Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Greatness of a Lady

“She had that great femininity which demanded of her lover what her lover demanded of himself.”

I read this sentence last week in Charles Williams’ “The Figure of Beatrice,” and have been savoring it ever since. He wrote it of Dante’s oft-commented-on beloved, as she appears in the “Divine Comedy”, of which, I confess, I have read only the Inferno, and that only in high school. Despite my limited acquaintance with the heroine of which he spoke, or perhaps because of it, this sentence spoke to me. It called to me, and I swear verily resonated in my chest, like a basso profundo echo of a high, clear note heard afar off. It seemed to me that there, all in a sentence, was a beautiful expression of the heart of femininity at its highest, at least as it appears to me. It seems to be a reversal of the curse of Genesis 3:16, specifically where it says, “You shall desire after your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

I saw the movie, “Ladder 49” once, a long time ago. I liked it. It made me want to be a firefighter, even though I had been in the army for several years. The character of the firefighter played by Joaquin Phoenix was one that I could relate to. He lived to go into burning buildings and rescue people, and it was this quality of courage and reckless compassion that attracted his wife to him in the first half of the movie. By the second half of the movie she was tired of it, to the point that she wanted him to quit the Fire Department. More interesting still, I was watching the movie in the company of other soldiers, most of whom were married and they all said the same thing, “That’s how it is. When you first meet them they think it’s the most awesome thing in the world that you’re a soldier, but then once you’re married they hate it, and they are always scheming to keep you at home.”

A soldier I know, who graduated the course with me, joined up to go Special Forces with his wife’s blessing. As he got further into the course, though, and she realized what it really meant she began to be less and less thrilled with it. Now she hates it, and it is a continual source of tension between them. She hates it and resists it, so much so that I’ve heard her cut him down in public, telling him he’s not smart enough to make it as a medic, or she wouldn’t trust him if she were injured.

I listen, and I hear what she is saying. All of these women face the same trial, namely that their men are not wholly theirs. Each one has a mission that he feels is his, and he is committed to it even at the risk of his life. She, for her part, is worried sick that one day she’ll get that knock on the door and then she will be all alone with the children. Women tend to commit so completely. They want to belong completely to one man and one family, and even a hint that it might all come to an end is truly terrifying. I listen well enough to hear that fear, and I give it a good deal of weight. It is just as real and just as valid as the man’s need to fight fire, or deploy overseas, or whatever great thing he feels he must do.

But today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the great Marian Holy Days of the Catholic Church, and I thought about this in connection with Mary. As Adam ruined betrayed and ruined masculinity by his weakness in the garden, so Eve betrayed and sabotaged femininity. Jesus came to restore the whole human race by obeying where Adam had disobeyed, but He chose to act through a human woman, and in so doing He allowed Mary to be the first and best example of redeemed femininity. Two episodes in particular came to my mind as pivotal moments in this redemption. First, obviously, the annunciation was the pivotal moment of human cooperation with Divine salvation. Mary blindly said her fiat, her “May it be” to the Will of God, without knowing what it would entail. This was the undoing of Eve’s disobedience, a choice made in the dark. Neither Eve nor Mary knew what was at stake. The issue was simply trust. Eve did not, Mary did.

But the second pivotal episode was both a little more obscure, and to my mind a little more relevant to the Charles Williams quote that started this whole train of thought. It comes from John 2:4-5. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus says to His Mother, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” She does not reply to Him directly, or if she does it is not recorded. Instead she simply tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Nothing in John’s gospel is arbitrary or aside. He does not do character development. Every word and saying is full of meaning, significant on many levels and this is no exception, but I find it more mysterious than most of his writing. I have heard a lot of different interpretations of it, most concerned with showing that Jesus was not really being disrespectful to His mother. A few of the Catholic ones use it as an example of how powerful Mary is, and how Jesus will do anything she asks of Him. The most interesting one I ever read was by Fulton Sheen, in which he speculated that what Jesus was really saying was that if He did this and manifested His power He would be setting out on a path from which there was no turning back, and it could only end with His crucifixion.

I suppose on some level there is truth to all of them, but today the idea of Fulton Sheen’s took on a reality in my mind that is convincing in its beauty and elegance. I am convinced that when Jesus said that to her, she knew what was at stake. He was giving her a chance… to do what? To hold Him back? To keep Him for herself? To say, “No, not you my Son. You know what the world will do to you. I just want you to be safe.” Could she have said this? Yes. Just as she could have said “No” to the angel at Nazareth thirty years earlier, she could have said “No” at Cana. The choice God gave her was real, to be the Mother of His Son, or to refuse. Salvation really did come about as the result of a fallible human being’s “Yes” to God. I think Cana was something similar, but more immediate. Now she was faced with an actual human being. She knew Him and loved Him. He was her son. She had born Him in her womb, nursed Him at her breast, held him while He learned to walk, taught Him, fed Him, clothed Him. He was truly flesh of her flesh. In all the years they had lived together they must have talked of His mission, and she knew the prophecy of Simeon concerning her beloved Son. Faced with that kind of choice, a daughter of Eve would have grasped after the one she loved. What kind of grace must have been poured out upon her, to enable her to exercise her redeemed femininity, that high and noble love which demanded of Jesus what He demanded of Himself!

This is that “Great Femininity” that Dante envisioned, that can look on the best of her man’s masculinity, and affirm it even when it takes him away from her. She does not seek to smooth every obstacle out of his path, she does not encourage him to take the safe, easy path. When he loses faith in himself and feels like giving up she gently affirms her faith in the best part of him. You can see it in the men who have wives that support them unconditionally. No matter what setbacks or failures he runs into at work or among his peers, his wife’s support and loyalty outweigh them all. He can conquer the world. I know a man who is a full time volunteer in a Catholic Men’s ministry, who lives entirely on whatever donations he can get. He is able to do this because his wife supports him. She believes in him and his mission so much that she and his children willingly live from donation to donation to enable him to do what he is called to do.

That is the power of this “Great Femininity.” You can see it in the man who is blessed by it. He will answer God’s call, whatever it is, and he will persevere. Such men will change the world, because of the women who love them.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Ryan. I'm so glad you brought in Fulton Sheen, too. I found him on YouTube recently, and in his talk to youth about sex he says that a man can love only a part of a woman, but a woman can only love all of a man. It's such a struggle figuring out what it means to be truly a woman in this world!
    God Bless You!