The Great Gift of Self
Discalced Carmelite Nun*
A feminine approach to the New Evangelization
When Pope Francis is asked how he attained the certainty of faith, he points to the special influence of a woman: his grandmother. The Holy Father received his first Christian proclamation from her on Good Friday when he was just a boy. "Our grandmother would make us — the children — kneel down and she would say to us: "Look, He is dead, but tomorrow He will rise'" (Address, Vigil of Pentecost, 18 May 2013).
Around the same time the Paschal Mystery was explained to the future pope by his grandmother in Argentina, another woman across the Atlantic gave her own supreme witness to the science of the cross. Philosopher, Jewish convert to Catholicism, Carmelite nun, and martyr, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) spent her life — and ultimately her death at Auschwitz — in a quest for the Truth, which she found in the Catholic faith.
There is perhaps no canonized saint who understands so well the natural and supernatural vocation of woman. What does she have to say to Catholic women today about living and communicating their faith? Borrowing a familiar technique of Pope Francis, and some key themes of his pontificate, one might summarize St Teresa Benedicta's feminine approach to the New Evangelization in three points: going out of self, personal encounter, and tenderness.
1. The Holy Father stresses that the Church should not be closed in on herself but go to the outskirts of human need. "Following Him means going out of ourselves, not making our lives a possession of our own, but rather a gift to Him and to others" (Homily, Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 30 May 2013).
St Teresa Benedicta explains that "the deepest longing of a woman's heart is to give herself lovingly" (Ethos of Women's Professions, 22), which is an "essential aspect of the eternal destiny of woman" (Spirituality of Christian Woman, 18). First, a woman needs to discover that God alone can receive the complete gift of herself. "Only God can welcome a person's total surrender in such a way that one does not lose one's soul in the process but wins it. And only God can bestow Himself upon a person so that He fulfills this being completely" (Ethos, 22).
The freedom that comes from going out of self toward God enables divine life to enter and diffuse itself to others. This is the prayerful foundation of the New Evangelization. "God is love, and love is goodness giving itself away. It is a fullness of being that does not want to remain closed in on itself, but rather to share itself with others, to give itself to them, and to make them happy" (Love for Love: The Life and Works of St Teresa of Jesus, 27) . Cultivating one's relationship with God is always primary; but this exodus from self must evolve toward others. "Our being; our becoming, does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself" (Spirituality of Christian Woman, 3).
Such a journey requires supernatural sustenance. "To have divine love as its inner form, a woman's life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, be free of all one's own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to the needs and wants of others" (Ethos, 29). A Christ-centered outlook, based on prayer and the sacraments, increases the luster of woman's intrinsic tendencies, which become means to transmit the Gospel.
2. Pope Francis insists that the Church abandons her raison d'etre if she becomes a faceless social service organization or NGO. His proposal is to create a culture of encounter. "We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others" (Lumen Fidei, 38).
The ideals for building this culture are areas where women are naturally inclined to invest their energies. St Teresa Benedicta says "true feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, helping, understanding, and encouraging the gifts of the other" (The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace, 47). This perspective could greatly renew a culture marked by insensitivity, indifference, and individualistic attitudes.
The ability to encounter the total person with one's entire being is perceived in woman more profoundly because of her capacity for motherhood. "The mysterious process of the formation of a new creature... represents such an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual that one is well able to understand this unity imposes itself on the entire nature of woman" (Spirituality of Christian Woman, 20). Whether motherhood is lived out naturally or supernaturally, it gives woman an inherent appreciation of persons as composites of body and soul.
When purified by grace, woman's disposition for self-surrender and maternal instinct prepare her to further God's work in souls. "We become more sensitive to all falling away from Him in ourselves and in others... And if we turn confidently to Him, which is His will, His spirit penetrates us more and more and converts us... we learn to dispense with human props and to gain the freedom and strength which we must have in order to be the support and mainstay for others" (The Significance of Woman's Intrinsic Value in National Life, 15). This leads to more notable and enduring results in the field of evangelization. "We now seek for God's image in each human being and want, above all, to help each human being win his freedom" (ibid.).
3. Pope Francis has made tenderness a defining motif of his pontificate. He reminds us that "the Lord knows the beautiful science of caresses... He approaches us, and in being close to us gives us His love with the deepest possible tenderness"
(Homily, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, 7 June 2013).
In manifesting one's faith, a silent example of loving kindness speaks volumes more than abstract argumentation. According to St Teresa Benedicta, women excel in this type of witness. "Her body and soul are fashioned less to fight and conquer than to cherish, guard and preserve" (The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace, 30).
Throughout Church history, women have been icons of God's warmth and mercy. "He has called women in all times to the most intimate union with Him: they are to be emissaries of His love... and forerunners of His Kingdom in the hearts of men" (Op. Cit., 52). This feminine role is filled most perfectly by the Virgin Mary: He [God] bound Himself so intimately to one woman as to no other on earth: He formed her so closely after His own image as no other human being before or after; He gave her a place in the Church for all eternity as has been given to no other human being" (ibid.). The union of Mary with her Son is the prototype of tenderness. Her readiness to be His devoted handmaid shows women how to offer themselves to the service of God and others for His sake.
St Teresa Benedicta encourages every woman — "whether she is the mother in the home, or occupies a place in the limelight of public life, or lives behind quiet cloister walls" (Ethos, 54) — to imitate this example of our Blessed Mother. Such "motherliness" is "the characteristic value of woman. Only, the motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relations or of personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened" (The Significance of Woman's Intrinsic Value in National Life, 23)
Even St Paul portrayed his apostolic efforts in terms evoking the natural feminine vocation, being in labor pains to form Christ in his converts and sharing the Gospel as gently and affectionately as a nursing mother (cf. Gal 4:19, 1 Thes 2:7-8). One might even suggest that young Jorge Mario Bergoglio's grandmother was doing this.
In revealing the beauty of the faith today, St Teresa Benedicta seems to recommend that women live their supernatural vocation of motherhood more deeply — with their own children, if they have them, and with the many poor souls who have no concept of their divine adoption. Spiritual mothers will be conduits of the Church's sacramental life to offspring borne for the Kingdom of heaven and experience the joy of motherhood in an entirely new way. After all, "No earthly maternal joy resembles the bliss of a soul permitted to enkindle the light of grace in the night of sins" (Exaltation of the Cross, 5).
*Discalced Carmelite Nun, Flemington, New Jersey, USA
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18 October 2013, page 19
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