By Heidi Comes
We are living in a time when confusion and misinformation rule the narrative—a time when one can no longer be definitive about anything and truth is just an old-fashioned concept. One truth that seems to be especially fraught with confusion among women is what it looks like to be a woman.
A quick glance at the magazine covers while standing in the grocery store check-out will leave the modern woman in a state of panic and certainly feeling less than adequate. From a perfectly decorated home and cupcakes to a body that is adorned in the latest fashion, a woman doesn’t know if she’s supposed to make parenting, her career, her body, her marriage or her mental health the top priority. According to these magazine covers, the perfect woman either does it all or should do what she wants at the expense of marriage and family.
Navigating this topic can be challenging at best, and downright impossible without a shining light on a hill guiding us. As Christians, we weren’t meant to walk alone to discover our individual truth, but instead we’re meant to follow after Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.
The Catholic Church serves as that light shining in the darkness to lead us to the truth.
Clarity in confusion
In Genesis 1:27, the Bible tells us, “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Everything God made was good. In the opening lines of Sacred Scripture, we hear that God created two, not one. And that wasn’t just a happy accident. God had a very specific purpose in mind with every creative stroke of his majestic hand.
“As humans created in the image and likeness of God, we have this need to give of ourselves,” Meghan Krueger, a Natural Family Planning instructor in Sioux Falls, explains. “As women, we have this full-circle receptivity and gift. Before woman was created in Genesis, that was it. Man was the end of it. It couldn’t go beyond this one male person until there was the female to bring about life.”
What an awesome role and responsibility to carry as women. The question is, how do we define and live that role in a time when confusion surrounds us?
Emily Leedom, executive director of The Lourdes Center, shares what Pope St. John Paul II coined as the “feminine genius” to capture the particular capacity of women to receive another. “Human persons are entrusted to women in a particular way, and she is well equipped with deep sensitivity to tend to the needs of others.”
Understanding feminine genius means understanding that women are complex creatures, competent and intellectual, yet tender and nurturing as well. Not one or the other, but all. From the soft nurturing hands to the warm embrace within her arms, a woman is one of the most comforting creatures and indeed the first home for all mankind.
This stands in complete contradiction to what the world is saying to women, according to Genesis Tibbetts, a full-time stay-at-home mother who has been part of the Culture Project as well as a speaker at events focusing on the feminine genius. She says the culture’s message is: “Be whoever you want, don’t let yourself be held down by a word or who people say you are to be.” Instead, she says we should remember who we are innately as women.
“It is not so much to tell us how women ought to be or ought to live but to remind us of how much we are capable of,” Genesis says. Our culture desires freedom, but the evil one warps what looks like freedom into enslavement to sin. It is, according to Genesis, through “living out the feminine genius as a Catholic woman [that] leads us to true freedom and true flourishing.”
Dignity and uniqueness
When the culture demands equality, it dismisses uniqueness. There is a failure to see the irreplaceable value of the female genius. Our ability to do things similarly to another is not a benchmark of equality or excellence. What we can do does not give us value. Who we are, a child of God, is where we find our dignity. Nothing inequal or of greater or lesser value.
Human dignity is in its greatest glory when we embrace the intricate beauty and uniqueness with which each was made. Men are not the same as women. Women are not the same as men. God in his infinite wisdom and goodness knew the complementary nature of the individuals he created. He saw the human needs that could be met most effectively through one or the other. In his creative design, he ordained fruitfulness to come from two, not one, because love must be given and received. From that love comes life.
Meghan says there is often confusion about who a woman is. “Modern culture is giving this message that we are supposed to be the same as the man. We’ve really taken the term ‘created equally’ way out of context, and the idea of equality as being the same, but really we were created with complementarity.”
She goes on to explain that whenever we try to duplicate the other half we are meant to complement, there is going to be tension and a gap to be filled. “When we start to separate these two complementary roles from one another, the system that was created is in break-down, and it isn’t going to function.”
Undoubtedly, when God first created man, he didn’t have to ponder long that a helpmate was indeed necessary: a compliment to his masculinity, a softness to his intensity, a gentle touch to his strength. While the world may be confused about this, the Church has recognized the dignity, uniqueness and complementary nature of the male and female from the beginning.
The role of women
In a world of labels and limits, it is nearly impossible to label a woman’s role. And indeed, it would be foolish to limit her. Women are seen throughout salvation history playing key roles and forming deep relationships in leading the way to the cross.
Often we get stuck in the Book of Genesis where we begin the creation story, and we focus on the narrative that Adam and Eve did a bad thing and it seems to be all Eve’s fault. It must have been her weak female nature that allowed her to be an easy target for the enemy. This is what we call simplification to the point of misinformation.
The enemy knew exactly what he was doing. He played upon the human weaknesses of both Adam and Eve. Both fell short of fulfilling their purpose in leading each other to salvation.
“If we go back and look at Genesis, the thing that often gets overlooked is that when she and Adam were together in the garden, Adam’s job was to protect the garden and protect Eve, and he let down his guard first in allowing this temptation into the garden,” Meghan says. “Eve also kind of stepped out of bounds, because she’s meant to be the receiver, but instead she took. So it’s not like this defenseless woman was just standing there and had no mind of her own and was tricked. There was a both/and, and there was a sequence of events. The first was that the protector wasn’t protecting, and maybe he wasn’t giving, so she was tempted to take.” She also asserts that all of their intellect was clouded.
Both Adam and Eve took their eyes off the Lord and looked inward instead. By doing this, they began to focus on all that was around them and their individual needs. Anytime we pull our eyes off of the focal point, Christ, we are bound to fall into temptation and sin.
When things aren’t as they should be
Meghan encourages us to understand that “we’re never going to find the perfect solution here on earth, but God is always reaching out to give us the grace to point us toward a life living in union with him through the Eucharist, through true adoration and worship, and understanding of God being the creator and us being his created, and us not trying to usurp that.”
It is when we fight against the plan of our Creator that we find ourselves in confusion and chaos. Submitting to the will of the Father takes humility and trust and in doing so removes the tension and struggle. According to Emily, in today’s society, however, women often are tempted to close themselves off from others.
“She resists vulnerability out of fear of being taken advantage of,” Emily says. “She’s tempted to decrease her sensitivity and increase her authoritative dominance in order to prove herself. In its most extreme, she has intentionally cut off her fertility so as not to receive another in her very being.”
The very essence of our feminine genius is blotted out because of a failure to open ourselves to the one who can fill us and will never leave us abandoned or alone.
Meghan furthers this thought by reminding us that it will always be a struggle against our own sinful, selfish nature here on earth. Embracing our role and living it authentically requires work and self-sacrifice, the kind that was shown to us on the cross. It is through humility and a constant reminder that we are called to receive, respond and serve that we will be who we were created to be. All else leads to tension and frustration.
Our Blessed Mother and the saints
It is through women of faith that we see beautiful examples of what living authentically feminine lives looks like. Both in our Blessed Mother and the lives of the saints, we encounter story upon story of how God used the unique qualities of a woman to bring about his plan of salvation. From the women who walked alongside Jesus in his earthly ministry to the saints who sacrificed their lives out of devotion to him, we see courageous, strong and faithful examples of womanhood.
The Blessed Mother exemplified grace and strength in a way that the world had never seen. Emily describes the image that her mind sees when she thinks of Mary.
“She is standing in a posture of docility and receptivity but with her heel on the snake,” she said. “What may seem like a paradox of passivity and assertiveness is, in fact, the integration of vulnerability and strength. In her receptivity, she is fierce. In her openness, she is strong. In being of service, she is leading.”
This combination of traits can be found in the heart of every woman if she has surrendered herself to God’s will as Mary did.
“It is written on our hearts to be aware and to be able to respond to our surroundings,” Meghan adds. “So long as we are using that gift as we are intended to, it will always build up the Church toward God’s plan. That can be done as a single woman, as a mother, as a wife, in our work, as a sister in a convent—all of that is not limited to any one way of life.”
Meghan encourages us to look to the saints, recognizing that the diversity of women who became saints should serve to encourage us. “There is plenty of room for all of the personalities and desires that God places on each of our hearts for our unique gifts to build up the kingdom of God.”
Embracing our dignity
Ultimately, realizing and embracing her dignity comes down to the intimacy of her relationship with the Lord, Emily says.
“Women must receive the dignity of who they are in the depths of their being from their Creator himself,” she says. “We often seek validation of our worth from relationships, motherhood, our jobs, our appearance or our homes. But it never satisfies. When the Church speaks of the dignity of woman, she is cutting through the lies of the world and offering a megaphone to the Lord to boldly proclaim the beauty of his creation.”
Author and speaker Max Lucado says, “A woman’s heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek him [God] just to find her.” The very essence of a woman should be so wrapped up in the love of God that when others are drawn to her, they find God at the same time.
Fulton Sheen expounds on this. “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.”
Emily encourages us to realize the truth. “The Church has protected and upheld the dignity of women by boldly holding to the truth that she is, indeed, not a man! The Church has long taught of the complementarity of the sexes and by honoring the differences, they are honored in their particularity. Whether working in the world or as a domestic operations manager, single or married, mother or not, the world needs our femininity.” She reminds us that “without woman, the image of God is incomplete.”
As women, we have a unique and irreplaceable way in which we reveal who God is.
“We can continue to elevate women by leaning on her particular gifts and way of seeing the world,” Emily says. “Within her body, another’s total being, body and soul, is formed. This natural capacity is revealing a profound spiritual reality: that woman is a fortress within which life, beauty and creativity can be nourished and grown.”
Truth requires us to acknowledge that there have been bumps in the road, hurdles in the pathway, and sometimes a wandering away from honoring male and female dignity. But God’s plan hasn’t changed; his truth hasn’t been redefined. And the Church will continue to boldly proclaim the goodness of God’s creation of male and female.