Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mystical theology of gender

I've already discussed pretty much everything infallibly defined by the Church about gender.  There isn't much -- in fact, the only things that separate the sexes is that men can be priests and women can't, and that each may only marry a spouse of the opposite sex.  And while there were isolated saints and catechisms which suggested women should always stay at home, that women were less rational, or that women were an inferior helpmeet of men, there are also writings not on the infallible level suggesting the opposite.

But what if we talk about some of the mystical and theological tradition of the Church about gender?  Is there anything we can learn here that could shed some light on what the nature of men and women is?

A recurring thread I've heard discussed in many places is the "mystical parallels" theory.  I don't know who came up with it; I've seen it in discussions on the theology of the body, but I haven't seen it in any of what I've read of the theology of the body itself.  Certainly a beginning of it is mentioned by St. Paul, when he compares a husband and wife to Christ and the Church.  In the past I've shied away from thinking this way, but I feel it's time to face it dead-on and see if I can come up with some answers.

It goes, more or less, like this.  God is masculine, and we can think of creation as feminine.  Christ is masculine, and we consider the Church to be feminine.  A priest is masculine (standing in for Christ), the congregation is feminine (a part of the Church).  And a husband, being male, is masculine, while the wife is feminine.

In each of these relationships, the masculine principle is the one who initiates, who begins a process of creation.  Then the feminine principle is the one who carries it out, who receives it within herself and brings it to reality.  This was what Milton was talking about when he said "Thou O Spirit ... from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad'st it pregnant."  It is always the masculine begetting something within the feminine, and the feminine gestating it and bringing it to birth.  Of course it's all metaphorical, except in the case of individual couples specifically when they are engaged in procreation.

In fact, it isn't even unique to Christianity.  There are many pagan religions that had the same concept: some kind of father god who was identified with the sun or sky, and a mother goddess associated with the earth.  In some cases, the male god is the dominant one, in some it's the goddess, and some focus on duality in a roughly equal sense.  In some cases the sexual metaphor was taken so far as to be carried out in a "sacred marriage" in which the priest and priestess would be publicly joined together; in others, regular people went and had sex in the fields to guarantee fertility for the coming year.

It doesn't bother me that this isn't at all new.  After all, if it's this deep of a reality within the universe, it's no wonder other people have had the same idea.  What interests me more is how the dominance of the male god corresponds usually with a male-dominant culture, whereas goddess-dominant religions often were matriarchal.

In Christianity, there is no doubt about which is dominant.  In all the spiritual applications of the metaphor, the masculine is greater than the feminine, even though this domination is always in a loving sort of way.

This brings up the question, how far are individual men and women supposed to fit into this metaphor?  Aside from procreation, there is no sense in which all relations between the sexes are characterized by male initiation and female receptiveness.  Some say there should be -- that even if it isn't going on in a hierarchical sense, of the man making decisions and the wife obeying, that there is some sense in which the man should be the initiator and the woman the responder.

Melinda Selmys said, when I asked her about it, that this is defining the metaphor much too narrowly, and that it is completely possible for a woman to be an initiator while being 100% feminine -- that femininity is a great deal more than can be described as simple receptiveness.  She might be right, but if so, the mystical parallel is not all that exact.  And that's all right, it doesn't have to be.  I know my husband is not entirely like Christ, nor am I a perfect image of the Church.

It's also not impossible to say that the spiritual realities of masculine initiator and feminine receiver might be enacted across gender lines in individual men and women.  There are times when a man might partake in the spiritual feminine, and a woman might take part in the spiritual masculine.

That's easily proven in the case of men.  Individual men are part of the feminine Church -- it's fair to say that their relationship with God is a submissive, responsive one.  In the Mass, the congregation might be symbolizing something spiritually feminine, but about half the members of the congregation are actually male.

I can't come up with any examples in the case of women, though.  The "feminine" congregation might be made up of partly men, but the masculine priesthood is exclusively male.  There is no room whatsoever for an individual woman to be enacting something spiritually masculine in this case.  Is there any case in which she could take part in what is spiritually masculine?  I can't think of one.

Complementarian Protestants have no problem with this, because they aren't thinking in terms of duality, but of hierarchy.  A man can be submissive with regard to God, but in authority with respect to his wife.  The woman is submissive to her husband, but in authority over her children.  But Catholicism, as I understand it, doesn't necessarily say this, because it isn't so much about authority at all.

At least, I don't think it should be.  But if the gender metaphor isn't about hierarchy, but duality, why is there an unevenness in so many places?  Why can men be in the place of the feminine Church, but women can never stand in for Christ?  Why is God masculine?

I was told, growing up, that one of the ways humans are in the image of God is that we exist in a community of love, just as the Trinity does.  And just as the love between the Father and the Son results in a new person, the Holy Spirit, the love between a husband and wife becomes a new person, the child.  But why then are all three persons of the Trinity generally considered to be masculine?  Is the feminine not really necessary or eternal?

This does not, in itself, make me unequal.  But it would make me feel much better as a woman to know that one of two things were the case: either that the feminine is equal in greatness with the masculine, or that I as an individual woman can have both a masculine and a feminine side and can act at different times in a masculine or a feminine way.  Otherwise I am forced to identify myself solely with something lesser, and I don't care for that.

You see why I've avoided this topic for such a long time.  I can't see how the mystical view of men and women is at all compatible with equality.  It seems if you follow the metaphor strictly, you will wind up saying women may never lead, women may never initiate, and that women's main place is only in nurturing areas.  True, the Church doesn't teach infallibly that this is so.  But I don't know how the Church's view of gender could develop any further than it has, without developing in a direction I don't much like.  What already has been said seems to place us on a course toward teaching women's inferiority -- a course we've been on since the rather sexist patristic and medieval writers.  The best the Church can do is refrain from teaching that sort of thing -- I don't see a way that it can teach the opposite without abandoning things we are already infallibly committed to, like the male-only priesthood or the book of Ephesians.  Meanwhile in practical terms, the voice of women isn't heard much simply because most Catholics are married, faithful married Catholics usually end up having lots of babies, and in most cases the women are all too busy being pregnant and nursing to contribute very much.

Am I missing something?  Or should I just be grateful I am not being forced into lifelong subjugation to a man, because being lesser in some vague metaphysical sense is -- especially in view of human history -- really not so bad?

Or is this just a metaphor stretched waytheheck beyond what St. Paul ever intended?


Belfry Bat said...

Just a few quick thoughts.

It has been said (I can hear Dcn. S. Carnazo's voice now! (You don't have to be a fan...)) that St. Paul's metaphor is meant to be read the other way around: he was taking something his first readers were familiar with in their understanding of Marriage, and telling them it was Even More True between Christ and His Church — and where this turns back to informing marriage is in the expression of theological virtues in marriage (mostly, the husband's self-sacrifice and patience, if I understand right).

Another thing: to lift (again) another bit of Paul (where he's quoting --- another instance of borowing something his audience already knew): "in Him we live, we move and have our being". So it seems maybe that God is also as mother to Creation. Reading it that way is probably not what St. Paul had in mind, so we must be cautious about emphasizing "in" so, but where else is everything? Suddenly I want to think about this more, because there's so much tendency to think today that God is something separated from the universe of our senses, which is why the Dawkins crowd refuse to believe: they've got God-or-nothing away-over-there, and meanwhile over here is life-as-usual with the occasional puzzle tossed in, like a coelocanth...

It's funny you use the word "hierarchy", because if we are classicists that should make us think "priestly rule", even though it's use is much broader today (even if that was never its meaning! Puns are fun)

I'm betting now that the gnostic temple practices you mention are very likely reason enough to insist on a one-sex hierarchy: In the City of God, no romance in the sanctuary!

I would have to review some history, but a priest you've never heard of has claimed that, in what was New France the missionaries found matriarchies because in these places only maternity was certain. 'nuff said.

Happy Sunday!

Enbrethiliel said...


I confess that the idea of "women's inferiority" doesn't trouble me so much. I'm recalling St. Therese's peace at being a little soul and her story of the time one of her sisters filled two glasses--one big and one small--to the brim in order to show that "fullness with grace" (my paraphrase) is never limited by one's size or status.

Possibly another factor that lets me be at peace with this is the book The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand, which I read many years ago. Among other points, she brings up God's preference for making the lowly ones of the world into His greatest instruments.

Your second-to-last question is kind of hard to answer because it seems to have two parts. Addressing the first half of it now, I don't think that the best a woman can hope for is life with a man who won't abuse any authority over her. And I don't think the Church teaches that marriage is as one-sided as that. As for the second half, I'm sure you can already that I believe being "lesser" in any way is "really not so bad"!

Sheila said...

E, I don't mean just that my specific husband isn't abusive, but that the Catholic Church seems clear enough that I *shouldn't* be abused by anyone. In theory, the Church's clear teachings about human rights and dignity should be enough for anyone -- after all, we don't oppress those weaker than us, whether just physically not as brawny or in some kind of spiritual subjection.

However, I don't think it's just pride on my part not to want to go to the lowest place. I have seen so many women work themselves to death, deny themselves everything and all free choice, take the smallest piece of everything, go without so Dad and the kids can have more, suffer years at a time of loneliness, neglect their talents and intelligence ..... and in the end, this means they have less to give and share, because no one is giving to them. I'm not talking about one or two people here, but all the older Catholic women I know -- they seem to be running on empty, and I look at the future with a great deal of fear because of this.

The effects on men are more concerning on the spiritual level. When things like receptiveness, listening, nurturing, and service are labeled as "feminine" and therefore lesser, men feel themselves excused. They think they have nothing to learn from women -- and since the women have no time or energy to tell them anything, they never even hear about it. So I hear rant upon rant about how men are left out of the Church because it's too "effeminate," and none of the men seem to realize that this is a feature, not a bug. They are *supposed* to be feminine in relation to Christ, aren't they? And aren't there some things they could learn, things that would be good for them, that don't fit into their conception of what is "manly"?

Meanwhile I look at my own talents and tendencies, and though most of them are pretty traditionally feminine, not all of them are. And I'm torn between feeling I should suppress that more "masculine" side of me, or thinking God gave me those for a reason too, and it wasn't just to make me miserable. I think there are ways God wants me to imitate Christ, as well as his Church, and telling women they shouldn't try to be Christlike would be sort of weird, don't you think?

Bat, you see there are *scads* of good practical reasons why priests are men. I just don't necessarily agree that it's because of some deep spiritual parallel .... maybe God just knew male priests would work out best? I think we read too much into it when people -- both liberal and conservative -- take the mere fact of the male priesthood as proof of female subjection. After all, most men aren't priests either!

I think you are right about St. Paul; that's how I've always interpreted it. Diving too far into the parallel makes my head hurt, and taking it on a simple level like that is probably the only sane thing to do.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think you bring up an excellent point in that last comment. What do men mean when they say that religion has become "effeminate"? I honestly have no idea! And as frustrating as this is (more for me than for you!), I can't continue discussing the issue until I figure out what specific points lie behind that charge.

But I can say that I agree with you that it's wrong to devalue things which are feminine just because they are feminine--and not just because we'd be reasoning in circles! God created the feminine, so it must be good. And not just good because it can be put to use at the service of the masculine, but good in and of itself.

In the case of the old women you know, perhaps it's just that women really do tend to over-give. It's not that they're being exploited by the men in their lives or by society, but that they're doing what comes naturally and taking it to an unhealthy extreme. (Eating comes naturally and is a good thing--facts which don't change because some people overeat!) In fact, I'm currently doing it at work. Even my boss tells me that I could get away with doing a tenth of what I do . . . but I literally lose sleep because I want my trainees to have the best possible reports and so I spend forever writing them . . . Sigh!

This is where my word for 2014 comes into play again--for I'm really the only one who can put my foot down about this. I need to grow b@lls in order to stand up to myself! =P And I think the same is true for the old women you know. They could stop any time they wanted; they just don't want to stop. Perhaps they are the ones who need to be told to stop imitating Christ for a few minutes and to start imitating the Church. Let the Bridegroom dress you in silks and jewels for a change! He actually really, really wants to!

Anonymous said...

"Finally, the divine unity of action and consent - which, as we have seen, share equal dignity within love - is expressed in the world in the duality of the sexes. In Trinitarian terms, of course, the Father, who begets him who is without origin, appears primarily as (super-) masculine; the Son, in consenting, appears as (super-) feminine, but in the act (together with the Father) of breathing forth the Spirit, he is (super-) masculine. As for the Spirit, he is (super-) feminine. There is even something (super-) feminine about the Father too, since as we have shown, in the action of begetting and breathing forth he allows himself to be determined by the Persons who thus proceed from him; however, this does not affect his primacy in the order of the Trinity. The very fact of the Trinity forbids us to project any secular sexuality into the Godhead (as happens in many religions and in the gnostic syzygia). It must be enough for us to regard the ever-new reciprocity of acting and consenting, which in turn is a form of activity and fruitfulness, as the transcendent origin of what we see realized in the world of creation: in the form and actualization of love and its fruitfulness in sexuality." (Von Balthasar 91)"--from an online summary of Von Balthasar by Medaille, who I do not endorse in many respects but who was the first decent result who came up while I was searching for a summary.

So yeah, there is a theology that puts femininity in God, and that also isn't just randomly putting it there because one must be feminist. I was interested in it because part of my metaphysical studies, when I was sure metaphysics was a thing, was looking at receptivity as a positive characteristic, and even as a pure perfection--i.e., a perfection that does not imply any imperfection. The JPII institute, Schindler, etc., have some pretty good sources on this--I've got a book on creation as gift which has some interesting stuff on receptivity. So there is that tradition to draw on, if you're interested.

Sheila said...

Interesting, Anon -- even though I had to read it three or four times to understand!

"Receptivity as a positive characteristic, and even as a pure perfection" -- thank you, that is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for!

Though it seems to me that this can also be joined with the idea that, like the persons of the Trinity, each of us is active and receptive at different moments. Of course in procreation it mostly goes one way, and that does inform the rest of our nature to some extent, but we are not utterly determined by this one fact of our being. I suspect.

I was reading Edith Stein the other day (it's crazy how much theology I'm reading, when it is really not at all my thing) and she said that men primarily seek mastery at some specific craft, whereas women are geared to relationship. And contrasting that with some ToB I had been reading, I realized JP2's thought that BOTH men and women are called to relationship was much more satisfying to me. Because how can we limit men to only imitating God in one aspect? I'll freely admit that statistics and personal experience seem to suggest men aren't as naturally good at relationship. But I also think they are equally called to it -- and if they have to learn something from women to actualize this, that's not a *bad* thing. Just as my developing mastery at something or other is not a bad thing.

Sheila said...

E, you are absolutely right about women working ourselves to death. Chesterton talks a lot about this. While I don't agree with him in every particular (women's votes, anyone?), he is the writer I've read who seems to understand best what women are like. He says that the workplace is only too willing to exploit women's dedication, but it ruins the whole workplace because all of a sudden men have to put in actual work, so as not to look like slackers! Men, he says, ration out their effort and do as little as they can get away with, but women never do, and it is terrible for us.

This is one of the many ways we learn from each other. On weekends, I sometimes spend the whole day cleaning, making food, solving problems, and get more and more resentful of John sitting around on his butt not even noticing all the stuff that needs to be done! But when I've made an effort to just *sit,* and wait to see what happens, he will eventually jump up and pitch in.

I guess this all ties into what I said about mother guilt. You can be excruciatingly aware of all the needs, until you feel guilty even sitting down for a moment because someone, somewhere, needs something of you. And you couldn't live with yourself if you did anything less than your best.

I was NEVER like this before having kids. Ever. I was a bare-minimum person to the limit, and I constantly found new lows to the bare minimum. But when you love this much, what are you going to do? Work yourself to death, that's what.

Which is why I think it's important to TELL women that absolute emptying of yourself is not always virtue. When we adopt a spiritual point of view (usually written by men, who wouldn't be in much danger of taking it too far) that it is *always* better to give yourself, try harder, push more, rest less, and empty yourself of all hobbies, passions, and desires ..... we encourage women toward their greatest danger. So many women in Regnum Christi are like this, and they have physical or mental breakdowns after ten or fifteen years and get sent home with nothing. My sisters-in-law's order is missing its foundress, because, in John's words, "she worked herself half to death and had to go home." I was indignant -- "Who stopped her? Who told her not to do that?" He felt it was her responsibility to look out for herself. But I know how it is. These well-meaning priests working with her always had some other thing they wanted her to do, and she felt it would be less than holy to say no, so she took on much more than she should and burned herself out. We women really need to look out for each other and remind each other to know when to stop, because it seems that many of us do not know. I just feel often that I am battling against someone's spiritual ideas when I tell them this, because they answer back, "Aren't we supposed to empty ourselves? Isn't it always better to give more? Shouldn't we give until it hurts, and when it hurts, give more?" Mother Teresa said that -- but Mother Teresa took two hours of quiet prayer a day. Your average mother doesn't and can't. Unfortunately I have never found a spiritual book for mothers that said "It is okay to relax sometimes." Instead they all lay on the guilt, pointing out that you DO have time to do more, if you just get up earlier, keep a tighter schedule, and give up any moment of rest. And since motherhood is your vocation, it is your Spiritual Duty to do all this.

Ugh. Maybe I should write a book on slacker motherhood. I'd be doing the world a service.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm going to look up all the "bridal" verses in Scripture now. There's got to be something in there about the bride relaxing and being arrayed because the Bridegroom wants it that way!

Sheila said...

The only passage I've *ever* found in the whole Bible in which a woman relaxes is in the story of Martha and Mary! Up to then, it seems women are mostly praised for their incredible industriousness. Take the Proverbs 31 woman -- would she ever put her feet up for five minutes? She wouldn't dream of it!

Enbrethiliel said...


Good one! A lot of women need to learn St. Martha's lesson. =)

Belfry Bat said...

There is the Canticum Canticorum...

Enbrethiliel said...


It's many verses long and there's a lot of stuff about deer. Can you be specific?

The Sojourner said...

I do not have enough not-tired brain cells to contribute to the discussion, but I would totally write the foreword to your book on slacker motherhood. Get on that. :)

Belfry Bat said...

Canticle of Canticles, Chapter 2, vs [6] "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me. [7] I adjure you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and the harts of the, fields, that you stir not up, nor make the beloved to awake, till she please"

I think the grammar makes it pretty clear that the Woman is reclining, near sleep — and the Man exhorts everyone else that's the way it shall be!

I'm reminded also of Ruth's introduction to Booz.

Sheila said...

Ruth and Boaz? I don't see it. Wasn't his first sight of her when she was out gleaning? And she did make the first move in their relationship.

I find it hilarious that Fundamentalist "courtship" sermons will reference Ruth, saying "She waited for God, and God gave her a husband." Um .... she went out and GOT herself a husband. How's that fit into the Protestant courtship narrative?

Belfry Bat said...

I think I was thinking of the later encounter with the blanket and all that. She must have been sleeping at some point, I figured.

Charlemagne said...

With due respect to Boaz, he held back because he knew that another relative of her late husband had a better claim to marrying her (Jewish laws allowing for the raising up of sons for deceased relatives, and all that). And I seem to recall that it was Naomi's idea that Ruth seek Boaz out on the threshing floor.

Sheila said...

That all may be the case, but the FACT is that if Ruth had waited around for God to provide a spouse, she'd have been gleaning forever. She picked the man she wanted (with help from her MIL) and made the first move. I don't see a thing wrong with that (it's more or less what I did), but the fundamentalist Protestants do ..... unbiblically, in my opinion.

Enbrethiliel said...


Another thing that occurred to me just this evening is that being the one who does everything can be a way for some women to feel validation. Take my grandmother, who only recently stopped stressing everyone out in the kitchen. Despite being in her late seventies, she insisted on doing as much as possible and micromanaging anyone who tried to help--to the point that we'd all just leave her alone . . . and then get yelled at by my grandfather for being so "lazy" we'd let an old woman work herself to death rather than lift a finger! (Sigh!)

But my grandmother really did prefer having everything done her way and being the one to do it. For her, the lowest point of a beloved daughter's visit (the first time the daughter had been back to the Philippines in twenty years!) was having her daughter volunteer to cook all the breakfasts for two weeks. You'd think my grandmother would have enjoyed the break--but no!

These days, she has a lot more peace--which means that our house has more peace. I'm not sure what inspired her to change, but I'm really glad she did.

I wonder whether this insistence on doing everything is not a problem of too much submission, but actually a lack of it. As an elder in the family, my grandmother has long held legitimate authority over the rest of us (especially in her favourite room, the kitchen!), but she was actually making things worse for everyone by the way she exercised that authority. Kicking back and relaxing so that someone can else can do "her" work would have meant submission for her.

Sheila said...

Control definitely is a part of it. If you're the only one to ever do a job, you get opinions about how it should be done. And then when someone comes along to help you, you just hover saying "not in there! not so fast! not like that!" Like my two aunts .... one was visiting the other and was told "Don't load the dishwasher; I don't want help." Well, the guest didn't listen and loaded it anyway .... only to have her hostess UNLOAD the whole thing and RELOAD it because she wanted it her way!

Men do it too, though. My MIL calls it "Mr. C syndrome" -- the way the men in our family cannot, canNOT stand by and watch someone else do something "wrong." My husband tried to watch Marko learning to make a peanut butter sandwich, and he practically had an aneurysm with the effort of not taking the butter knife away and doing it for him!

And validation .... I think this is the very hardest thing about "women's work," and why so many people left it. It has nothing to do with the work being less important, and not that much to do with it being harder. It's that no one *appreciates* it. You work harder and harder imagining that if you just do a good enough job, someone is going to come along and tell you you are superlative at it. But alas, that usually doesn't happen .... housework is the sort of thing you only notice when it *isn't* done.

Enbrethiliel said...


ROFL at John, Marko and the peanut butter sandwich!

When my grandmother took her turn to visit her daughter in the US, I warned my cousins (who hadn't seen her in almost two decades), "She'll want to buy your love with presents, so ask for stuff, okay?" One of them said, "Never! She doesn't have to buy my love, so I won't ask for anything." An admirable point, of course, but the problem is that my grandmother feels that she is loved only when she is being useful. And that means either housework or presents. So I strongly advised my cousin to make an old lady happy by asking for something slightly expensive. =P

(I really wish it didn't have to be this way, and that my grandmother could know that we love her for herself--but she's old and set in her ways, so we all just work around her. Ironically, it's the main way we can show our love, because it's how she understands it.)

Sheila said...

Is that a cultural thing? Our friend from the Philippines just HAD to give us gifts every time we came over, and my mom told me that's a big Filipino custom. But then again, my own mother is doing it now -- demanding gift lists for the boys so she can send way more toys than they need. Their other grandma does just the same. I don't want the things, but I want them to be happy! So maybe it's what happens to everyone when they have a little money and the desire to make others happy.

Luis Gutierrez said...

Are you familiar with St. John Paul II's "Theology of the Body"? It is a theological anthropology that transcends both traditional patriarchy and extreme forms of secular feminism. Via what he calls "the spousal meaning of the human body," it may provide a solid foundation to resolve some vexing issues of human sexuality, including the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Let us pray that all the Christian churches will be able to discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truths, and act accordingly.

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