The great women saints in the Catholic faith are a source of inspiration for daily living. Their legacy and love of Jesus Christ provide a model for understanding the relationship of women to God, and women to men; to the exquisite complementarity of femininity shrouded in the mystery of faith, and understood in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “rushes” to move hearts to love.
The mind comprehends truth by reason, and the heart is naturally receptive to beauty. The beauty of truth is often disguised in daily opportunities for grace—although it often looks like a pile of laundry, a long line at the grocery store, or the blank page of a major presentation you must prepare for work. Sometimes, our efforts seem to be met with impatience or frustration…and we wonder, “Is God in this with me?”
A vibrant faith says, “Yes!” It’s not the success of our efforts, for many times this is out of our control; but it is the spirit of the effort that informs our varied duties in our state of life—career or religious life, motherhood or fatherhood, in a profession, or academics. Our daily challenges can be transformed as we move our hearts to love, directing our effort toward God. (As I write this, the family dog is enjoying a spilled bowl of milk and cereal, left on the coffee table by my teenager—but thankfully, my youngest child rushed to clean up the mess, saving me from grumbling.) Faith in action is in knowing God (and your mother), just as my child knows me (throat clearing, ahem).
The Beauty of Truth, the Truth of Beauty
We can make some very elegant arguments about the existence of God (albeit over spilt milk)—but without love in action, our spirituality is starved. In the expression of Saint Silouan the Athonite, “It is one thing to know God exists, another to know God.” We come to know God and the beauty of truth through the lives of the saints, and most especially, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Enrica Rosanna, FMA, in the preface to Jesus and the Women of Faith, Hope, and Love by Sergio Stevan, writes, “In Christ is guarded that power of beauty that is capable of inspiring, motivating, transforming, and modeling human life. It is the beauty of the truth.” She adds, “Beauty leads to the desire for beauty that redeems: exultation, purification, sorrow, and faith in the resurrection. Such can be the beautiful testimony of humanity as expressed by women.”
The Catholic faith is rooted in a strong tradition of reason and faith. The search for truth has provided a body of knowledge that constitutes the Western philosophical tradition which produced some interesting and complex arguments about the nature of woman in relation to man. Human beings are endowed with intellect and free will, so it is important to understand truth and freedom in relation to others, and the need for grace in the relation of persons.
The Gift of God, a Communion of Persons
“God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35). The desire to know and love God is a gift—it is a reflection of the mystery of the divine relationships of the Holy Trinity, a divine communion of persons.
Father Richard W. Gilsdorf wrote in “Holiness – Biblical Witness to the Hope Within Us,” (The Signs of the Times: Understanding the Church Since Vatican II) that the communion of persons is essential to an authentic understanding of the source of the relation of persons:
“The source and supreme paradigm of communion (koinonia) subsists in the Most Holy Trinity.” (476) He writes, “The uncreated Persons of the Trinity bring communion to the human and angelic persons they created. Only between persons can communion exist.” (477)
Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘Memory of the Church’
Mary’s beauty is known in her fiat, and Fr. Gilsdorf refers to her as a “woman of assent,” writing:
“Mary is model, mother, and personal summa of the Church. And, as Pope John Paul so beautifully named her, she is ‘Memory of the Church.’ The Church, as Mary, is virgin and mother. Mary’s fiat is the nexus whereby all mankind is able to give consent to the influx of the communion of the Trinity. Time and eternity hinged on this maiden’s ‘yes’ to the communion of grace and holiness, which made her the woman of assent. She is also that ‘fullness of grace’ that is the plenitude of Trinitarian communion: She is the daughter of the Father, mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit.” (479-480)
As Alice von Hildebrand writes in The Privilege of Being a Woman, “This willingness to give everything and to feel privileged in doing so explains why Mary is the ‘one who refutes all heresies.’” She is “full of grace,” having offered her intellect and her will in obedience with God’s will.
The Harmony of Intellect and Will, Nurturing the Growth of Grace
Bishop Robert Barron wrote about a philosophy which distorts the harmonious relationship of the intellect and the will, known as voluntarism (and its relevance in the Doritos commercial). Voluntarism is the “systematic favoring of the will over the intellect.” Mary, as a “woman of assent,” did not divorce her will from her intellect. She reveals the true beauty known in the harmony of an intellect and a will united to God’s will.
Fr. Gilsdorf described it in this way, “The saints teach us that God wills that grace enable the soul so that it may ever grow in the mystical life, the thrilling exploration of ‘inner space.’ He adds, “As St. Paul tells us, ‘Love hopes for all things, believes all things, stands firm through all things.’”
The saints teach us how to persevere in the growth of interior dispositions in cooperation with grace, and in the accomplishment of the daily activity proper to our state in life. Saint Catherine of Siena is a wonderful example.
St. Catherine struggled to persevere in her call to religious life. Her mother, who loved her very much, did not understand St. Catherine’s call to holiness, having tried many times to dissuade Catherine from her desire to enter religious life.
In the biography, Catherine of Siena, author Sigrid Undset reveals the life of Catherine Benincasa. She noted that the young Catherine was familiar with the legend of St. Euphrosyne of Alexandria, who was purported to have cut her hair, attired herself as a male, and ran away from home to enter a monastery. Undset indicates that St. Catherine had briefly considered the idea for herself, so intense was her love of God. St. Catherine patiently suffered her family’s attempts to marry her, giving her excessive daily household duties (her mother dismissed the housemaid), and insisting she surrender her desire for religious vocation. The family grew ever frustrated with a zealous young Catherine who remained firm. Undset recalls the intense emotional conflict in the Benincasa home:
“They threw themselves upon the child [Catherine] with a fury which makes one believe that after all Shakespeare did not exaggerate when he described the bitterness of the Capulets–the father and mother who shriek and swear at Juliet because she does not show seemly gratitude when they tell her that they have arranged a match for her.” (22)
We don’t typically ponder the emotional tensions in the lives of the saints. Often, we erroneously presume that their faith preserved them from family difficulty. St. Catherine considered her struggle in the light of grace. Undset writes, “The Holy Spirit had taught her how to build herself an inner cell. A place of refuge where she could pray and think of her Beloved, and from this no one could recall her; here no one could come and disturb her.” (25)
Building an ‘Inner Cell,’ a Spiritual Refuge
St. Catherine’s inner cell was her refuge. Even amid the distractions of her day, the weight of her obligations and afflictions throughout her life, she had a place where her heart was always still before God even in the midst of her activity. “Later she used to advise her disciples when they complained of being so overburdened with the problems of the world that they never found quiet to meet God or to drink of the spring by which they lived: ‘Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.’”
The harmonious operation of the intellect and the will direct one to seek the truth, and to choose the true good. The condition of the heart and the mind are examined in the light of Christ. St. Catherine assures us that all afflictions, struggles, and even mundane duties might be offered for the love of God. When family life is pressed with routine responsibilities, financial and health concerns, work demands, and various complaints and dissatisfaction, there is a temptation to slam the door of our inner cell. This only happens, of course, if you leave it. In Blessed Mother Teresa’s wisdom, even small things done with great love are a witness, and a means of sanctifying grace.
George T. Montague, SM, wrote in Mary’s Life in the Spirit: Meditations on a Holy Duet, “But when we correctly understand Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation, we see that far from her leading us away from Jesus, she makes him more real for us.”
To make his point more clear, he shares how he once saw a “bandana-coiffed Croatian woman” in Medugorje holding the hand of a life-sized outdoor statue of Mary, and he overheard her say, ‘Oh, yes, and I forgot to tell you something else.’
We can pour out our hearts to Mary—and she journeys to us “in haste” as she did to Elizabeth, to care for us because “her feminine humanity was inviting and readily accessible.” (14)
Mary reveals the greatness and sublimity of femininity as Alice von Hildebrand echoes (citing Romano Guardini): “Christianity has always placed the life struggling for inner truth and ultimate love above the intent on exterior action, even the most courageous and excellent. It has always valued silence more highly than words, purity of intent more than success, the magnanimity of love more than the effect of labor.” (107)
In anticipation of Easter, the joy of the Resurrection, we can share our hearts with Mary, who pondered all things in her heart. A good mother is always ready to listen to her child’s heart, prompts one to seek reconciliation, offers remedy and consolation in sorrows, and reassures us of God’s love.
Mary is sure to pray for us to obtain the wisdom of God every time we pray, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Surely, Our Lord says to us in response, “Behold your Mother.”