The man stood alone among over 50 women, speaking to them about their own womanhood...
Imagine a weekend retreat with all those women women attending with only that one man, a priest, to dilute the beautiful conflagration of estrogen. I was there and it was awesome. The positive feminine energy was a wonderful balm for my soul. So many "little mothers" to nurture and support! And oh yes, the healing tears flowed.
Yet as much as I acknowledge the unique role that women play for each other in life (indispensable, really), I also returned home with a renewed appreciation for the role of men in how we come to see ourselves as women... and how we learn to draw closer to Christ through their steady witness.
It doesn't seem like it should have worked out well at all; a lone man speaking about womanhood and motherhood to a bunch of women (mostly mothers) who have 100% more life experience as females than he! But Father's words were more powerful for me than those of any woman I have ever heard speak. They challenged and pierced and illuminated the treasure of my femininity in a new way. And there's a growing part of me (not the former strident feminist part) that marvels and wonders what it is about a man that has the unique power to do just that.
This experience of masculine speaking to feminine about the feminine was marvelous and unlike some male Catholic speakers who try to understand the "feminine genius" through their masculine lens and misapplication of JPII's marvelous Theology of the Body.
I have taken the whole experience apart in my mind a dozen times since I've been home. Without analyzing too much, here are a few points I've been pondering...
- The complementarity of man and woman goes well beyond the sexual and does not even need a sexual context or metaphor to be true and powerful. We have been given to each other in service by God and we have been made for each other. The sexual context is singular to the married vocation. I am only married to one man... and yet that complementarity with all other men still exists in a completely beautiful and non-sexual context. I am a bride. I am also physical and spiritual daughter, sister, and mother to many.
The priest is consecrated and celibate but still fully male. His masculine gifts put him in a position to lead woman but also to be upheld by her. It is why we kneel for a blessing before him and why he clings to Mary and is upheld by the Spiritual Motherhood which is so honored by the Church.
The authentic words of affirmation and confidence given by a man have a powerful impact on a woman... perhaps even more so than another woman can give. As Pope Saint John Paul II said so perfectly:
"God has assigned as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman."
Father's priestly counsel pierced my feminine heart all weekend. I was impacted not only by his words through his priestly office, but also by who he was as a person. And my appreciation grew, not as a fangirl but as a spiritual daughter/sister being led to greatness in Christ. When he looked at us women and told us that we were beautiful in who we are and within the context of our vocation, I believed him; but instead of being drawn to his side, my desire for home steadily ignited.
That is what every man should do for every woman... Point her to vocation, to her greatness, to her spouse, to her Lord. That is what every woman should do for every man... Show him his capacity for greatness in Christ at home and in the world.
The nearer Father led us to Christ, the stronger that desire grew until it was a flame that became a blazing fire. I was enjoying the retreat and yet I longed to see my husband. To serve him. To be held by him. And a repeated daydream (that also became a dream during sleep) took hold of me there...
I imagined that my husband and I were holding hands and walking up the center aisle of the chapel toward our Eucharistic Lord exposed in the monstrance. And when we arrived in front of Jesus, we knelt together and received His blessing.
It was a physical longing and gripped me so tightly that it surprised me.
Each time I heard my spiritual Father speak, that desire for my both my husband and my God increased. One man leading me closer to another man, my spouse... through Christ.
Many words have been written about the need in our Church for manly priests; men who not only understand their priestly identity but who understand it in the context of their masculine nature. It is not just an exercise in pastoral speculation... But a true need.
I not only reject the idea of women priests from a theological standpoint but also from a natural one. We need these men, these soul lovers who have taken up the cross of service for our salvation. We need not just what they do but who they are. Their masculinity is a gift that we cannot set aside as some random assignment of biological pieces.
A woman needs men who will look into her eyes with their strong, confident, gentle love... and communicate to her the matter of her dignity. It is often said that culture will be restored by the heart, the woman. But...
Woman needs man to lead and to teach her through his words and love about her own dignity.
Man needs woman to support him as he carries his cross in the world.
He finds his own dignity and home in the heart of the feminine.
She finds her fortress and fire in the masculine.
It is my fervent prayer that the men of the Church will learn the significance of that role and take it up. Oh, how they could change the world! They are inclined to take it by might and sheer effort but do not know their own potential as soul-lovers.
I left the retreat a little early and went home late Saturday night, missing the two remaining hours on Sunday morning. I wanted to stay and continue to drink deeply from the retreat experience but I also wanted to be able to go to Mass with my family, to be able to sleep a little more deeply (even a quiet retreat stretched my physical limits during this pregnancy), and to hold my littlest girl who was missing her mommy. But mostly...
I wanted to see my husband.
He texted me a response to my invitation saying: "Whatever you want to do is fine. Stay as long as you like. If you want me to come early, I will." I replied:
"Come and get me!"
... and I felt like a school girl while I waited. I also felt a little like a young bride waiting to see my groom before our our nuptial Mass. My eyes filled with tears when he walked through the door. He got bonus points for the roses that he brought me (husbands, take note!) but I would have rejoiced regardless.
After we arrived home, we imprudently but joyfully stayed up with the children until 1:00 am just being together before family prayers. My toddler fell asleep curled up on my lap and I fell asleep on the couch so quickly that I didn't even kiss my spouse goodnight.
It's not a story of glamorous romance. We are messy, we are weak, and we are broken... And we fall asleep when we don't mean to.
But the more attentive I am to my Lord, the more my heart is drawn to my home. And sometimes, it takes another man to remind me that to be fully who I am in Christ means to draw closer, not to the activity of my vocation, but to the souls with whom I have been entrusted.
The last time I went on retreat (over 11 years ago), I came home ready to change my husband... to form him more perfectly to my (stunted) vision of holy. That was partially (or largely) my immaturity and partially the questionable direction from the priest who essentially told me that my apostolic work was more important than the heart of my husband. And... it was kind of a disaster. I disrespected the treasure that my faithful, prayerful, hard-working, generous, amazing man that my husband always has been. I don't know if he was nervous about my return home this time (he was nothing but encouraging) but he would certainly have been justified! This time however, Father said something (among many things of value) that helped me correct that former error:
Jesus doesn't need new ministries, He needs lovers.
Instead of coming home with an agenda, I came home with a gentle fire. Instead of coming home to make changes to my family members, I came home to love them. Instead of coming home with a list and a massive plan, I came home with the courage to just begin again in steady charity. I also came home with a dozen red roses and a renewed appreciation for the irreplaceable role of the masculine presence in the feminine life.
To any men reading...
Please lead the women in your life to Christ. Love them, give them courage by your own example, forgive them, make sure they have what they need to be well, and help them see their own beauty and dignity.
To the women...
Let them. And then serve them with faithfulness, confidence, mercy, and joy. For those who suffer in that holy work, I share a few more of Father's words:
To my husband...
I have no words for the gift that you have always been and continue to be in my life. You married a bratty teenager and you've loved and nurtured her into the woman that I am. Full of weakness and holes and sinfulness, yes... but also so happy. You have poured yourself out to give me life, hope, joy, and Jesus. You have tempered my wayward estrogen with the gentle strength. You have served even when there was no obvious return on the investment. Twenty years ago, you were the one who answered my questions about Christ and then set about to show me... and you are still leading. What all that means to me is inexpressible and touches an intimate part of my soul that knows no adequate expression. But I thank you. And I renew my commitment to our Christ-centered eternal love.
Thanks be to God!