It is a miracle, indeed the first and greatest of all miracles, that any of us are alive, or that anything exists at all. Existence is a mysterious thing, and we only have to seriously reflect on non-existence to affirm life’s tremendous gratuity and the marvellous nature of being. Furthermore, we humans do not only exist, but are living beings, and, above other living beings, have the ability to reflect upon our existence, to consider these questions and weigh up what it might all mean – we are conscious beings, a part of existence which can consider what existence means. While living beings have a special place within creation though, and human beings a unique place amongst living beings, woman has an even more exalted place still.
In an article from The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Strzelecki Reith, writing about Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, considers towards the end of his piece the particular marvel of femininity, and relates it to the wider miracle of creation. He also goes further than this however, and points out that in the fecundity of woman, we have a paradigmatic case of how life is brought forth from death, how the seed that falls into the ground brings forth new life:
‘…there is something unique about women, as the only creatures in the tapestry of known conscious life to not only be heading towards death, like the rest of mankind, but to also be incubators of the passage from non-being to being, from a kind of death to life. Within the body of a woman, the miracle of creation, of consciousness coming to be from unconscious matter, is played out…
…This phenomenon is not, however, something outside of her, it is not a phenomenon of Other-hood, or Other-liness. For the consciousness of the Other which grows within her is at once a part of her. This experience, unique to woman-as-human, is incomprehensible to man. It cannot be conveyed in words, it cannot be explained, it is totally and forever outside the realm of masculine phenomenology. It is a small secret of the universe known by woman as phenomenon. Woman is not only the being which carries mystery in her body—she is the conscious life who experiences mystery as a physical phenomenon unknowable to man. Just as Jesus passed through Death into Eternal Life via the Mystery of God, so the consciousness that arises within the woman passes through the death of non-being into the eternal life of being conscious—only here the intermediary is not God; distant, all powerful, omnipotent—the intermediary is woman. We might, returning to the above noted subject of the resurrection, adjust our initial thought, according to which the prejudice of the times held that woman—irrational women—were by nature more fit to witness the irrational resurrection of Christ on account of their lower intellect. Perhaps it is not low intellect, but rather the physical capacity to act as a conscious, experiencing incubator for the transformation of non-being into being that gives women the special sensitivity to have been the first to witness the risen God? Perhaps for woman, the Mystery is not “over there” but in them, a part of them—they themselves?’
Whilst all humankind experiences the mystery of existence and conscious being to some degree, women are actually given the privilege of the very mystery of creation taking place within them – the bringing forth of conscious life from non-being; where there was previously only one life, now there is another residing within. This is a kind of microcosm, even (one could say) a living parable of God’s perennial work of creation from nothing, through various stages of existence, into fully conscious, self-reflective being. In this sense then, woman has been chosen as the crown of God’s creative work, insofar as each woman enacts over and again a miniature re-telling of His handiwork.
This is not only a confirmation of the unique place of woman within creation of course, but a confirmation of the holy treasure that she carries within her – life. God’s choosing woman to re-present His creative work in this way is an affirmation of the goodness of all life, and especially of the sanctity of human life. This of course reinforces Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and euthanasia, but it also sheds some light on the wider question of the equality of the sexes, and authentic femininity. To affirm that woman has an especial place in the world, and that this is because of her role as bringer of life, as nurturer and carer, also affirms her difference from man, and gives us pause to reflect on what is essentially different about the sexes.
‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ reads Genesis 1:27, which tells us that men and women are equal in dignity, both created in God’s image, which means that they both share in His reason, His freedom, and His love. They are however, created as distinct from one another, and, as Genesis 2:21-25 suggests, meant to complement one another, not try to equal each other by becoming the same in every respect. The role of woman as nurturer and bringer of life is the case in point here – whilst both sexes are involved in the act of procreation, it is only the woman that bears this new life within her, from whom the new human life receives its sustenance and by whom is given the time to grow in stature.
This is not to suggest that the only difference between men and women is that women can bear children and men cannot – it is rather to highlight that this is the main difference between the sexes, and that this central distinction is in some way emblematic of all the other ways in which women are different from men. Women are given towards particular virtues that men, generally speaking, are not (and I think that speaking generally is warranted here – unless one subscribes to the view that gender is a purely social construct, then there will be certain traits that are more typical for one sex than for another; this is not to say that exceptions do not occur), and I think that these virtues have their root in that ‘special sensitivity’ which comes from woman’s role as bringer of life.
Being the ones who bear life in their womb endows women with the virtue of humility, in that they must humble themselves before the mystery that they are capable of bringing forth within their bodies; the virtue of patience, because they must wait over a long period when this life is conceived and then grows within them; the virtue of selflessness, because the life of another requires their giving of the self in order that it may thrive; and the virtues of tenderness and receptivity, because to be able to nurture new life a caring and responsive touch, and a disposition that is open to new challenges is required. Again, this is not say that men may not display some or all of these virtues in part, but that women are particularly given to them, and this because of their unique roles in God’s work of creation.
Furthermore, these virtues, seen as weaknesses by our society, are shown to be strengths when seen in the light of the Gospel. Saint Paul writes that amongst the fruits of the Spirit are ‘peace, patience, kindness…gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23), and humility is an absolute cornerstone of what it means to follow Christ. In this sense then, women have a vocational and missionary role to the Church and the world in recalling us to these virtues, but in the proper context of our God-given complementarity in the midst of creation. The pre-eminent example of the way in which women can enact this role is of course Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary. She, who bore in her womb not just conscious life, but Life itself, supremely lived out the above virtues, and in doing so pointed the way to her Son, the fount of all Goodness.
Authentic femininity then, is directly contrary to the ideology of feminism, which strives to collapse the distinctions between man and woman, and to reframe what it means to be feminine in terms of power*. The latter attitude flows from our fallen nature, which always seeks to define humanity in terms of a struggle for power, and particularly in asserting the power of man over the power of God (seen particularly within feminism in the undermining of woman’s natural and God-given role as life-giver through appeal to ‘rights’ over and against the unborn); whereas the former attitude not only flows from what we can see in nature, but corresponds to the deepest impulses of Christian revelation.
Thus, to look to Our Lady, who points towards God in Christ, is to see what it is to be truly feminine – just as Our Lord is the New Adam, she is the New Eve – and to have the mystery of female fertility and its place in the miracle of creation not only confirmed but raised to a higher level; a level which can act as a powerful sign in the world and recall us to our true place in the grand scheme of things, as well as the higher virtues which the Gospel calls us to. The role of woman is a blessed one indeed, and the attempts to reinterpret it in worldly terms not only diminishes the fairer sex, but buys into a wider program where might is right, and the haughty are exalted.
*For a good discussion of the way in which feminism can be contrasted with authentic femininity, and the former’s interpretation of what it means to be female in terms of power, see this excellent interview with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.