independence in women are promoted in such a way as to unmistakably imply, and many times it is more than merely implied, that weakness and dependence are wrong, shameful, unwomanly, and to be avoided at all costs. This is so strong and pervasive in the modern Western mindset that even those who consider themselves not to be feminists have taken to just this type of thinking. In fact, the Christian woman should be taught to embrace and take healthy pride in her unique feminine weakness and sense of dependence. In so doing, she will not only find the liberating freedom to more fully become who she is, what she was made to be, but she will also show herself to be a beautiful type for both the Christian soul itself and the Church.

The Christian is made strong and victorious in Christ. Even as powerful an enemy as the devil himself is trampled under our feet. We must never forget the key factor in such strength and victory, however. Namely, that it is God in Christ Who is trampling Satan under our feet. We defeat the devil, yet in doing so, we are merely participating in Christ's defeat of him. I myself do not even object to images of the Blessed Virgin Mary as standing victorious over the serpent, for while this is based upon an alternate reading of the prophesy of Genesis 3, it is a great spiritual truth, not only in Mary's life, but also in her role as type of the Church. As St. Paul teaches, the God of peace shall bruise Satan under our feet (Romans 16). We cannot help notice the striking contrasts, and even seeming paradox in such a statement, where we are told that God is bruising Satan, but yet it is done under our feet, or that God is bruising, trampling, and defeating Satan, and yet He is the God of peace. The Church takes this confession so seriously, by the way, that she prays it in the Litany, to wit:

Ut Satanam sub pedibus nostris conterere digneris: Te rogamus, audi nos.

That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to trample Satan under our feet: We beseech Thee to hear us.

Such victory and strength is ours precisely because we are hidden in the sufferings of Christ. We boast, so to speak, of our weakness, for His grace is sufficient for us. It is highly significant that Mel Gibson in his Passion film shows Christ standing up and stomping upon the serpent precisely in the context of a moment when He was most weak, most drained, in the agony of the Garden, as He looked ahead to His great self sacrifice on the via crucis and on the cross itself. For it is in the cross, that is, in the passive and humble giving of His life on the cross that He defeats the powerful and wily foe; that is where Michael and His strong angelic army defeats the devil and his angels in the cosmic battle which intersects the Church of all time.

Now, while you, dear reader, are starting to think that I have gotten way off topic, let me hasten to point out that this, the suffering service of the Lord of the Church, by which He defeats the enemy and becomes more than a conqueror, is the lens through which we see the whole of our own existence. This is well evident and deeply embedded in many aspects of the Church's devotional and sacramental life. Even Christian children are taught to repeat the great Pauline theme that boasts "I am weak but He is strong." What I suggest and urge is that we look once again at such a basic part of our confession, and learn to employ it in our assessment of the influence that the dominant culture would exert over us, which in this case involves a most dangerous attack on our women and Christian femininity.

In other words, while women are strong, to emphasize such strength is both unbecoming and ultimately misleading. For the real strength and real freedom is bound up in our weakness, in our need for relationships, in other words, our dependence. Instead of all the constant talk of the independence of women, I long to see more Christian women boasting of their dependence, and of their weakness. Much needed themes today include these: how much a woman needs the multifaceted protection of her husband; how genuinely attractive (in a sense, therefore, powerful) a woman can be precisely in her weakness, in her reserve, in her quiet, in her gentleness, in her service, and in her need.

To be clear, none of this is to say that a woman ought never think of herself as strong, or that it is wrong to ever assert herself in the right way and right context. It is not to say that women should all be of the exact same sort of personality and disposition. It is merely to say that the weakness of the weaker vessel is both real and is not a point of shame, but something that is in great need of renewed emphasis in the face of today's ironically termed feminist culture.

My thoughts on this subject are occasioned or brought to the surface lately by a book on Pope Benedict XVI. For within this book, namely, Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait, by Peter Seewald, which contains much worthy material for other discussions as well, there is a brief but noteworthy treatment of Joseph Ratzinger's sister, Maria. Her life was most insignificant from a feminist perspective, shamefully void of ambition and independence. Hers was, however, a truly model Christian life.

Maria Ratzinger was an educated and many skilled woman, yet her foremost desire was to serve the domestic needs of her brother, and to keep a home for him. She was his housekeeper, assistant, and sometimes also his secretary, through several moves and stages of his life, for over three decades. I quote at length here, from chapter 16 of Seewald's book, a discussion of Maria Ratzinger and her relationship with her brother Joseph:

"As early as Ratzinger's time in Freising, his sister, Maria, who was then thirty-five years old, gave up her job as a secretary to look after her parents and her brother. In Bonn, she at first filled in as a secretary for the faculty, and later she also took over running the young professor's household. 'It's just turned out like that,' she was to say later. She saw it as her task to make a home for her brother, she said, to type his manuscripts and to maintain the family bond. She did not define service as renunciation, but as 'shaping your life in a meaningful way,' just the way she inherited it from her 'sensitive and, in questions of education, almost clairvoyant mother.'

"With the passing years, Maria became a quiet and graceful woman. Reserved and unassuming. 'And although in her own almost shy reserve, she would rather have remained invisible in daily life,' one reporter wrote, describing her, 'she tackles any problems facing her with deliberate energy.' Fate had taken the decision out of her hands. After the war it was too late to take up teacher training. She turned down the opportunity to marry that was once offered her-perhaps from consideration for her parents, who were living alone in Hufschlag at that time.

"His sister accepted her lot. It is part of the basic attitude of the Ratzingers that you do not moan or grumble, do not complain about things that may possibly be a part of God's plan. Life is to be understood as service, not as self-fulfillment. This was not the modern man of our own days, divided by doubt, but a generation shaped by the Bible, who had the courage to set out into the adventure of a Christian life without 'ifs' or 'buts.' In doing this, she felt like that other Maria. 'My soul magnifies the Lord,' said Maria Ratzinger, reciting the Magnificat, the prayer of the Mother of God, each evening, 'and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.'

"The relationship between brother and sister was not always untroubled. It was not unusual for there to be a heavy atmosphere in the household they shared. For Joseph, she was a help, on the one hand, but, on the other also a burden. A dowry from his parents. And the woman at his side did not look especially impressive now. Certainly not-with her provincial appearance, her retiring manner, which not everyone found attractive-in the circles in which professors moved. Yet it can sometimes be an advantage if the prophet counts for nothing in his own home country. It was impossible, by the side of that sister, to take flight into the realms of pride and arrogance. One glance was enough, and one was once more the person one had to be.

"In pilgrim fellowship with Maria, apparently trivial things were selected as essential. What people were saying at the baker's. What was in the hometown paper. Whether the carpet needed cleaning and who among their relations had got married. There was no point in debating sublime theological knowledge. Why do that? Maria knew her God. The way her parents had known God. She would not love that God more if she read clever books about The Structural Development of the Principle of Tradition, or The Causa Efficiens as an Inadequate Category for Grasping the Reality of God in Action. Love of one's neighbor was not a 'project' here. but the often difficult practice of everyday life. And theology had to prove true, not in the lecture hall, at congresses, or in the uncomplaining pages of a book, but face to face with a person who listened to the troubles of a neighbor at the grocer's and who at the table in the evening, serving raisin pancakes, was immune to the singsong of academic phrases.

"Neither as a seminarian nor as a student had Joseph Ratzinger had an intimate relationship with a girl. Not that he had formed his picture of women along the lines of his sister. He knew her peculiarities only too well to elevate her way of being into an absolute. She was, however, an eternal reminder to protect the faith of simple people, the favorites of the biblical God, against the cold religion of professors who take refuge in know-it-all hypotheses that dematerialize the crucifixion and the Resurrection, and dare neither to confess nor to love. Maria remained the door to a world that might otherwise very easily have been closed to him. And we may suspect that this very 'handmaid' who preferred to wear an apron ultimately had more influence on the theology, the attitude, and the personality of the rising professor than any other person.

"Maria Ratzinger, a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, died on a feast day, on All Souls' Day, November 2, 1991. She died of a heart attack and a subsequent brain hemorrhage while she was on a visit from Rome to her parents' grave in Pentling. It was a shock for her brothers. Georg had in the meantime become cathedral choirmaster and conductor of the Domspatzen (cathedral sparrows) at Regensburg, and the Cardinal, a prefect in the Citta del Vaticano. In the obituary, it says that she had 'served' her brother Joseph for thirty-four years, 'through all the stages of his life, with unwearied self-sacrifice and great kindness and humility. She was always a great sisterly help and grounding to both her brothers.' And there had probably never been so many nuncios, cardinals, archbishops, and politicians at a secretary's funeral as there were for that of Maria Ratzinger."

A woman who spends her life taking care of the needs of someone else? Indeed, this I suggest is a great example for us today. This does not mean, I say again, that the model Christian woman will take on one form, one look, one type of personality. Maria Ratzinger in the course of her full life made a complex set of decisions, which will not and cannot be the same for others. The strong life of a Christian woman who, like John the Baptist, desires only to decrease as she promotes Christ in her life by serving the needs of others, this is the strength, that is, the wholesome weakness, that we ought to teach and promote for our women today. I know women like this, and so do you, women like my wife. The trouble is that it is a sort of woman that is not positively portrayed in our culture, a culture so influential, even no doubt in the thinking of these very women that we should be protecting. When I see outstanding examples of Christian womanhood, therefore, I pray that more light shines upon them, for the good of women, the Church, and our culture.

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