The critical function of feminine spirituality

Hellwig, Monika K.

PRAYER, COMPASSION, SOLIDARITY, IMAGINATION The critical function of feminine spirituality MONIKA K. HELLWIG WHEN we LOOK through the centuries of Christian history, we find ample...

...One of the most important founda3 May 1985: 267 tions for a true personal spirituality is an unhurried, calm, non-violent, but fearlessly radical critique of the sex-role definitions of one's own society in the light of the Christian vocation...
...In their own nonaggressive, nonviolent way, Christians of the first three centuries introduced radical questions and radical reform of structures into the culture of pagan antiquity...
...On the other hand, to have access to bullying power is inevitably to be sorely tempted to use it, which is not Christ's way...
...The biological component of sexual determination is, as we now come to realize, not static but responds to natural environment, nutritional factors, activity, culture, and other spiritual factors...
...It is not surprising, therefore, that when we do have records of the work and impact of Christian women on their societies, that impact tends to be prophetic, radical in its implications for the social structures of the society in the long run, and, in terms of social dynamics, a movement from below...
...From the beginning, Christians have known that they were called upon to do the impossible...
...Moreover, the focus of religious histories has commonly been upon the churches precisely as institutions...
...This is less true, however, of histories of spirituality which have consistently taken note of monastic communities and of lay Christians who initiated works of piety or charity or otherwise attracted attention among their contemporaries...
...the capacity for child-bearing, which allows for strong vertical bonds across generations...
...Likewise, the vocation of Christian women as a class is not a determination to be made once...
...Leadership in accord with the Good News of Jesus Christ meant service, not domination, and therefore there was no need for titles of respect to establish psychological distance...
...Yet the inspiration of outstanding medieval women remains fresh...
...They need only be fully what they are and take the field seriously for what it is, and the redemption of the society through the expanding imagination will happen...
...In addition, Christians would not kill or harm or go to law to defend their claims...
...Yet it must be admitted that in spite of these splendid women, we have only fragments of a "usable past" to guide and inspire us in shaping a spirituality for Christian women in the troubled world of our times...
...It has at times been generally accepted that women tend to be emotionally unstable, dependent, physically fragile, and intellectually inferior to men...
...With the collapse and disintegration of the old Empire in the West, Christian spirituality took a new turn, doing something rather unexpected...
...To yield to these temptations is a great loss...
...Society teaches us certain lines of interpretation: what is good or bad, normal or abnormal, more or less desirable, even more or less reasonable...
...It is very difficult to imagine anything beyond the permitted range...
...The temptation to enter the public sphere in a purely competitive spirit seeking enhancement of prestige, wealth, and power is real, opposed to a spirit of service, compassion, and solidarity...
...Because of their general exclusion from power, the motivation of women's peace efforts has not come from the desire for unhampered, unqualified control of a country after the manner of the famous Pax Romana...
...Similarly, conventional governing roles were usually closed to women...
...It embraced and preserved and integrated into itself much of the old pagan philosophy, law, literature, and culture...
...That left open the options of ministry, service, horizontal leadership by inspiration, invitation, and community bonds of support...
...Rather it is a discernment to be made continuously throughout the generations of Christian history and within particular cultural, economic, and sociopolitical situations...
...PRAYER, COMPASSION, SOLIDARITY, IMAGINATION The critical function of feminine spirituality MONIKA K. HELLWIG WHEN we LOOK through the centuries of Christian history, we find ample instruction in women's potential for greatness...
...Just because they were excluded from much of conventional public life, from ordination, and hierarchic authority, those Christian women who were recognized as memorable have emerged as strongly counter-cultural in their attitudes, expectations, relationships, and actions...
...they ceased to be definitive of the dignity, destiny, and potential of the community members...
...the Scriptures provide rich imagery and symbolism, replete with stories of classic universality, and personality prototypes that cross cultures and centuries...
...the great foundresses and abbesses, Brigid of Ireland, Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Gertrud von Hackeborn, Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Teresa of Avila...
...it calls for contemplative sensitivity out of which new configurations can be imagined...
...We learn from the Acts of the Apostles and from the letters of Paul, that these Christians structured their own communities in totally new ways...
...The problem is, in one sense, a general one...
...Vocational choices must be made throughout one's life...
...Indeed, the biological component can be extensively modified by deliberate human intervention...
...We must acknowledge that the lives and impact of women have not been recorded for us with the same profusion as those of men...
...There were, of course, those who exercised leadership within the system, trying to mold it to a more Christian pattern, and this was the case with most of the bishops as well as some great civic leaders...
...This distinction is made by an earnest quest for a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ by meditation on Scripture, study of commentary, history, and the believing community's experience...
...It is time, then, for individual and communal discernment on the part of Christian women...
...These women are to us more admirable than imitable, precisely because we as contemporary women are not excluded from the mainstreams of theology and there is no reason to build a spirituality without explicit theological foundations...
...Throughout the medieval period, there was on the one hand a sense of Christendom which we have clearly lost in our experience of plurality, and there was on the other hand a persistent struggle between ecclesiastical and secular power which has today taken on entirely new forms...
...As long as women continue to be excluded from ordination and from institutionalized positions of leadership and decision-making in the church, we may as well acknowledge some advantages as well as the more obvious disadvantages...
...There is a temptation to look on new openings simply as career opportunities and occasions for self-advancement rather than as matters of Christian vocation...
...It has taken note of the extent to which the human imagination needs to be educated in a world distorted by the consequences of sin...
...It should also cause little wonder that by the beginning of the fourth century the Empire could only survive by ending hostilities and joining common cause with the Christians...
...we interpret...
...But it is also true that the expressions of human ingenuity need to inform Christian spirituality to ensure that it is dealing with the real problems of real people to ensure that Christian spirituality is authentic and not simply an escape into a dream world...
...Likewise, a certain tension existed between the theological discourse of the scholastics from which women were almost systematically excluded, and the lively and colorful devotional traditions in which women such as the German nuns, the Flemish and English mystics, and the Italian Catherines, played very active roles...
...We do not lack traditional teachMON1KA K. HELLWIG, professor of theology at Georgetown University, is a single parent of three adopted children...
...At the same time we must express that freedom and creativity with power in the public sphere...
...Some well-known women spring immediately to mind: the great queens, Clotilde of the Franks, Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Elizabeth of Portugal...
...Commonweal: 268...
...Examples from the past can never be uncritically followed in subsequent ages because the context for action and decision is never the same...
...Christian spirituality is related to all of these: it should inform them and it should be informed by them...
...They rejected all formalities, distinctions, and separations which might interfere with total community...
...This combination of spiritual freedom, social opportunity, and power holds promise of creative ways to build bridges of reconciliation towards world peace, to restructure systems of society which impoverish and exclude the powerless, and to sow "seeds of unity, hope, and salvation for the whole human race...
...But there were some who carried out their critique as Christians had always done, by joining themselves to a counter-cultural community, living as best they could by the values and principles of the Gospel...
...While this is true of secular histories, it is especially so of religious histories...
...The earliest Christians lived in a world that did not know democracy and had not taken note of its economic and social systems...
...This calls for more than determination and aggressive energy...
...We in North America must take into account the wealth at our disposal, the extent to which we have been liberated from backbreaking, soul-destroying, physical work, the civic rights we enjoy, the educational advantages which we have had, and the world of desperate needs which surrounds us...
...We find in spite of unfavorable circumstances, a surprising number of Christian women whose learning, competence, and spirituality made creative, significant contributions to their societies and the history of the redemption of the world...
...In that world they were not purely passive, but it often seems to us retrospectively that they were so...
...ings concerning Christian virtues, but these tend to point women towards submission in church, society, and family, and therefore tend to become counsels of passivity...
...When we look at the world about us, we never simply record what is there...
...We have unprecedented opportunities to participate actively in the affairs of the larger society through professional or business careers, through political activity, and through volunteer work...
...But this implies that a vocation is not a call issued once in a lifetime...
...Catholic tradition has particularly appreciated this in its promotion of the sacramental principle...
...The tradition, values, and expectations of our own society hold us captive...
...We have now discovered that good health care and social encouragement eliminate any such attributes...
...From history emerges the important question: how are we to identify the "usable past" that provides us with models, insights, warnings, hope, and challenge...
...Imagination is exercised through literature, the visual and performing arts, but also through human relationships, social structures, technology, and science...
...Channels for redemptive grace run through us if we allow them to be open...
...Such initiatives in health care and education, commonly taken by women who saw them as expressions of faith called forth by the immediate circumstances in which they lived, had long-term consequences in all of Western society, and, through colonization and international organizations, have now become a challenge to the whole world...
...In this there has been no reason for sexual discrimination, so that we really do have living examples in considerable detail...
...By analyzing our society we must try to distinguish what is God's good creation, from what is the consequence of a history of sin, and what is already in the order of redemption because it has been touched and transformed by grace...
...Factors that do not change in the biological determination are: the sexual complementarity of women and men, which allows for strong horizontal bonds in the human community...
...Today, increasing respect and freedom for women in the public sphere is a great opportunity which carries subtle temptations...
...The all-important question, of course, is: what inspiration and implications can we draw for our own times...
...They tend to understate and to obscure the potential and the vocation of Christian women...
...Our immediate challenge is to move beyond submissive passivity in the affairs of society without indulging in angry Commonweal: 266 rejection of the traditions of our faith or in aggressively competitive self-promotion which moves against, rather than with, the redemption of the world...
...We may discover that divine power, grace, is of a very different kind, effective inasmuch as it empowers and liberates human freedom freedom for self-transcendence, for community with others, for God, and for God's purposes in history...
...But further determination must be made on the basis of two questions: what are the needs of the community and what is the capacity of this individual or group to respond to those needs...
...Rather it has arisen from compassionate horror of the suffering that war causes, often to those who have least stake in the outcome...
...Throughout history women have been allowed rather freely into the realms of imagination in the arts and literature and sometimes even in science, but in previous generations they were seldom taken seriously...
...To have little or no access to bullying power, to be unable to compel or persuade by threat or institutional sanctions, is necessarily to be thrown back upon other resources...
...These distinctions did not cease to exist...
...A DISCERNMENT of the Christian vocation of women requires clarity about basic Christian teachings: revelation, creation, sin and redemption, christology and grace, church and sacramentality, and the hoped for outcome of redemptive history...
...It is only in the context of these teachings and the large framework of interpretation of reality which they set, that any vocational question can come into focus...
...Because of our church organization, Christ's empowerment of human freedom is likely to be more immediately apparent to women...
...There are many reasons for this...
...There were also those who challenged ill-used power directly, such as Ambrose of Milan...
...One of the most interesting aspects of the impact of Christian women in the past is their concern for peace...
...Their interests and activities were allowed as hobbies and this alone justified the time, energy, and resources spent upon them...
...we must discern new possibilities for quite different forms of social organization, community structures, and cooperation...
...Another challenge is to disentangle what is biologically determined as specifically feminine from what is culturally prescribed, and then to distinguish these from what makes up the Christian vocation of women...
...Rather, Christians, steeped in Scripture and deeply influenced by prayer and by the imperatives of charity, should pursue the arts as a vocation, should engage in political process and policy, and should devote themselves to technological invention and scientific research...
...We do not lack prayer traditions, though there is still some tendency for these to be either monastic in origin and diluted for lay people, or lay in origin but tending to devotional expressions not centered upon the great mysteries of salvation...
...Most historical interest has centered upon public life, whereas the customary division of labor until relatively modern times kept the activities of most women enclosed within the family circle...
...Such were the communities of desert hermits and later of monastic groups...
...There is often a call to consider movements of thought and action and organization around us in a new light for a new age...
...Therefore, examples that are recorded are even more exceptional than in the case of men, for whom truly ordinary lives were not recorded either...
...These components bridge the gap between the available traditional models and the situation of contemporary women with their far greater access to positions of power and public persuasion...
...The possibilities for a spirituality of Christian women that can really make a difference in a troubled world, seem to be concerned particularly with prayer, compassion, solidarity, and creative imagination...
...It should inform them not in the sense that art and science would be deliberately used to moralize, catechize, or defend the faith...
...Actually, as more critical appraisal shows us, the early Christians, both men and women, were quite creatively revolutionary in their approach to human society as they knew it...
...Another example is schooling for children of the poor, including orphaned and homeless children, which eventually led to almost universal literacy, public school systems, and a general belief in education as a basic right...
...It is necessary to find ways of innovating, using initiative and exerting leadership, which are not based upon personal anger, and which do not seek to dominate or to seize exclusive privileges...
...left open were options for a more prophetic style than is usually possible to those who fill official positions and play conventional roles...
...and nearer our own times, Elizabeth Seton, Francesca Cabrini, Janet Erskine Stuart...
...Initiatives for care of the indigent sick, for example, led eventually to the acceptance of the idea that each society is responsible for the health care of its citizens without reference to their ability to pay...
...A fundamental task of Christian spirituality is imagination to break the process of interpretation wide open to glimpse entirely new possibilities of human life and relationships...
...Even a pluralistic society limits the range of alternatives in ways we do not easily recognize...
...We must avoid entering into competition for what have been male prerogatives in a sinful history based upon bullying...
...From the unsuccessful efforts of Clotilde of the Franks, through a history that includes Elizabeth of Hungary, Elizabeth of Portugal, and Catherine of Siena, down to the peace protests of Dorothy Day and the women of Greenham Common, striving for peace 3 May 1985: 265 and reconciliation of hostile parties has been characteristic of the lives of noted Christian women...
...Leadership by domination was frequently not open to women, nor were titles that inspire awe and create psychological distance...
...The systematic exclusion of women from ordination and from positions of hierarchic authority guarantees that in these histories we read little or nothing about women...
...Extraordinary women broke through all the stereotypes and did truly unique and creatively redemptive things, each in her own situation and setting: Egeria the Pilgrim, Perpetua the scholarly martyr, Hadewijch of Brabant, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Catherine of Genoa, and many more...
...Where the two intersect, the call of God is to be found...
...It is of interest to us today to observe the ways in which that critical function was carried out...
...Women were often in a better position to notice what was left undone and who was left out in the pastoral practice of the institutional church...
...Such also were other lay groupings like that of the women who associated with Paula of Rome...
...Because of our history and because of the turning point at which we of this generation stand, Christian women have a calling to preserve their freedom of spirit in using their creative imagination, in the way that they have possessed it in their socially and politically powerless past...
...they were bringing about a revolution all the more sure and drastic because it was not a rebellion and cost no lives other than their own at the hands of their persecutors...
...Property and resources were held in trust for those in need, so there could be no divisions in their society based on the distinction between rich and poor...
...When we look at Scripture and at history, we can see a pattern in the way former impossibilities became subsequent realization: the dynamics of the prophetic are in the creative imagination...
...Her books include Understanding Catholicism, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, and Jesus the Compassion of God...
...There have also been extraordinary reformers, envisaging transformation of social structures, or sometimes bringing them about almost by accident people such as Elizabeth Fry, Octavia Hill, Frances Cobbe, Josephine Butler, Dorothy Day, Clara Lubich, Catherine de Hueck, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta...
...Allowing for the inevitable bias in the available data, we can nevertheless draw some conclusions...
...We live within a history of sin that distorts the truth of our existence in very persuasive ways...
...There are no easy answers to this...
...It closes the imagination, locking people into already established patterns, rather than opening them up to new possibilities...
...What is culturally prescribed, usually based on biological factors, is tailored to the economy, ecology, and political structure of each society...
...It was as this symbiosis of Christendom developed, that Commonweal: 264 Christian energies and devotion were called forth to a new critical function...
...It should cause little wonder that they were feared and persecuted by the Empire...
...Moreover, in Christ there was no distinction between slave and free, Jew and gentile, Greek and barbarian, male and female...

Vol. 112 • May 1985 • No. 9


 
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