Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Great Give-Away

My first lecture at the "Brave Women" retreat in Kraków next month is on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein. Edith Stein was born in Wrocław (then Breslau) and died in Auschwitz, which is not far from Kraków.

Edith Stein was one of those mindbogglingly brilliant women born before the Second World War who was impeded in her career first by being female and second by being Jewish. ("Jewish" was considered an ethnic group or racial type, so converting to Christianity did not make a Jew not-Jewish in the eyes of wider society.) Stein was keenly interested in the "Woman Question" and her writings were very influential to the thought of a certain Karol Wojtyła and so, in time, to a papal encyclical called Mulieris Dignitatem.

I have often thought about readers who write to me saying that they long to "give themselves to a man" and thus find Single life an incredible burden and premarital sex a terrible temptation. (By the way, I pray for all my readers every Sunday at the Elevation of the Chalice.) So I was electrified when I read this passage in Stein's "The Ethos of Women's Professions":

It is the deepest desire of a woman’s heart to surrender itself lovingly to another, to be wholly his and to possess him wholly. This is at the root of her tendency towards the personal and the whole, which seems to us the specifically feminine characteristic. Where this total surrender is made to human being, it is a perverted self-surrender that enslaves her, and implies at the same time an unjustified demand which no human being can fulfil. Only God can receive the complete surrender of a person and in such a way that she will not lose, but gain her soul. And only God can give Himself to a human being in such a way that He will fulfil its whole being while losing nothing of His own. Hence the total surrender which is the principle of the religious life, is at the same time the only possible adequate fulfilment of women’s desire.

…What practical consquence follows from this? It certainly does not follow that all women who would fulfil their vocation should not become nuns. But it does follow that the fallen and perverted feminine nature [NB Stein has earlier explained the effects of the fall on both the feminine and masculine natures] can be restored to its purity and led to the heights of the vocational ethos such as the pure feminine nature represents, only if it is totally surrendered to God. Whether she lives as a mother in her home, in the limelight of public life or behind the silent walls of a convent, she must everywhere be a ‘handmaid of the Lord’, as the Mother of God had been in all the circumstances of her life, whether she was living as a virgin in the sacred precincts of the Temple, silently kept house at Bethlehem and Nazareth or guided the apostles and the first Christian community after the death of her Son. If every woman were an image of the Mother of God, a spouse of Christ and an apostle of the divine Heart, she woul fulfil her feminine vocation no matter in what circumstances she lived and what her external activities might be.



Eve from Australia said...

How true this is.

I have experienced the restlessness that comes from wanting to give yourself totally and completely,to something or someone, and thought that was only a possible indication of a religious vocation.

I don't know what my vocation is, but it seems St Teresa Benedicta can help. Thanks Seraphic, I really needed to hear this.

I have been meaning to read her work. Where should I start? And is 'the Ethos of Women's professions' a work in itself?

Maggie said...

I enjoyed her "Essays on Women;" that might be a good starting place.

Anonymous said...

This is something that confuses me. How does a married lady give herself to God completely and then to her husband? Does hubby get second best, is there a kind of cognitive dissonance? I just cannot wrap my head around the idea of giving completely to God and also to your husband. How is it done? Also, to whom does a man wish to give himself or take from according to St. Teresa Benedicta? Does he give to God and take from his wife? Reticence is an issue for me so how to give healthily is on my mind. Sorry, I know I'm all questions and no answers as usual. :-b


Seraphic said...

To read what Edith Stein says about men, do see her “The Vocation of Man and Woman According to Nature and to Grace”.

I have never understood this "giving yourself totally to your spouse" chat either. In fact, Stein says DON'T do that. What I believe she is saying is that your fundamental option is for God. You do this or that because of how you feel about God. You are kind to and patient with your husband--and bite back the mean remarks--not because you love him, primarily, but because you love God. And he is kind to you and doesn't run around because he loves you, primarily, but because he loves God. If God is always first, and one follows what God has to say about care of spouses, children, friends, enemies, than you will be okay.

I think what Stein is getting at is that it is perfectly natural--although in a flawed way, since after the Fall, nature is flawed--for a woman to long to give give give. There is no point belittling this or being ashamed of it. It just must be managed and redeemed in Christ.

Seraphic said...

By the way there should be a "not" in that sentence about men. Neither a husband nor a wife is a substitute for God. I recall a film in which a woman tells her dying lover, whom she has poisoned, that she loves him more than God. She just couldn't bear to watch him grow old. Yeah, thanks for nothing.

RMVB said...

I am perfectly willing to accept the truth for truth - but, I find myself really uncomfortable with the word "perverted" here. I completely understand what is meant to be said here and wholeheartedly "get" it - even the best husband could never replace the fulfillment of giving oneself completely to God, and the religious life is the "holier" vocation because it is much more conformed to the state of heavenly being. But I get cranky when I think about the view of marriage, etc as "perverted" form of love, as if it was not really meant to be. (I also feel this way when St. Paul talks about getting married so as not to sin, as if marriage is a utility against evil and a means of sexual indulgence.) Doesn't this clash with JPII's Theology of the Body? I know I must be just really confused as to why these things are said the way they are - I do get the concepts behind them but why must they be phrased this way? Perhaps this is to hefty a quesiton to be answered via blog comment....
Again, I'm not saying I disagree, I'm just wondering why I am still so uncomfortable....

Seraphic said...

You are uncomfortable because the word is describing feminine nature (not, by the way, marital love). But this is a word the translator would have to use to describe nature at all. It is not describing marital love. If you read Stein further, she describes examples of what happens when women "love too much".

You may also feel uncomfortable because today we use the word in an impoverished way, meaning only harmful sexual practices.

sciencegirl said...

It's not that marriage is a perversion of love.

Idolatry is a perversion of love.

If you put husband, kids, the mission, over God, you are making idols out of them. Those idols will inevitably let you down. A religious could make her Mother Superior an idol or the people she serves an idol.

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Seraphic said...

By the way, John Paul II develops on Stein and changes some of her ideas. That is why my second lecture is on John Paul II.

Like Stein's work, the "Theology of the Body" is theological speculation and not actually the teaching of the Church. Many leading Catholic theologians today, including Alice von Hildebrand, have serious problems with the "Theology of the Body" or the way it has been presented by, primarily, Christopher West.

Med School Girl said...

I haven't read the Theology of the Body, but know the gist of it. Why do some Catholic theologians have problems with it?

Seraphic said...

Oh heavens! Now that is definitely too much for a combox discussion. Google, my dear, and you will find.

Maggie said...

I haven't read enough of Dr. von Hildebrand (or her late husband- did he also write about his reservations about the ToB?) but I believe that her objections were not so much the teaching itself, as came from the late Holy Father, but Mr. West's specific interpretation of it ( I believe Dawn Eden wrote similarly to that effect). I would be curious to see if that perception changes with Mr. West's new book, written after an extended sabbatical to refresh, pray deeply, and study the original text with new eyes.

n.panchancha said...

Oh, I love St. Edith Stein! The first time I heard about her was through this lovely Carmelite nun on YouTube: . [The entire interview is WONDERFUL, if you have time to watch it. St. Edith, pray for us!]

It’s probably good to remember, as Seraphic said, that Edith Stein’s writing isn’t necessarily official Catholic teaching, but it seems to me like her whole life reflects the passage from Jeremiah: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” - her search for truth is so sincere, and benefits me a lot. (Also, she's just intellectually brilliant.)

The idea that the fallen feminine nature “can be restored to its purity and led to the heights of the vocational ethos such as the pure feminine nature represents, only if it is totally surrendered to God” is really just straightforward orthodox Christianity, isn’t it? [Non-theologian speaking here.] It seems like it’s a matter of moving towards integrity, or of our will coming into alignment with God’s through the recognition of ourselves as created, dependent beings made in the image of God and loved by him, but who have also experienced a fall from grace and need salvation.

It seems like discussions of real differences between the sexes are always a little tricky. I do sometimes worry, at Catholic women’s talks, that there is some young woman in the audience who’s captain of her rugby team, or afraid of babies, or something, and who silently wonders if she’s a freak of nature (or if all the good Catholics think of her that way)... But it’s definitely an important discussion, since our spirits aren’t just abstracted from our bodies: my sex is intrinsic to my identity. I definitely won’t say, as I did when I was a well-meaning but heretical eight-year-old, that there is no difference between men and women other than a few body parts.

I know I’ve been frustrated with Jesus before because I wanted to pour out all my love into SOMETHING, some vocation, regardless of what it was, but it felt as if while I was stuck in “searching single” Limbo, I had to contain that love in anticipation of a husband or religious order or community who would need it. When I realized that Jesus was trying very hard to make me see that he wanted ALL my love, right now, regardless of where he’d lead me in the future, it suddenly seemed both very obvious and wonderfully freeing. Jesus always pours more love back into us than we can give him, I’m very convinced, so the exchange is really a very profitable one! (And it also helps me remember that my future husband, whether or not he exists, is not the only person in my life who will need to receive loads of love from me.)

Oh, one more link on this very long post – I love this little prayer/reflection from St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron, who was himself a searching (and often suffering) single, dealing with vocation and love:

some guy on the street said...

On the one hand, flying accross the Atlantic, alone, in a thing of wood and ... well... I can't remember what... and when the radiator dries up, cooling the engine with the coffee you packed for breakfast... that's AWESOME!

His antics later as a celebrity, though... I'm not sure Chas. there belongs opposite St. Teresa, let's just say.

(Oh, and I'm not supposed to be commenting here, am I? :-P)

Seraphic said...

It took me a moment to figure out Swhat on EARTH you were talking about, SGOTS

Seraphic said...

@n.p. Stein definitely recognizes the female captain of her rugby team although she would probably feel concerned for the girl who is frightened of babies.

(She'd probably feel concerned for the man who is frightened of babies, too. What is so frightening about babies? There is no virtue in being afraid of babies, although there is certainly virtue in being good at rugby.)

Stein, of all people, certainly knew that some women are called to "masculine" professions and that some men are called to "feminine" professions, and wrote about this in her essay on professions for women.

I always wondered why relatively few women took Lonergan courses in both my theology schools. A professor suggested to me that it is because women-as-a-group are more practical and prefer more obviously pastoral courses. Stein says that women-as-a-group are indeed more practical, more interested in helping people in a wholistic way and less inclined to abstract thought.

Jam said...

I'm having a very vague thought to the effect that, perhaps part of our challenge is to allow people to be unusual. That is, not to shut out a woman theologian (e.g.) because theology is a man's game; but then again not to insist that in the hypothetical "frictionless plane" (so to speak) equal numbers of men and women would be equally brilliant at theology (and therefore as long as women are less than 50% of theology professors it's evidence of discrimination). Or any other field. Now that I've typed that out I'm not sure if I agree with it entirely.

The thing about women not being as abstract of thinkers as men (goes back to Aristotle, doesn't it?) has a black reputation at the moment, since it was used for so long to make the argument that women would be happier not being given an academic education and rather working in one of those jobs that a man would find dull and repetitive. But without denying that it can be interpreted to make "men > women", I think when you approach it from an "equal but different" perspective it's easy to see how true it is, as a general tendency. Plus plenty of the things that were designated as "too abstract" in the early days of the 20th century are not nearly so; to take an obvious example, part of the reason women are doing better at university than men these days is that having a "practical" mind means they're more able to get their applications for internships, study abroad, scholarships etc, in on time!

And, to sort of circle back to my initial thought, "most" does not have to equal "all". Because "most" women don't like playing rugby does not mean "all" women shouldn't like playing rugby.

Man! How do people do online courses?! Usually when I babble out my first thoughts I at least have the mercy of not being able to READ them afterward :D

n.panchancha said...

Oh, babies. They do not deserve to be considered frightening.

That being said, I have had women (/girls? all younger) confess to me that they feel very uncomfortable around babies. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned this in the same breath [sweep-of-the-keyboard] as rugby - it's clear that the one is something that has to be overcome and dealt with, while the other is perfectly fine, if not traditionally "feminine." (Perhaps the former belongs in the same sentence as "women who are frightened of men.") Spiritual and psychological wounds are not the same thing as eclectic (but innocent) tastes in pastimes.

I also wonder about the "typical but not universal" argument, but it seems a bit dodgy, since the starting point for the whole exercise is that we take male and female souls to be inherently distinct creations, and then try to understand the nature and source of that distinction, which, presumably, always exists as long as a human being is a sexual being (i.e. always always). Then again, for practical/pastoral purposes, generalizations could be helpful, as long as one understood them as generalizations and not as rules.


Seraphic said...

It is unfortunate that so many people veer towards extremes and don't have room for scientifically-verifiable words like MOST.

A friend of mine wrote masters thesis on Stein and John Paul II and decried the idea that equal=same as. Men and women are equal, but they are not the same. If a man is fired from his academic position for stating something true about women in the academy, e.g. that there are only a few women among top mathematicians because only a few women are that good at math, then some wrong-headed ideology, not justice, is at work. It is not a crime against women to say that very few of us are capable of teaching mathematics at the highest levels.

It IS a crime against women to say that this somehow makes us less human or less in the image and likeness of God, or that women who are that good at math are ontologically superior to the rest of us. It is also unfair to make the rare women who are that good at mathematics feel like freaks.

Sinéad said...

I've been reading the latest Samantha Brick article and she has put her confidence in herself down to her dad's love for her. I suppose it is understandable that in an era of absent fathers women will give their love to any man who'll do. However, women of faith with or without dads often to the same, giving of themselves to the undeserving. I can't remember the last time I heard a priest preach on the fatherhood of God, a lot on Jesus, very little on God the Father. Here in Ireland on the national news the Association of Catholic Priests (800 members) have headlined with the news that a majority of Irish Catholics want women as priests. I wish priests would preach more on the masculinity and fatherhood of God, Jesus and the priesthood. Ignoring it had done so much damage here, not only with women not knowing where to turn but in terms of a rotten understanding of the Church among the laity and priests it seems.


Clare said...

It is not a crime against women, but it may just be a very silly thing to say. Very few people, period, are capable of teaching mathematics at the highest levels, but study after study has shown that women face disadvantages in the study of mathematics from the earliest years of learning onwards.

Nothing bugs me more than when people make socialized statistical gender differences into innate statistical gender differences. It's not anti-woman so much as shoddy thinking.