Because I grew up as the only girl in a family of boys, my notion of what it meant to have a sister was, shall we say, limited. To be honest, many of my experiences of sisters involved watching them fight over even the most ordinary matters; so I was generally grateful that I was sisterless.
In high school, I was on the debate and speech teams. The former routinely placed me in a mostly male environment with which I was quite comfortable, given my family experience. Still I had very little experience of being around other women. Then I went to college, where I lived in an all-women dormitory for four years. Even with the challenges of sharing closets and kitchens, it was nowhere near as bad as what I had anticipated.
Despite the good friendships I had with women, I still had no experience of what it meant to have a sister. Or at least I thought I didn’t.
Recently, I asked several women friends to pray for another woman who was in a very difficult situation. Their generosity moved me. Not only were these prayer warriors committed to spiritual sustenance, but they also wanted to provide a tangible witness of their support: quickly they proposed to send her a care package. As one of the women put it, “We want her to know that she has sisters in Christ who are praying for her.” Keep in mind that they did not know this woman’s identity, nor she theirs. When I picked up the care package, it contained various comfort items and several hundred dollars in gift cards, a welcome surprise for the recipient, who was touched by both their spiritual and material generosity.
My friends’ response gave me a retrospect through which to understand my spiritual life. While I’m blessed to have male friends, I realized that it is through my shared prayer life with many women friends that I’ve come to have a sense of what it is to have a sister and to be a sister to a woman.
And while every soul has an essentially feminine response to God, my experience suggests that there’s something uniquely feminine, even maternal, about the way in which women pray.
In 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the World, in which Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) wrote that one aspect of the vocation of women is to model what it means to be the bride of Christ. After all, the Church is the bride, and Christ is the Bridegroom; so everyone in the Church, whether male or female, is invited to be the bride. Obviously, this presents a challenge for men, who all have vocations as fathers, including spiritual fathers, and some as husbands. Despite these fundamentally masculine roles, as members of the Church they are called to a feminine response to God. Such has been the longstanding tradition of the Catholic Church to refer to the soul in feminine terms and to describe union with God in terms of a mystical marriage.
Mary’s Focus on God
The first chapter of Luke’s Gospel introduces us to the Mother of God, in large part by contrasting her behavior with that of Zechariah. We see Zechariah greeted by the archangel Gabriel, who tells him that the prayer of him and his wife, Elizabeth, has been granted: they will have a son. Even though Zechariah and his wife had indeed prayed to be blessed with a child, Elizabeth was now beyond childbearing years, and so at first he refused to believe that their prayer had been answered. He asked the angel how it could be possible.
Many (if not all) of us look for signs that our prayers have been answered. And all too often, we refuse the obvious signs, even a messenger from God, as Zechariah did.
Luke then recounts how the same archangel appeared to Mary. Now, presumably she had not been asking God the Father to become the mother of His Son. In fact, Mary’s Canticle (Luke 1:46–55) generally confirms this. Like Zechariah, she is told something that exceeds her imagination. In Zechariah’s case, though, he couldn’t imagine that his longstanding petition had been answered. Mary questions the angel in the same way, “How can this be?” Upon hearing his response, she gives her consent.
In her yes to Gabriel, Mary allows herself to be taken into something greater than herself. The incredulous person might see in her a woman who would buy anything — sand in the Sahara Desert, the Brooklyn Bridge, that one secret food that will take off all the belly fat, and so on.
But as we see salvation history unfold, Mary’s example becomes our model. Would that we could say yes to the unimaginable things that God asks of us at times, not to mention the merely mundane. This woman stands in stark contrast to the man Zechariah, with whom most of us probably identify more readily than with Mary.
As Monica Migliorino Miller writes, “Woman confirms the goodness of creation. The freedom of man is manifested in Mary as she stands in for liberated mankind precisely as a woman.”
Almost as if to underscore this great drama, Gabriel gave Mary almost the same message he gave to Zechariah. He tells her that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. Mary responds not by resting and simply wrapping her head around what has just happened, but by going to visit her expectant cousin. She has embraced what has happened and acts because of it.
I’ve long relished this passage. It illustrates a beautiful synergy between the contemplative life and the active life, between prayer and the things that fill our busy lives.
To bring this back to the witness of my friends and many other women in my life, I see that when women pray, there’s a certain strength. Maybe it’s not a strength that the world recognizes, but it’s a strength that we all experience and draw upon. I find it uniquely feminine in light of the response of the Mother of God to God Himself. In our busy lives we try to stay focused on God and keeping His presence in the middle of our activity, just as Mary did.
Hearts Anchored in Christ
Scripture offers us many examples of holy women. I’ll focus briefly on two, who were also biological sisters — Martha and Mary — to develop further my thoughts on women as sisters in Christ. We know that with their brother Lazarus, they were close friends of Jesus. When Jesus wanted to relax with friends, He went to them. They were so close that Martha even chided Jesus about her brother’s death, going so far as to say that Lazarus would not have died had Jesus been there (John 11:21). (Only someone who’s almost like family could lay on a guilt trip like that!)
And yet Martha manifests her faith in Jesus, her conviction that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. Perhaps we forget this deep faith when we read Luke 10:38–42, in which Jesus has come to their home and Martha gets upset that Mary is sitting at His feet, listening to Him, rather than helping her with the preparations, a predicament experienced in most households. When Jesus admonishes Martha, we see the apparent contrast between her activity and Mary’s contemplation.
But another aspect of the passage can be highlighted. Martha says to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus responds to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Go back and read that carefully again. At any point do you see Jesus telling her to not be active? He’s telling her to not be anxious. The better part that Mary has chosen is the peace that comes from being united with God.
After the death of Jesus, when Mary meets the risen Christ (whom she first mistakes for a gardener), instead of resting with Him, she is sent by Him to tell the disciples that she has seen Him and that He is going to the Father (John 20:1–18). Because of this mandate that she fulfilled, St. Thomas Aquinas called her the apostle to the apostles.
In both episodes, something about Mary stayed the same: she was focused on the Lord. Whether sitting at His feet or witnessing His Resurrection, she was not anxious or troubled. Her heart was anchored in Him.
When Mary first discovers the empty tomb, she runs to tell Simon Peter, who comes back with her and another disciple. They, too, see the open tomb. They are in the same place where Mary stays and eventually encounters the risen Lord. For whatever, reason, Jesus chose not to appear to them, but to Mary. And He chose her to spread the word to them.
In both Mary the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene, we see an openness to receive a truth greater than themselves, greater than anything that anyone has ever imagined. And we see this also in Martha, who tells Jesus that she sees He is the Messiah, the Son of God. In all three women, we see how their belief and conviction shape their activity. In contrast with the apostles, who are closest to Jesus and overcome with fear at times, Scripture never indicates fear on the part of these women.
To my mind, there’s no doubt that we see in the Gospels and in the Christian tradition the lived example of the gift of self, even in the fearful apostles, men with whom most of us would have probably identified more than with the women I’ve put forth.
The Spiritual Symbolism of the Body
While all women and men are called to the gift of self, I wonder how much the gift of self is shaped by our sexually differentiated bodies? Throughout conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and her children’s early years, a woman’s body gives of itself in a most concrete manner. From the very beginning of the child’s existence, his mother sustains and nourishes him literally by giving (even if unwillingly) through her maternal body.
Insofar as every woman’s body reflects this reality, whether she has become a biological mother or not, I see our bodies as formative of our psyches and our souls. After all, every soul comes to know through the sexually differentiated body with which it is united to create a specific human person. Each human soul needs its human body until parted by death. Until that point, that soul is informed through a specific body. It makes sense to me, therefore, that the female nature of my body would inform my soul in a specifically female way even though I’ve never been pregnant, much less given birth. And I would argue similarly that all women and men are influenced by their respective sexually differentiated bodies.
St. John Paul II wrote, “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.” Could this not refer to the way in which a woman’s body disposes her to see and interact with human life in its very beginning?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to make generalizations about the sexes to suggest that all women are wonderful examples of humanity and men . . . well, not so much. Rather, I’m trying to get at a fundamental (and, I hope, complementary) way of looking at sexual differentiation, to the point that it affects even our spiritual lives.
Recall that earlier in this chapter, I cited Ratzinger, who stated that it was the vocation of women to witness what it means to be the bride, specifically the Bride of Christ.
Being a Sister in Christ
For myself, I see that most clearly in my experience of prayer with other women. Whether I am offering prayer or am the recipient of prayer, there is a unique feminine response. Again, this is not to say that men don’t respond quickly and effectively with prayer. The witness of countless saints, canonized or not, manifests that they can and do. Yet perhaps their response might be called feminine insofar as they model the Mother of God and many other holy women.
In my women friends, I see and learn from the example of Mary at Cana upon discovering that the wedding party has run out of wine. She doesn’t go to her Son and say, “I think it’s time to go home and get away from this noise.” No, she goes to Him and points out the problem to Him: “They have no wine,” as if she expects Him to do something about it. When He asks why it’s His concern, she merely turns to the servers and says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:1–10). Problem solved.
In the three women I’ve put forth for our brief reflection here, we see this perfect blend of the contemplative and the practical. They remain in the presence of God while also tending to the realities of the world.
On a most practical level, that’s what I’ve learned from the prayer lives of so many women I know. A quick text message can launch a spiritual avalanche of prayer. And although I know men who respond in kind, I’d say that we women are gifted insofar as it might be easier for us to connect immediately with human need, since we are gifted with bodies that are disposed to the most vulnerable of human needs.
I see among women a more ready expression not only of the need for prayers but also of the response of prayers, prayers that don’t disregard our basic human needs. This was what I saw in my friends who responded with prayers and a substantial care package. And I realized that I’ve learned from them how to be the sister in Christ that I grew up seeing in my mother: someone who spends countless hours praying through her ordinary work while also making sure that the person for whom she’s praying also has other basic human needs taken care of.
Blessed Pope Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council saying, “Women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.” To my mind, these are the women we can all become when we pray as sisters in Christ, modeling our prayer after that of Mary, the Mother of God, bridging the gap between humanity and God as we unite our contemplative efforts to our very ordinary and practical day-to-day activities.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from When Women Pray, which is available from Sophia Institute Press. Dr. de Solenni will be among several speakers at the 2018 Avila Summit, which you can learn more about on their site.