The modern world is in the midst of a crisis, writes Natalie Thomas. Deep down, is a key part of the answer it is searching for nothing less than the rediscovery of the true gift of the feminine?
In the 1993 film ‘So I Married An Axe Murderer,’ funny man Mike Myers jumps onto a poet’s stage and bellows a tune called ‘Woman! Woah, Man!’ a tune about a woman who uses her feminine wiles to steal his heart and his cat (how about that?).
Whilst the scene and its sentiments are hilariously funny, it is also one of many examples of the portrayal of women in our culture.
Women have been portrayed in many ways covering the entire spectrum of characteristics such as victim, vixen, graceful, tyrannical, nurturer, mediator, smart, ditsy, confused, empowered, insecure, weak, strong… the list goes on.
But beyond these characteristics, accurate or not, what does ‘being a woman’ mean?
Enter stage left a Jewess-become-Catholic by the name of Edith Stein. Stein, killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, is also a Saint and Doctor of the Church, partly for her pioneering thoughts on what ‘being a woman’ means.
Her thoughts go beyond superficial gender roles, warm fuzzies and liberal feminist chants. What she offers is an indepth analysis on the nature of woman.
The ‘ethos’ of being a woman
Stein begins her analysis by looking at what woman’s ‘ethos’ is. That is, the inner spiritual attitude that every woman has, which is not something that is imposed from outside, but which arises from within, to form the principle way in which she interacts with the world. Stein concludes that woman seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, whole and concrete. This is her ethos.
Put simply, woman’s ethos is a deep attention to life and to form, protect, nourish and advance all forms of life, especially the human person. Proof of this ethos can be found by analysing women’s conscious experience of living as a woman, the way women interact with the world, and the deepest desires that lie at the core of a woman’s heart.
Being a woman means being wifely and maternal in soul and body
Stein believes that every woman has a two-fold vocation as wife and mother that stems from her ethos to form, nourish, protect and advance life. Unfortunately, a number of women have had negative experiences that have caused much hatred toward the terms ‘wife’ and ‘mother’, particularly with regard to the way these terms have been used to demean women.
Stein implores women and men to understand these terms rightly and grant them the reverence they deserve.
To be wifely means being happy to share one’s life with another and take part in all things that come their way. In other words, it means to be in communion with another, in a relationship of mutual companionship and support. This ties in with woman’s desire to lovingly belong to another and have another lovingly belong to her. Woman knows that the advancement and fulfillment of every human person, including herself, cannot be achieved in solitude.
It is only in relationship with another that woman can live out her ethos to pay deep attention to the person and form, protect, nourish and advance those in her care.
Likewise, it is in relationship with woman that human persons can advance. This is why when woman interacts with the world she is very conscious of the persons she encounters.
From this wifely vocation then stems the second part of woman’s vocation – to be maternal. To be motherly means to form, nourish, protect and advance the human person.
This is necessary to ensure the human person is brought to the fullness of their humanity, including woman herself.
This is attested to by the aspiration in every female heart to be advanced in her whole being and assume active roles as a complete human person, and to help others do the same.
The human person is an integrated whole, with a soul, intellect, will and emotions which animate the person’s body. If one aspect of the person is advanced the whole person is advanced. If one aspect of the person is not matured or is suffering, the entire person is affected.
Woman’s perceptive attention to the whole of the person is a gift she carries with her at all times. It is a gift that aids her in helping develop the body, mind and soul of those in her care. It is a gift that aids her to detect and awaken what lies dormant within the person, what is needed to advance the person, and the fortitude that is required to do so.
Stein calls this woman’s ‘maternal gift’. It flows from the nature of her soul. Since the soul is the animating principle of the body, she is also endowed in her body to be a mother. Thus every woman is gifted with the maternal gift and this is reflected in her body.
Stein is not stipulating that every woman is bound to physically bear children. Of course, she herself was a Carmelite Nun. However, she is making clear that every woman who lives out her maternal ethos, gradually bringing herself and those in her care to a fuller humanity, is living out her maternal vocation in body and soul.
Woman’s vocation to be a wife and mother is something that can be lived in whichever state of life she lives, whether she be married, consecrated celibate or single. Woman can carry out her mission in marriage, religious life, home, work, school or leisure. Whether a woman is to live out her wifehood and motherhood in the marital vocation or the celibate vocation, is a gift for the Lord to bestow.
With regards to women who live the marital vocation, this is a concrete way of living the two-fold feminine vocation. It is a primary and most natural vocation arising from the truth of woman’s ethos, soul and body. It is a gift and vocation that, today, sections of society have tried to squash, demean, and truncate in the name of liberation and societal progress, rather than promote as crucial for true liberation, true progress, and the true advancement of humanity.
Woman’s two-fold vocation to advance the human person as wife and mother is not a secondary role, nor is it to be taken lightly, or to be less valued.
It is a vocation that is crucial for the world.
If we have a society of people who are superficially successful, but under-developed and unfulfilled as persons, than we have an empty world.
Authentic feminism allows women to be their wifely and maternal selves everywhere they go
This brings us to Stein’s most significant thought regarding authentic women’s liberation. Our world is in a severe crisis.
We are experiencing a world of increasing dehumanisation. People are being used. Workers are being abused for the sake of increased profits, made to step all over each other in a bid to be the most successful or to simply keep their jobs. Women are being used as objects for gratification and consumerism, then left to deal with the consequences.
Violence against the human person is growing. Certain governments around the world treat their citizens as cogs in a machine. People have no time for each other, even in families. Education is about academic and sporting success rather than the development and fulfillment of the whole person.
Woman is needed in this world. Every woman. No matter whether she is young, elderly, single, married, religious. Her natural maternal ethos to bring the focus back to the whole person and the dignity of each person is needed at home, in the workforce, at school and in society at large.
An authentic women’s liberation should embrace the crucial maternal contribution women can make to re-humanise the world, re-focus attention on the person, help persons become more complete, and help women live out their natural wifely and maternal gift to accompany, form, nourish, advance, and protect the whole person in whatever place they occupy in society.
Woman is needed in this world. Every woman. No matter whether she is young, elderly, single, married, religious. Her natural maternal ethos to bring the focus back on the whole person and the dignity of each person is needed at home, in the workforce, at school and in society at large.
Woman has a particular gift to build a home, work, school or leisure environment that puts the fulfillment and development of the whole person before profits and superficial success. Women thus have the power in these environments to intuitively answer the question: Are you fulfilled and integrated as a person? And the ability to gauge what is needed, if the answer is ‘no.’
This gift can help build relationships between people and ensure humanity and respect within these environments, and offer more rounded remedies to problems, which abstract and combative strategies miss. It is a gift that can discern where there is a need and discreetly work toward it. This is a gift that will slowly grow and become more advanced as it is practised.
The key to advancing woman to a fuller humanity and helping advance the humanity of others – living relationship with God
Stein’s challenge to modern woman is lofty. It is a great responsibility. It is also a great privilege that God has bestowed upon every woman. The question that must be asked is what is the point of woman’s mission to form, nourish, protect and advance the human person?
The answer is this. Every human person is created and redeemed by God for one specific purpose – to live in eternal beatitude with God and His Saints. God is every person’s ultimate fulfillment. The human person can only be truly advanced and fulfilled when they are in a living personal relationship with God, their Creator and Redeemer. Thus, woman’s ethos and mission to form, nourish, protect and advance the persons in her care is ultimately to bring people to a living personal relationship with God, and help them to live in accordance with their dignity as heirs to His Kingdom. It is none other than a mission to help humanity prepare for eternal life.
This process begins with woman herself. If woman’s mission is to help others attain a fuller humanity, she must also attain a fuller humanity. Stein believed passionately that every woman should be advanced as a person, a woman, and as a unique individual. It is the Lord who gave every woman life, with her own specific gifts and traits, making her a unique revelation of something of Him.
It is the Lord who longs to continue advancing her to the fullness of her being, to be truly alive in body, mind and soul, and lead her to live out her wifely and maternal ethos according to her own uniqueness and path the way that He wills to lead her. The only way this can be done is for woman herself to embark on a personal relationship with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the source and final destination of her life.
This relationship is nourished and deepened through a life of prayer and contemplation; catechetical education, Scriptural meditation on God; living the Sacramental life where she encounters the Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Christ in her whole being; and the practice of living out of a virtuous life.
In this relationship woman will begin to understand the reality that her life is received daily from the Lord and her inalienable dignity comes from the fact that she is a daughter of God the Father, redeemed by Christ the Son, and given power by God the Holy Spirit to live her life as an heir to His Kingdom and the wisdom, knowledge, courage, fortitude and prudence needed to fulfill her wifely and maternal mission.
In this personal and living relationship with the Holy Trinity woman can give others a genuine experience of the reality of God and the works He wants to perform in their lives, and help them live their lives befitting their dignity as heirs to the Kingdom of God.
When the feminine ethos becomes
Woman’s ethos to form, nourish, protect and advance the living, the personal and the whole is a gift bestowed upon her by the Lord. However, since the Fall it must be acknowledged that every woman faces the challenge of resisting numerous disorders that have skewed her understanding and living out of her wifely and maternal ethos.
One such disorder is an over-exaggeration of focus on the person. Woman may have an over-developed focus on herself, showing itself as vanity and constant self pre-occupation. Or woman may have an exaggerated focus on other persons.
This may show itself in the form of unhealthy feminine curiosity (prying) and gossip with regards to others.
Even more insidious is when woman has invested so much time and energy on others that she neglects to develop herself as a complete person.
Woman loses being a subsistent person capable of communicating herself to others and being in communion with others and thus loses a sense of who she is and her sense of self-worth.
As she does so she begins to completely absorb herself in the life of another, giving herself away too easily despite the possible consequences and placing herself in a position of slavery to the other, even when the other does not want this.
Along with this comes the desire to possess or manipulate that person for herself, whether it be her children, husband, fellow workers or friends. She begins to demand the other do the same for her, and thus domination and the need for the other to focus on her replaces woman’s joyful service to help the other develop in their full humanity and be free to live as God wills in preparation for eternal life.
These disorders must be purified if woman is to become a more complete, mature and self-contained person, ready to help develop others so that they too can be advanced to a fuller humanity.
Stein points out that the remedies for these disorders lie first in woman surrendering herself completely to the Holy Trinity.
Only God can receive woman’s total surrender in a way that she will not lose herself in the process, but rather be affirmed by God, loved by God and brought more and more to the fullness of who she was created to be. Woman must orient herself not to be motivated to pleasing others or herself but live to please God and be faithful to Him.
Stein points out that much of these disorders stem from an imbalance between the spiritual faculties, in particular, woman’s emotions overriding her intellect and will. Stein is not condemning emotions. Indeed, they are necessary to help woman live out her ethos. However, Stein does propose that woman keep her emotions in check with the use of her intellect, will and constant honesty with herself as to the reality of the situation and her motives when interacting with others.
To do so, Stein proposes that woman be engaged in some form of objective work, which requires attention to the task at hand and obedience to objective rules and values. This will help train woman to balance her subjective experience and emotions with the external objective reality.
Stein also states that having a living communion with Christ is indispensable in helping woman balance her spiritual faculties and bring harmony between her subjective experience and objective reality, as he was the one who had to the privilege and pain of balancing his own subjectivity with objective reality in order to redeem the world. Ultimately it is his grace that will uproot a disordered focus on the personal from the inside, restoring woman’s ethos to what it is meant to be.
Stein also touches on the need for woman to have close personal relationships with other women that go beyond ‘gossip sessions’, but rather aim at encouraging and challenging each other to grow in virtue, to acknowledge the reality of the problems she may be experiencing, and have a living personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.
Woman also benefits from strong healthy friendships with men. Just as woman can help a man grow in his humanity and remind him of the priority to put the person first, man can also aid woman in appreciating the value of objective work and bringing one’s emotions into line in order to balance subjective experience with objective reality.
Stein is also very clear that Our Lady is necessary for woman to reach the fullness of her humanity and heal from any disorders of the feminine ethos.
Some have attempted to argue that it is unrealistic to uphold Our Lady as the model of womanhood.
On the contrary, it is in a living personal relationship with Our Lady that woman will be guided to live out a mature wifely and maternal ethos. Our Lady knew what it was to live as a woman here on this earth.
She knew what was required of woman to live out her wifely and maternal ethos, especially when it was hard. She knew that her worth and dignity came from her identity as a daughter of the Father, and her affirmation came from a deep living relationship with the Holy Trinity, in her body and soul.
She knew what it was to entrust herself to her husband even in times of danger, trusting that his directions came from his faithfulness to God, participating in the life the Lord had set for him as the protector of the Holy Family and helping further him as a human person.
She knew what it was to bring life to the world. She accompanied and formed her Son for his mission to redeem the world. She welcomed him from God the Father and gave him back when the time had come. She was given the grace to know when to act and when to withdraw, even when her heart ached to do so. She knew her investment of herself in her son was not solely for herself, but for the benefit of the world.
Thus, Our Lady is mother of all women. It is not a matter of every woman being compared to Our Lady. It is a matter of woman allowing Our Lady to accompany her and guide her as she strives to reach her fuller humanity and bring others to that fuller humanity also.
How can woman begin to live her ethos today?
Stein’s study on the nature of being a woman is pertinent for today. However, there is still much to consider in finding ways to help woman live her wifely and maternal ethos today.
Many women struggle to achieve a healthy balance between family, work and taking time out for themselves. Many live their lives in a cycle of anxiety and tiredness, and lose sight of their feminine ethos under the excessive load they must carry. How can one find the time to do all that is required of her and have a daily living relationship with the Lord to help advance and nurture herself and others?
Stein also states that having a living communion with Christ is indispensable in helping woman balance her spiritual faculties and bring harmony between her subjective experience and objective reality…
Stein is clear that only by grace can nature be made whole. Woman has to make her relationship with the Lord her top priority.
Only in a daily relationship with the Lord can woman herself be nourished and slowly purified of disorders to her ethos, and in turn have the wisdom and strength to carry out her mission properly.
Woman keeps much in her heart. She needs regular times of silence to acknowledge, contemplate and allow the Lord to love and affirm her while she can just ‘be’.
This requires the participation of her family and those around her. Society too must play its part in recognising the needs of woman. Woman plays a critical role in re-humanising society and thus society must also help her.
Woman must also help herself. Woman must be honest and real with herself and the choices she is making. In a living personal relationship with the Lord a vision for her life will unfold, which goes far beyond what she could dream for herself. The choices woman makes can last a lifetime.
She must take the time to assess if the choices she is making fit with this vision or if they will set her back.
God is all-knowing and desires woman reach her full potential. Staying close to the Lord and open to his vision for her will protect her and make clear her path so she can get to where she really needs to go.
Contrary to the sentiment one derives from the daily news bulletins, there is much hope for today’s world. Woman is called to play a critical and active role in bringing this world to a greater glory.
This begins with woman herself drawing on the supernatural power and affirmation the Lord so desperately longs to give her and will give her if she opens herself to receive it.
Natalie Thomas is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne, Australia.