Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com.
There is a deep chasm today between the cultural understanding of woman and the Church’s model of the ideal woman, the Virgin Mary. The gap between the two is so wide that it is almost laughable to suggest in secular circles that Mary isn’t an obstacle but a guide to true happiness. How, then, can we narrow this gulf? How can we recapture Mary as a model?
The source of the struggle seems to be that the more we drift from understanding ourselves as daughters of God, the foggier the path back to the Trinity becomes. It is as if the path to where we were was erased entirely and we have to forage anew to find our way back. But what if there were a shortcut? What if this shortcut were written into our very skin?
As I’ve looked repeatedly at female saints and holy women—women of wisdom and peace—a pattern in their lives has emerged. It comes in different trappings and circumstances, but a common thread looks something like this: A woman goes to prayer and during that time of silence and being present to the Lord, a tiny idea is planted in her heart. It is so small and seems so insignificant that she may even dismiss it. She tells no one about it, and yet whatever it is, this idea delights her, sets her heart on fire, draws her deeper into prayer. And over time, what was once a little idea grows and grows. This tiny idea, after much prayer and discernment becomes something alive outside of herself. Eventually, the woman realizes that this tiny idea has grown into something independent of her—it has taken on its own life, it is bigger than she is, and far surpasses anything should could have previously imagined.
What is fascinating to consider is just how much this process mimics that of pregnancy. Something tiny is planted in the womb of a woman. At first, she is the only one who knows about it, and yet with time, nurturing, and love, this tiny thing becomes a beautiful son or daughter in her life. After years and years of more effort and love, this tiny person becomes fully its own person in the world. He or she becomes something far beyond her own imagining.
We can see this modeled both spiritually and physically in Mary. At the Annunciation, she is told that she will be the Mother of Jesus, Mother of the Word Incarnate. This process is a small “s” sacrament: Pregnancy is an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. Women’s physical fertility mimics our spiritual fertility.
While there is, of course, other ways in which God can communicate with souls, this is a common one among woman. We can see it in women like St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion and St. Mary Alacoque and the devotion to the Sacred Heart, as well as in every day examples, such as a neighbor bringing flowers and a listening ear to a widow, or a co-worker walking with her colleague through a difficult stage of life. These are the fruits of the deep intimacy that we are called to have with the Trinity.
This intimate relationship with God is a call to dynamic receptivity and that is clearly modeled in Mary’s own dynamic receptivity, evidenced throughout the Gospels, for example, “They have no wine” (John 2:3). This kind of receptivity doesn’t mean that we become doormats, but that we are actively listen to Our Father for his directives in our lives. He will tell us what he wills for our lives, but we have to make ourselves available to listen. If we are constantly filling our lives up with noise, we will never notice or discover the deep blessing he wants to give us and those around us through us. As we are reminded in the Book of Isaiah, "In quietness and in trust will be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15).
This pattern also speaks to the importance of spiritual motherhood for all women. Our culture would have us believe that motherhood is something we decide to do when everything in our lives is perfect. But this understanding robs us of so much. Spiritual motherhood – caring for those around us -- should be on the minds of every woman. We have been tasked with praying for and holding in our hearts the lives of so many. Motherhood (especially the spiritual sense) doesn’t start with physical pregnancy; it is something we ought to be thinking about as soon as we learn to pray and are able to show concern and compassion for others, no matter what field or career we expect to go into in the future.
Sadly, few women know of this beautiful and striking way in which God wants to reach into our souls. Few of us know the intimacy that He desires – one so deep that there will be actual fruit of it in our lives and the lives of those around us when we live out this dynamic receptivity. The Church has largely been on triage mode for the last five decades, so such subtleties don’t make it to the surface in a time of crisis. And yet women are hungry, we are starving for meaning, love, and a sense of mission. We long to know God and have an intimate relationship with Him, even if we aren’t even aware of it. But most of us don’t know where to start, or how to go deeper. We don’t know what to look for or what to expect. And yet, the answer is so clear once we hear it. The model for it, and the shortcut to restoring this relationship with God, is imprinted in the very fibers of our being. We were made to allow God to plant beautiful things in our souls and then to help them grow.