What does it mean to be female?
In the life of the Church, our teachings often are illuminated by the lives of the saints. Regarding femininity, the preeminent person to look to is Mary, our Blessed Mother. Through her, we see not only essential aspects of what it means to be a woman, but also how she reveals to us the heart of the Church. Her features, while essential to feminine identity, are not exclusive to women. Like Mary, we are all meant to be characterized by receptivity, affectivity and the sharing of ourselves for the good of others.
Mary’s quintessential act of receptivity is found in the Annunciation. Mary’s response to Gabriel is one of pure receptivity since she has a total openness to Gabriel’s message. Unlike Zachariah, she has no fear or doubt at the presence of Gabriel. Mary almost is expecting this moment to come. Here, her receptivity is intertwined with docility and listening: there is a deep trust for God to make whole Mary’s mission and fulfill her needs in life. Even when she struggles to understand the mission given to her, Mary’s questioning does not come from a place of doubt. Rather, it rises from her constant pondering and searching for the deepest fulfillment of her life. This docile listening is embodied in a deep trust by which she responds with total self-giving. She consents with a profound “fiat” to the God who alone fulfills the purpose and meaning for which we are created. This receptivity is vital, is deeply active, is not passive, nor slavish. It comes from a sense of action and personhood which recognizes that I cannot create my own truth, but I must receive it always.
Receptivity is a difficult category to see in a positive light. Receptivity is often seen in modernity as a negative quality. Negative versions of feminism attempt to embrace an activism that is more masculine in character. Equality often promotes femininity in a masculine way, rather than an authentically feminine way. But an authentic Christian view of femininity not only sees receptivity as vital to feminine life, but essential and universal to the Church and to all humanity. The Church Fathers, in fact, see a necessary receptivity for all of humanity: we are only ourselves because we have received our being from God. This can only be known if the feminine characteristic of receptivity is promoted and defended.
In many of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings is found reflections on Mary’s role as the archetype of the Church. In Mary, he says, we see the perfection of the Church personified. Virginal, without sin, receptive, etc. are all prominent themes in these discussions. But these, while embodied in a feminine figure, are obviously categories that are not universal to all women. However, one key element Benedict brings into discussion about Mary and the Church that he sees as universally applicable to women — and, indeed, the Church as well — is affectivity, or the expressing of emotion. For Benedict, Mary embodies this affectivity perfectly, and it is vitally important to the life of faith.
Perhaps that is shocking since often we are told that feelings or emotions are to be ignored in faith. Yet there is a key phrase in Scripture that shows us the importance of affectivity in Mary: “She pondered all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
The heart, in Scripture, is not just the source and center of life, but is the place of affectivity as well. Mary’s affectivity differs from ours since hers is both sinless and fully integrated. Hence, we hear about the action of “pondering.” In the moments of the life of Jesus, Mary does not simply respond with a reflexive emotionality, which is so common in our fallen state. Rather, she ponders the mystery in her heart and discerns the proper response to the mysteries she encounters. This demonstrates not only that affectivity is central to femininity, but it is even central to the act of faith — it has a place in the response to the mystery of Christ. Too often we doubt feelings and even fear them so that we would distrust their ability to help us develop our faith. Mary shows that feelings and affectivity are vital not only to feminine life, but to the life of faith for the whole Church.
Sharing of Self
In Mary, we see a love that not only listens and receives, but also dispossesses all she has. There is a form of gift in her that everything she receives she does not hold for herself: all that is hers she makes property for all.
The receptive, pondering and affective heart of Mary never keeps these experiences for herself. Everything kept in her heart exists for the whole Church. So, too, the feminine heart is never able to hold everything to herself. The motherly need, for example, to provide at all times for her children comes from a deeper sense that all she has received is not for herself: it must be a gift to others. Hence, the feminine principle of dispossession. All that is received is given with a deep and reflective activism that is not only different than masculine activity, but, it could be argued, is more fundamental to the total human condition. When the Church begins to embrace this more fully in her anthropological outlook, not only can she promote the dignity of women, but also can show the great gift the feminine heart is not only for women themselves, but for the Church and, indeed, humanity as a whole.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison. Read more from his Theological Anthropology 101 series here.