Anna Krohn: the feminine genius of Christ

08 Oct 2008

By The Record

Understanding ‘feminine genius’ 20 years on.

On October 11 the Anima Women’s Network, in conjunction with the Catholic Women’s League Inc (Victoria and Wagga Wagga) will explore the way in which “feminine genius” has shaped the Australian experience of being women.  The Conference will highlight two extraordinary Catholic women – Caroline Chisholm and Dr Mary Glowrey. 
There is a growing interest in the sanctity of these women and for their cause to be considered by the universal Church.
Now in the Australian context, the word “genius” can be a daunting term. Often it smacks of an intellectual or artistic talent or ability that is outstanding, extremely rare and even a bit eccentric – like that of the genius Albert Einstein. 
Some women might also be suspicious that the term “feminine” here is just a gimmicky way of tapping into the recent revival of “femininity” in fashion – a style which suggests a coy “girliness” or ironic post-modern “girl-glamour”. This could also suggest a superficial “image” or worse a return to a stereotyped notion of “woman’s roles” and her “proper place in society”.
The notion of “feminine genius” was used by the late Pope John Paul II his Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women: “The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God.”
This year marks 20 years since this rich and thought provoking Letter Mulieris Dignitatem was promulgated. 
“Feminine genius” became a favourite term of the Pope’s and was used by him years later in numerous homilies, reflections and addresses and also in his Letter to Women – published on the eve of the controversial (or perhaps notorious) World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995.
Each time the Pope used “feminine genius” it is clear that he did not mean by the term some sentimental or confined ideal of passive and malleable womanhood nor did he mean anything like superficial style. 
It is interesting that he did not decree exact details of feminine genius either.
Instead he encouraged and challenged women to question the meaning of their own “genius” by returning to the mystery of God’s creative love and especially to the redeeming instantiation of this love in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, just as the women in the Gospel had done.
A woman’s feminine “genius” can be broadly understood to mean – her full and authentic spiritual, ethical and interpersonal response to all that it means to be a particular female person.  It does not imply a static and confined notion of acting according to some socially defined, or man-made “nature”.
Rather, a woman’s true identity begins in the event of her being created and sustained with a woman’s soul, body and experiences – “in the image and likeness of God” and her being called to transformation in the redemption of Christ as his feminine disciple and her being graced with particular charisms by the Holy Spirit.
Very briefly we can outline what John Paul II saw as the four central features which manifest women’s “genius”.
Firstly a woman is called to be true to the deep mystery of her created reality. 
This means that while it is good for her to respond and serve others – she must first re-discover the wonder of her own “creation” and in this discover God’s call to her in all her particularity and preciousness.
The full depth of her talents and dignity cannot be under-played.
The integrated and redeemed development of her spiritual, bodily, sexual and intellectual powers should be recognised and strongly defended – by her, her sisters and society.
Secondly, women have generally been recognised to have an enormous capacity to connect to the emotional and cultural dimensions of personal communication and interpersonal relationships. 
They are drawn to see a person as a “who” not a “what”.  Carol Gilligan calls this “care thinking.”
Women use their “genius” prophetically when as John Paul II says “they ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human.”
Women are being tempted away from this “genius” when they use their talent for emotional sensitivity for frivolous and destructive gossip-mongering, manipulation of others and most tragically of all when they are made to believe they cannot care for the unborn, the needy or themselves.
Thirdly, women seem also to be drawn to the creation and protection of special and receptive “spaces”.  
They have a “touch” for the creative, the dramatic, and the fabric of life which is more than merely “rational” and efficient.
They seem to intuit the need for environments and mileaus in which they and others can flourish.  Jesus Himself silenced male disciples and onlookers when he pointed to the “genius” not of the “pretty” or “silly” but the deeply “beautiful things” done by the woman who extravagantly poured ointment on his soon to be pierced feet (Matt. 26:61-13).
The fourth and essential aspect of feminine genius is women’s unique and vital complementary contributions and relationships with men.  
The Pope reminded us that God “intended” humanity to be a collaboration and communion of “the two”- male and female.  
The most important human communities depend on women’s participation – but not upon their merely “fitting” and becoming co-dependent on male whims and power.
The world of men, families, societies and the Church not only want but need the contribution of women on-fire with their spousal/maternal/sisterly genius. 
This “genius” is deeper than biology, but it is expressed precisely in the language of the body in the deep mysteries of consecrated virginity, sisterhood and maternity.
Women as friends, leaders, mothers, wives, sisters and colleagues give and receive what John Paul II calls “co-education” in ways that are richer and also more challenging than occurs in same-sex collaborations.
Over the 20 years, many leading Christian women have embraced John Paul II’s challenge and have fleshed out in their work and lives the meaning of women’s “genius”: Outstanding examples are:  Mary Ann Glendon (USA), Leonie Caldecott (England), Janet A Smith (USA), Hanna Barbara Gert Falkovitz (Germany), Michelle Schumacher (Switzerland), Pia de Solenni, Sr Prudence Allen (both USA and Italy), Wanda Poltawska (Poland) and Norway’s Janne Haaland-Matlary.
The Anima Network was established in 2003 in Melbourne to begin to encourage women “disciples” in the Australian setting to trust in their feminine dignity and together with other wise women to explore their “feminine genius”.
The Network includes women of many different walks of life, different ages (15-91) and different vocations.  Anima’s events recognise how time and energy poor modern women are, and yet how deeply they hunger to become more than women of success, wealth, glamour or power, but women of holiness and substance.