This week I was delighted to receive an unexpected e-mail from an old friend, whom I have not heard from in more than twenty years. I met Gondar while I was on a short-term teaching assignment at a Christian school in Senegal, West Africa. He and I were part of a church music group comprised of five African college students, our pastor and his wife, and myself. The group welcomed me into their lives, and took it upon themselves to look out for me — the clueless, unmarried American.
I vividly recall one occasion when Gondar came to my rescue one evening after music rehearsal as I got into my car and found a strange African man in my back seat. As I cowered, dumbstruck, Gondar forcibly evicted the indignant stranger from the passenger side of my car. Then he sent me on my way with a pleasant, "Have a good evening."
Shaking all the way home, I thought of my grandmother, who had lectured me about the foolishness of my going to the jungles of Africa without a husband. (She wasn't impressed when I informed her I was going to be living in the capital city, in a house with both electricity and indoor plumbing.) At the time, I was determined to show that I didn't need a MAN to take care of me. In retrospect, I recognize that these friends greatly enriched my cross-cultural experience — their friendship provided a measure of security that, as a single woman, I needed more than I cared to admit.
An Inspired "Unity of Two"
Today's second reading contains an "optional" segment that gives some Catholic women (and not a few men) pause:
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them…. Colossians 3:17-18
Rather than discount these verses as mere cultural bias, we need to place them within the full context of revealed truth, as taught by the Catholic Church, in order to fully appreciate the wisdom the words contain. When we do this, we see that the verses point not to the subjugation of women, but to what Pope John Paul II called our "feminine genius."
August 2008 marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem. In this letter, the beloved Holy Father reflects on the "unity of two" that is the heart and soul of the vocation of marriage, in which a man and woman are called to "live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life" (MD 7). Through this letter, we begin to glimpse the inspired truth behind this "controversial" Colossians passage.
The Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate this weekend, reflected this "unity of two" in a special way. Mary entrusted herself and her Child into the protective love of St. Joseph, following him unquestioningly far away from those most dear to her as they took flight into Egypt. Joseph set aside his "manly pride" and resisted any bitterness he might have felt at taking a pregnant teenager as his wife, or raising a child he knew was not his own. From the beginning, they understood that the road ahead of them would not be easy, and yet they were equally confident that it was the way God had prepared for them.
The same can be said for those who choose to enter into the vocation of marriage today. We follow a pathway that is full of breathtaking vistas and heartbreaking shadows. It is a pathway that, of necessity, requires that we attain the same "unity of two" that Mary and Joseph achieved by virtue of their obedience … and Adam and Eve lost through their disobedience.
In contemporary society, the disobedience continues, often in subtler but no less damaging forms. In the name of "liberating" women from the bonds of servitude and second-class citizenship, some edit out this Colossians passage altogether — despite the fact that it is part of inspired Scripture. In his apostolic letter, the Holy Father addresses this issue as well:
In our times the question of "women's rights" has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the "unity" of the "two", that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination," women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality" (MD 10, italics mine).
The Distinctively Feminine Soul
In Raising Up Mommy: Virtues for Difficult Mothering Moments, I explore the "originality" of the feminine person in light of her particular gifts and struggles, particularly within the context of marriage and family life. Because our calling is qualitatively different from that of men, it stands to reason that our strengths and weaknesses have a distinctively feminine character as well.
As the heart of the home, for example, we women receive the spiritual and physical protection of our husbands not because we are inferior, any more than the heart is "inferior" to the ribcage. Rather, our calling is inherently relational, deriving its power from within that sphere of familial intimacy. Consequently, the feminine soul is intrinsically intuitive as well as rational; a woman's strength is more emotional than physical; her identity is centered not in her work, which is characterized by humility and hiddenness, but in the lives of those she touches. Her power tends to be hidden, indirect, subtle … yet, within that "unity of two," it is highly effective.
Consequently, the "subordination" of the Christian woman to her husband is not of a servant to her master, but that of one partner trusting the other to carry his share of their burden, freeing her to tend to the more delicate, complementary, and essential functions for which she is best suited — that is, in the words of John Paul II, our "feminine genius." In this way, "… women imbued with the Spirit of the Gospel… can do so much to aid humanity in not falling" (closing message of the Second Vatican Council).
[To purchase Heidi Saxton's new book, contact her through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.]