Women and the Word: The Feminine Voice in Christian Culture
The fabric of Christian culture is woven with threads that interlace feminine charm and enchantment with the Word of God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And then there was the Woman, and the Woman was with God, and the Woman said to God, “let it be done unto me according to thy word.” And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Such is the role of woman, and especially the Woman, in the life of man. It is through this Woman that Christendom, the Mystical Body of Christ, becomes flesh. Hers is the immaculate presence at the heart of Christian culture. It is she who unites her Immaculate Heart with the Sacred Heart of her Son, and it is they who reign over the hearts of all Christians and over the culture of Christian civilization.
Then there are those women who united themselves to the Mother and Child in this life that they might be with them forever in the next. There are the holy women who stood by the Mother as her Son was hung upon the Cross. There is the woman who was the first to witness the resurrection. Then there are those pioneering women of the Early Church who are now enshrined in the holy liturgy: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia. These holy saints blazed a trail for countless women to follow across the centuries. Too numerous to mention, we will list only a few, a happy few, of this band of sisters: Brigid of Ireland, Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth of Hungary, Elizabeth of Portugal, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of the Andes, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Apart from the inestimable blessings bestowed upon Christian culture by these canonized women, there are also those blessings bestowed by women writers who have forged their way into the literary canon. Jane Austen comes to mind, a giantess amongst the giants of literature, as does Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian convert to the Faith, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her epic saga, Kristin Lavransdatter. Moving from the Old World to the New, Flannery O’Connor is indubitably the preeminent Christian voice, her works evoking what she called the Christ-haunted South and provoking the consciences of her readers with the Christ-crucifying consequences of sin. Christina Rossetti and Edith Sitwell spring to mind among the poets, as does Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of the Divine Comedy. Apart from her translation of Dante’s masterpiece, the incomparable Miss Sayers also wrote a masterful and penetrating commentary upon the poem. Her work of Christian philosophical apologetics, The Mind of the Maker, warrants a place beside other such works, such as Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man or C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Remembering that the humble should be exalted, it would be a sin of omission to leave out from our litany those women who were the silent but powerful presence in the lives of their better-known husbands: Elodie Belloc, Frances Chesterton, Valerie Eliot, Natalya Solzhenitsyn, Edith Tolkien and Laura Waugh.
And then there is the salient and palpable presence of those fictional females without whom Christian culture would be immeasurably impoverished. Where would we be without Dante’s Beatrice, whose resurrected presence serves as the poet’s Muse, breathing the life and light of grace into the Divine Comedy? And what of those femmes formidables, the Prioress and the Wife of Bath, who hold more than their own amidst Chaucer’s pilgrims? And what of Shakespeare’s women? Portia is possibly the wisest and strongest character, male or female, in the whole Shakespearean canon; Cordelia serves as an icon of the fearless fidelity and loving silence of the persecuted saint; Miranda shines forth virginal purity in a world or tempestuous wickedness. And then there are the strong female characters who serve destructive ends, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra come to mind, or the women who are undone by their own weakness, such as Juliet, Ophelia or Desdemona. Each of these, saints and sinners alike, shine forth priceless moral lessons which are the very “stuff” of great Christian culture.
We could go on. How could we imagine, for instance, a world without Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood or the eponymous Emma in Jane Austen’s novels, or the aptly named Lucia in Manzoni’s Betrothed? And what of the realm of Faërie with its enchantment and enchantresses? We think, perhaps, of the Arthurian temptress in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in Keats’ poem, both of whom are elven femmes fatales who illustrate the dangers of emotion-driven eros. Other female figures from the Faërie realm convey a magic by the mere mentioning of their names: The Lady of the Lake, the Lady of Shalott, Lúthien, Galadriel, Arwen....
From the Queen of Heaven to elven queens, the fabric of Christian culture is woven with historical and imaginary threads that interlace feminine charm and enchantment with the Word of God. Switching metaphors, these multitudinous and multifarious feminine voices sing in polyphonous harmony with the single feminine voice of the Mother of God. Through her voice the Word becomes flesh and through their voices the words remain fresh. The feminine voice, like the voice of God, is ever ancient and ever new. All praise to the God of all ages and to his ever-virgin Mother!
This essay first appeared in the St. Austin Review and is published with permission.