Commentary: The Mystery of the Feminine
Réal Tremblay, C.SS.R.
Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology, Alphonsian Academy, Rome
Learning the 'intimacy of Christ' from Mary
Thanks to her faith in Christ, the Church has her own keys for the interpretation of the humanum. Contemporary culture rightly endeavours to understand the "mystery" of the feminine, dismissing the paradigms or old-fashioned, sterile models that kept women within bounds that were not in keeping with their true identity or their mission in the world.
The results of this endeavour, however, experience ups and downs.
Frequently they do not correspond to the nobility of the great insights that exist, for example, in the finale of Goethe's Faust on "The Eternal Feminine", a text magnificently set to music by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in the last chorus of his Eighth Symphony, and by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) at the end of the last movement of his Faust's Symphony.1 This Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, 31 May 2004, has already alluded to these difficulties (cf. nn. 2-4), so I insist upon them no further.
However, if reason can and must strive to reveal the fortitude and greatness of woman, it does not in every case possess all the keys that make it possible to be always and everywhere equal to the situation, either because of its limitations (which it does no harm to recognize), or because of sin, which convinces reason that its power is unlimited.
The Church, as stated above, has those keys that enable her to remedy the weakness of reason. If she has not always used them satisfactorily in the past, this does not mean she does not possess them, at least in the depths of her faith. This is what the Document wishes to bring to the fore, seeking to use the keys mentioned more profitably.
In the wake of the important insights of the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium of John Paul II has indisputably opened up important paths in this direction.2
The Document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addresses the specific problems of our day. It sets out to respond to them — and this itself deserves to be stressed because of the newness of the approach — with recourse to the human wisdom found in Sacred Scripture and to the contribution of Revelation that is one of its features.
The Document comes in continuity with this approach, enriching it with original and stimulating viewpoints.
In the fourth part of this Document on which I intend to comment briefly, the Church's keys for interpretation, which I mentioned earlier, are immediately perceptible.
Relations between woman and man, understood in terms of collaboration rather than opposition, are seen in light of the relationship of the Church and Christ: "It is this 'mystical' identity, profound and essential, which needs to be kept in mind when reflecting on the respective roles of men and women in the Church" (n. 15). This is already a notable acquisition from the theological viewpoint.
Precisely because of the depth of this relationship, the Document adds another insight that is closely connected to it. It introduces the mystery and makes access to it easier.
It is like an aria that frames the cantus firmus of a chorus so as to bring its riches within the listener's reach. The type of relationship between man and woman, seen in light of the relationship between the Church and Christ, is now perceived through Mary's relationship with Christ.
In other words, and borrowing an image used in the Document, the mirror that reflects the woman's bond with the man has the twofold depth of Mary and the Church, seen in their relationship with Christ.
Discover Mary's qualities
After this assertion, the Document suggests that through Mary, the woman discovers the values of her "dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting" (n. 16), values with very deep roots that consequently are not improvised and do not belong solely to our day, since the antecedents of the triad Mary-Church-Christ3 are found in the people of Israel, the "bride" chosen by God, loved by him and mysteriously present since the origins of his unforeseeable and gratuitous love (cf. n. 5ff.).
In this context one passage of the Document is striking, so evocative and meaningful for the identity and role of women in the Church that it seems to me useful to cite it:
"It is from Mary that the Church always learns the intimacy of Christ.... She who received the broken body of Jesus from the Cross in her arms shows the Church how to receive all those in this world whose lives have been wounded by violence and sin" (n. 15).
In reading these lines, we cannot ignore the image that so many Christian artists have attempted to sculpt or paint. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is certainly the most important of them. Before the face of the Virgin in his Pietà, all claims of bewildered feminism melt away like snow in the sunshine. Mary's sorrow, both unfathomable and serene as she contemplates the dead treasure of her mother's heart, the treasure that she herself had known would be the true treasure of humanity (cf. Mt 13:44) but who had nevertheless been nailed to a cross, instills silence, but one from which emerges a pressing invitation, partially formulated in our Document.
Here we find condensed the woman's full greatness: the acceptance of others without reserve whoever they may be, because Mary's heart was enlarged by the Son so that she could include all her children in her embrace. From here she was raised to the throne of the Father, who creates and recreates humanity through love and in view of love.4
There are many Christian women of this Marian and ecclesial fibre in the world. When we are granted the grace to live beside them, we are filled with wonder, not to say overpowered by the capacity for boundless love of the female heart, and we feel very close to God.
A royal service
Is this perhaps an argument that advocates passivity in the Church, with inevitable repercussions on the conception of woman? To believe this would be an error.
If there is an intrinsic receptivity in love — Paul recognizes it when he writes: "Love is patient and kind.... Love bears all things... endures all things" (I Cor 13:4, 7) — this receptivity is extremely active and fertile, as moreover our Document explicitly emphasizes (cf. n. 16).
Jesus' service, like the service of the Church and that of his Mother which correspond to it and in which is mirrored the woman's service to the man, is a service officially recognized and made known to everyone as a royal service. In fact, above the head of the Crucified Christ, hence, also above that of his Mother who takes him in her arms after his deposition from the Cross, the Roman Procurator had a notice posted written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. It read: "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews" (Jn 19:19).5
In this perspective, we understand how women, such as Thérèse of Lisieux, who once desired to become priests or ordained ministers of the Church, soon abandoned this desire.6 Indeed, how would it be possible to prefer the mediation of love to love itself? Or to prefer to be an ordinary member of the body rather than its heart?
"I understood", wrote the Saint of Lisieux, "that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with Love. I understood that Love comprised all Vocations, that Love was everything".7
When one knows where to find the all and to possesses it, what would be the point of wanting anything less?
1 "All in transition / Is but reflection; / What is deficient / Here becomes action; / Human discernment / Here is passed by; / Woman Eternal / Draw us on high". J.W. Goethe, Faust [Part II], 12104-110 (Goethes Werke, V. Teil, Berlin-Leipzig-Wien-Stuttgart, 328).
2 Cf. Note 1 of the Letter.
3 Concerning this triad, De Lubac's book on Teilhard de Chardin's "eternal feminine" needs to be re-read and pondered. I would like to cite a passage of it here. After observing that for the believer Teilhard, the "feminine" was not a neutral principle, De Lubac continues: "The perfection [of the feminine] is found to be fulfilled in a person: this person is the Virgin Mary.... To explain the essential role of Our Lady and to avoid making her encroach upon the sovereign role of Christ, [Teilhard] notes that it will subsequently be necessary to study the relationship of the Virgin with Christ... then that of Christ with the Church, and lastly, in the Church, sacramental marriage and chastity, which is 'an attachment to the pure or spiritual feminine'. Hence, this will be a meditation 'before the veiled Virgin: Who is she? Where is she leading us?'". H. de Lubac, L'éternel féminin. Étude sur un texte du Père Teilhard de Chardin suivi de Teilhard et notre temps, Paris, 1968, 24-25.
4 On this point, I refer to my book Voi, luce del mondo... La vita morale dei cristiani: Dio fra gli uomini, Bologna, 2003, 117-131.
5 The pages that J. Ratzinger dedicated years ago to the royal character of the service of the Cross have lost nothing of their value and meaning for the Church and the world today (cf. J. Ratzinger, Einführung in das Christentum. Vorlesung über das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Munich, 1968, 139ff., 173ff.).
6 cf. Manuscript B, 2v° [S. Teresa di Gesù Bambino e del Volto Santo, Opere complete, Rome, 1997, 221ff.]. See too: Lettere, 135, 2v° [ibid., 438]; Lettere, 201, 1r° [ibid., 542]; Quaderno giallo, 4, 8, 5; 6, 8, 6; 21, 8, 3 [ibid., 1054, 1059, 1080].
7Manuscript B, 3v° [Opere 223].
Weekly Edition in English
16 February 2005, page 8
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