‘The soul of woman must . . . be expansive and open to all human beings,” said Edith Stein, the Jewish philosophy professor who converted to Catholicism and died as a Carmelite nun at Auschwitz. The soul of a woman, she continued, “must be quiet so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; self-contained, so that no invasions from without can imperil the inner life; empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, it is mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.”
Stein’s words are quoted by Pat Gohn in her new book, Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood. As the title suggests, it spells out just exactly what it is Catholics believe about women and motherhood. In addition to being an accessible and spirited primer on that topic, it offers a more healthy outlook than others in our culture on what it is that makes woman unique.
Gohn talks to National Review Online about women, men, complementarity, and moving forward.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “A woman needs to know she is blessed, that she is a treasure, and the reasons why.” Don’t men need to know they are blessed, too? What’s so special about women?
PAT GOHN: A good point! This book was written with a women’s audience in mind, and without any malice toward men. Of course, all human persons have need of knowing the sources of their goodness and blessing! This helps us live our lives to the fullest.
It’s been my experience that many women I meet cannot articulate what is true, good, and beautiful about themselves. I’d like to change that by applying the beautiful message that the Church articulates about women today.
To begin to describe the specific feminine genius that each woman has, I start with a foundation that looks at us from the inside out. I begin with the very basics of who we are and how we are made, that we are destined for eternity. One of the important bricks in that foundation is learning to treasure our own human dignity — and that of others. A Christian perspective of this dignity comes from knowing and trusting that we come from a loving Creator. This means that we reflect the goodness of God in our very being. Furthermore, Christians also believe in the blessing that is our baptism, whereby we become beloved children of God. So we see human life as sacred in its origins, and it becomes even more through the sacraments of the Church.
LOPEZ: Surely this isn’t true of every woman. We’re not all Kate Middleton.
GOHN: Kate Middleton is as unique a treasure as you and I or any other woman. Our human dignity is not based on one’s status or fame or power or any other narrow criteria. It is based on being created in the image of God. Every human person shares that, even if they disagree with a Christian worldview. In short, every single human life is of incalculable, inviolable, and enduring value.
LOPEZ: Why is it that “too many women doubt” that they are, as you say, “blessed, beautiful, and bodacious”?
GOHN: That’s a great question. After raising a family and working with women over the years, I’ve witnessed some great joys. But honestly, I’ve probably seen way more heartaches, depression, fears and anxieties, broken relationships, problems, and fill-in-the-blank pain and suffering than I’d care to mention. Any kind of suffering — physical, emotional, spiritual — can beat us down, and rob us of the knowledge of being blessed and beautiful unless our idea of who we are is informed by something that is unchanging and eternal.
I think the struggles we face both as individuals and as a culture chip away at our understanding of the truths of our human dignity little by little. Most of the problems that we face in this life come down to this question of the value of human dignity, and to whether or not we are honoring, protecting, cherishing, and loving it in one another. Violations of our human dignity takes a toll on our psyche. That’s why I spend one third of the book describing the blessed dignity we all have. If we don’t accept that our dignity is crucial to our identity, anything troubling that comes along can cause us to doubt the goodness of ourselves. Some of us need to discover our dignity because no one has ever shared these ideas with us, and some of us need to recover it because of the erosion that our sufferings have caused.
LOPEZ: Cardinal Dolan was proclaiming the other day that life is about babies, and Catholic bishops seem to be talking about marriage and babies a lot these days. What does that mean for the infertile? For the unmarried?
GOHN: Human life is something we must celebrate, cherish, and protect. Babies help us understand that very well. For me, that’s the first take-away from the bishop’s enthusiasm for marriage and babies. The second is this: Children are the fruit born of the love between a man and a woman. In a Christian marriage, love between spouses is designed to be life-giving; it finds its fulfillment in the fruit it bears, namely children and the loving service the married couple bring to society at large.
What does this mean for people who suffer infertility and for the unmarried? Nobody who desires biological children and for whatever reason is thwarted from having them can have an easy time dealing with that.
A single person who may long for family of his or her own, but does not have a marriage partner, may feel a similar deprivation. But there is a deeper call to be heard in the midst of this. It is a call to love and to be a person whose love is life-giving. In spite of the heartaches, a person’s loving actions and service can bear good fruit.
Infertile married couples may discern that their fruitful love will be manifest in building a family through adoption, fostering, or through service to the lonely, the poor, the elderly, or those similarly in need. A single person might become a mentor to children and others through volunteerism or advocacy. These questions of infertility and single life show us that we ought to look at the gift of maternity in a broader and more universal way, rather than thinking of it as limited to nine months of gestation and however many months of lactation.
Maternity can and does have spiritual qualities, and this is a subject that we do not hear enough about. In the writings of Blessed John Paul II, we learn that a woman’s relationships with others can be fruitful spiritually regardless of whether they are fruitful biologically. Her loving ways can bear fruit of a spiritual, moral, emotional, or cultural nature in the lives of the people that she loves and serves. This is what is called spiritual motherhood.
LOPEZ: “Women are uniquely endowed with gifts of receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternity.” Do we really all have these? Some actual mothers don’t seem to have the maternal gift.
GOHN: The second part of my book deals with these four qualities that all women have — I find them, again, in the writings and homilies of John Paul II.
To my earlier point, the gift of maternity is inherent in all women; they are predisposed to it by virtue of being created female. The maternal gift is not limited to a woman who gives birth; it is more broadly oriented toward life-giving love in all its forms, childbearing included. This kind of understanding about motherhood, I admit, was something I, too, needed to deepen. Then I thought of all the women outside of my own biological mother, who in some sense, have been mothers to me. The love, counsel, example, and help these women gave me has given birth to a kind of fruit in me that has helped me to grow, not only in my childhood but throughout my adult life.
In days past — we still see it here in the U.S. in some families — it was not uncommon for generations of mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers to live in one household or near each other. Together they would pass on their faith, their family customs, and lend their generous support to their families. Often there were also aunts and cousins and others who may never have married who also fully shared in this maternal gift of nurture and love. That’s spiritual motherhood in action. But it can also take place in other social settings outside of the home — among friends, in the workplace and in church settings.
Finally, let me add a word about your comment regarding “bad” mothers. Sure, mothers, like anyone else, can make real mistakes, serious mistakes. We all do. There may be women who are mothers who never really grew in spiritual side of that gift. I won’t judge them. I share some of my own struggles with the more sacrificial side of mothering in the pages of my book. A “bad” mother likely needs some mothering from the rest of us to help her grow and heal.
LOPEZ: “The most excellent women, the bodacious women, are women who authentically live their dignity and gifts.” What is women’s dignity? And don’t we all have different gifts?
GOHN: Let me start with second question first. Yes we are all unique, and each of us has personal gifts that that we can name that fall into various categories — intellectual gifts, athletic gifts, creative gifts, etc. But we women also share some universal ones, and we need to acknowledge them
The four universal gifts in women can serve as a point of unity and respect between women. These are things that we share, qualities that give us a common bond. They also, in a way, are able to level the playing field, tone down the competition, and help heal the hurts that sometimes occur between women.
My perspective is that we can achieve more good by being friends and supporting one other through acknowledging these shared gifts that we all are endowed with, than by separating ourselves along the lines of the personal gifts we may or may not share. In fact, if we are living the gifts of receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternity in a dynamic way, we will come to love the truly unique gifts we see in other woman all the more. And that, you might say, helps to further answer the first question of a woman’s dignity.
When we truly understand our own human dignity, we can begin to understand that of another. When we understand the preciousness of human dignity and the specific gifts of femininity, we begin to see other women the way that God intends us to see them.
LOPEZ: How do women see with their hearts and not just their eyes?
GOHN: When it comes to describing a woman’s sensitivity, John Paul II taught that, “perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person because they see people with their hearts.” Another way to describe this sensitivity is that women easily discern the dignity of the human person.
Sensitivity makes women quick to sense, or detect, people needing nurture, care, or help. It also leads a woman to act to fill another person’s needs. This is the reason we find so many women in the helping professions. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an outstanding example of the strength of sensitivity in a woman.
LOPEZ: Despite a Catholic upbringing, having a devotion to Mary was something you found difficult. Why is she important, and is she especially so for women?
GOHN: Growing up, I did not form a strong connection to Mary. She was mostly just a historical or biblical character to me. Catholics talk a lot about our need for ongoing conversion: Our early understanding about the Christian life should deepen as we grow, like an acorn that grows into an oak tree. That is true with my life with Mary. Slowly I came to see her as a friend and mother in heaven who is a living, breathing woman of influence in my life today.
Mary models a way of responding to God and to others that I wish to emulate. Her life integrates saying yes to the love of God and saying yes to serving others. As a woman, Mary was God’s change agent — at a strategic point in history, through her yes to God, she gave birth to Christ in the world. Not only did she raise and nurture Jesus amidst the political, economic, and cultural difficulties of her day, but she also became his first disciple. Later, she was a spiritual mother to all his disciples in the early church. That’s being a woman of influence, if you ask me.
LOPEZ: Can she help a culture understand motherhood?
GOHN: Yes. When we think of the Christmas story and Mary’s giving birth to Jesus under less than ideal circumstances, we see both the joy of motherhood and the sacrifice that it requires. We see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope for a new life that a baby brings — that one person can change the world! And we also see the support that a mother needs, both in the delivery and nurturing of her child.
The big picture here where motherhood is concerned, is that God delights in motherhood — so much so that he entrusts his own Son to a woman, sending Jesus to the world through the gift of a woman’s maternity.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. Pat Gohn recently participated in a CVUSA weekend communications program in Boston.