Part 16: Exploring the Spiritual Priority of the Feminine

The following is part 16 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

In the previous article in this series, we began to unfold what St. John Paul II called the spousal mystery at the heart of the universe, and the priority of the feminine in the Church, and in our relationship with God.

In fact, these mysteries go even deeper. The truth is that there can be no authentic Christian apostolate in the world, no true works of mercy and no fruitful evangelism, that do not flow from a feminine receptivity to the grace of God. So, it is not just the spiritual life in general that calls for a primarily feminine disposition, but every single good work undertaken by every Christian in the world!

One of the great masters of the spiritual life, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, described this as the principle of "infusion" and "effusion." For St. Bernard, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the model of humble consent to the work of the Holy Spirit. Following her example, St. Bernard writes, we need to let ourselves become "reservoirs" rather than "canals" of the grace of God:

Those who are wise will see their lives more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then pours forth the overflow without loss to itself. ... Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. ... They are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves. ...

The reservoir resembles the fountain that runs to form a stream or spreads to form a pool only when its own waters are brimming over. ... You must imitate this process. First, be filled and then control the outpouring. The charity that is benign and prudent does not flow outward until it abounds within. (On the Song of Songs, 13:3-4)

Mary of Nazareth was the shining example of this spiritual principle. Even before the angel Gabriel came to her, she was filled to overflowing with the grace of her immaculate conception, and she had evidently pondered the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures in tremendous depth (reflected in her great prayer, the Magnificat, in Luke 1: 46-55). After she received in her womb the Savior of the world, she meditated on all the wonders of his Nativity as they happened in her life, step by step: the song of the angels, the coming of the shepherds and the wise men, the appearance of the star, the flight into Egypt, and the finding in the Temple - Mary "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Lk 2:19-51). Only after she had opened to her heart to all the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of her Son, and received all the graces he wanted to pour out upon her, did she take up her active role as Mother of the Church, and ultimately Queen of Heaven.

Perhaps this spiritual priority of feminine "openness" and "receptivity" to the grace of God also sheds light on why in his first epistle, St. Peter speaks of women as "the weaker sex" (I Pet 3:11). No doubt he meant the physically weaker sex, in terms of brute strength, but he may have been alluding to a deeper truth as well. Seen in the light of the gospel and the example of Mary (rather than measured against the standards of the secular world) this title is actually a badge of honor. Catholic poet and novelist Gertrude von le Fort wrote that the principal way God's infinite power operates in this world is not through earthly wealth, status, or coercive force, but through the total surrender of the creature to its Creator: "Surrender to God is the only absolute power that the creature possesses. Only the handmaid of the Lord is the Queen of Heaven" (The Eternal Woman. Ignatius Press, 2010 edition, p. 18). Alice Von Hildebrand explains the same principle, in greater detail:

Both in Corinthians I and II [St. Paul] praises "weakness." He writes, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? The weakness of God is stronger than men." And in his second epistle, the great apostle develops the same theme: "If I must boast, I will boast of the things which show my weakness." After having hinted at the amazing graces he has received, he adds ... "but on my own behalf, I will not boast except of my weakness." In view of this praise of weakness, how can women be offended when they are called the weaker sex? ... True strength is knowing how weak one is, because this awareness is a clarion call that one needs help. God always listens to those who beg Him to come to their aid .... Women definitely have an advantage over the stronger sex, because it is easier for them to acknowledge that they are weak and depend on divine help. (The Privilege of Being a Woman, p. 54-56)

Unfortunately, von Hildebrand says, the contemporary world has turned the true, gospel hierarchy of values completely upside-down. Today, what matters both to men and women alike is wealth, power and prestige, quantitative productivity and measurable achievement, rather than caring for others, and the graces and virtues of the spirit, such as humility and charity. Philosopher Laura Garcia explains:

Western societies do tend to define personal success in these terms, but such default cultural assumptions have been shaped largely by men. These assumptions emphasize the individual over the group, and work that produces monetary gain over work that simply serves others' needs. Women, on the other hand, tend to place a high value on relationships and give great importance to the kind of care for others that is largely unremunerated. Such care is motivated by love and concern more than by monetary gain (let alone public prestige). ("Authentic Freedom and Equality in Difference" in Erika Bachiochi, ed., Women, Sex, and the Church, p. 18- 19)

The fact is that women in the western world today are culturally indoctrinated with the notion that true human happiness is to be found in a successful career, including all its social prestige and financial rewards, and not in caring for the needs of others, much less making sacrifices for the needs of others. This is not to say, of course, that it is wrong for women with the requisite talents to seek to have a career outside the home, or to exercise gifts other than those of caregiving. It is to say, however, that women have been specially gifted by God with natural predispositions (and charisms from the Holy Spirit) to remind the world that career achievements are not meant to be the main goal of life - neither for men nor for women. With hyperbolic flourish, Alice Von Hildebrand sums it all up for us:

Christianity teaches that exterior feats (the invention of computers, the atomic bomb, or landing on the moon) are dust and ashes in God's sight. We shall be judged not according to our "performance" in the secular world, but according to our humility and charity. ...

Many scoundrels have been incredibly successful, too successful for their own good. Original sin blinds us to the fact that all these feats, often aided by ruthlessness, craftiness, or even plain luck, have no value in the light of eternity. We should always raise the question Quid est hoc ad aeternitatem? (What is this in the light of eternity?). In fact, it is only dust and ashes. No one enters the gates of heaven because he is a millionaire; no one is worthy to see God because he is "famous." Indeed, worldly "wisdom" is sheer foolishness. This has been seen by Socrates, and emphatically repeated by St. Paul, "for the foolishness of God is wiser than men." ... Against the background of the supernatural, the inanity of human praise becomes evident ....

As women do not bask in the limelight as much as men do ... they are bound to be the victims of this distorted hierarchy of values. That women have been victimized by this distortion of the hierarchy of values is deplorable and sad indeed; but that feminists have endorsed this inversion is still more pitiful. Imprisoned in the spiritual jail of secular categories, they fail to understand that their true mission is to swim against the tide and, with God's grace, help restore the proper hierarchy of values. (p. 3, and 25- 27)

Next Time: Women and the Family

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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