‘[A] person’s sexuality extends to every level of his being: physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional. Each of us feels, thinks, wills as a man or as a woman. We are told that each of our cells (even from a fingertip) has distinctively male or female traits depending on whether it belongs to a man or a woman.” (from And You Are Christ’s by Fr. Thomas Dubay SM p. 28)
Every woman is a daughter or sister; and many are also wives and mothers. This has a great influence on the way women relate to God. Women know what it is to hold life in their wombs; we know what it is to hold children in our arms. We know what it is to embrace and be embraced by those we love; the arms of a woman are physically softer and more rounded for this express purpose. We are meant to nurture life and care for the human person. All of this give us the capacity to achieve a great intimacy with God because we can use our everyday experience to imagine what it is to hold the Child Jesus in our arms; we can receive him with great tenderness in the Eucharist; we can understand in a very special way what it means to be the Bride of Christ in the Mystical Body of the Church. This is not to say that men cannot have great intimacy with God; obviously they can. But the way a woman relates to God should be specifically feminine; this aspect is being threatened as people seek to erase all distinctions of gender from society. The way a woman prays can help to bring back an intimacy and tenderness with the Lord that would otherwise be sorely lacking. The feminine genius has the power to heighten our awareness of the humanity of Christ, of his goodness and mercy.
The Holy Father has been giving a series of Wednesday audiences that deserve close attention. He has chosen a number of saintly women to speak of in these weekly catechetical talks. This choice of topic obviously shows that Pope Benedict XVI believes that women saints have a lot to teach the faithful at this moment in time. The first he chose was St. Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic from Germany who lived in the Middle Ages.
“With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).
..[T]heology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.” (Papal Audience, September 8th, 2010)
“Hildegard wrote in the voice of God, “ I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.” (The Big Book of Women Saints by Sarah Gallick, p. 280)
St. Hildegard had a great appreciation for the beauty of God in nature, and this sensitivity led her to identify God with the voice of the breeze. In the first book of Kings there is a direct reference to the presence of the Lord being identified as a gentle breeze or tiny whispering sound to Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. This episode takes place just after Elijah has slain the false prophets of Baal and earned the undying hatred of Queen Jezebel.
Elijah was afraid and fled for his life, going to Beer-sheba of Judah. He left his servant there and went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree, but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat. He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb. There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the LORD came to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered: “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD – but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire – but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?” He replied, “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. But the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” “Go, take the road back to the desert near Damascus,” the LORD said to him. “When you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Then you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as prophet to succeed you. If anyone escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill him. If he escapes the sword if Jehu, Elisha will kill him. Yet I will leave seven thousand men in Israel – all those who have not knelt to Baal or kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:3-18)
This passage has a lot of dimensions to consider in the light of St. Hildegard’s mission and work: the contemplative aspect (prayer and the Eucharist), the detachment necessary to encounter the Lord, and the courage that is necessary to be a prophet. Women are called to be contemplatives in midst of the world, to develop our capacity for reflection and communion with God in order to accomplish the very special and irreplaceable work we have to nurture the human person.
1) Detachment is necessary to have time for God. How easy it is to be caught up in activity of so many kinds, and to forget what we are best at, what we were made for. We are meant to enjoy a very deep and profound union with God and share this with all our loved ones as wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. God is Love itself and we desperately need contact with him in order to give him to others. He is the source and fountain we need to drink from. In this passage it is fear for his life which drives Elijah into the desert; then he is led further up to Mount Horeb to encounter the Lord. We also attempt to hide from God by burying ourselves in activity, when just fifteen minutes of conversation with him would make all the difference in our dealings with others, our tone of voice, our outlook on situations. We need to make time for God since he has made time for us; we owe him everything. He has created us out of love!
2) God is in the gentle breeze, in the simple joys of life, but we need to be attentive to these details in order to find him. As women we have a special sensitivity to detail, and God makes himself known to us in moments of silence, reflection, the ‘tiny whispering sounds’ of our children, or our thoughts, our prayer, our moments of ‘slowing down’ in order to be attentive to the voice of God speaking… “ I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
Notice that God is not present in the huge earthquake or wind or fire. He is not present when we allow our passions to run roughshod over others, or when we are caught up in a whirlwind of activity. We may often think that we are occupied with good things (for our parish, our family, etc.) and of course we are, but what are our intentions? Where does all this activity come from? If it is not the fruit of prayer, it will not have the same effectiveness. It will not have that profound connection with the source of love, the fountain of life, the spring of living waters. Christ is the only one who can give real meaning to all our activity. If we are not truly inspired by him in all our actions and humbly place everything in his hands, we run the risk of ‘crashing and burning’ without achieving anything (and having hurt others in the process, most probably.) When we take the time to reflect, to be in God’s presence, then he will speak to us and use our feminine intuition so that we will take the most effective action for the benefit of those we love. It is most often when we pray and reflect before speaking or acting that we choose what will show the most love; not necessarily what is easiest or the most pleasing to our nature, but that which affirms the other, which encourages him, lifts him up, makes him feel important and special. This is part and parcel of the feminine genius which we need to tap into and use!
Most importantly, we need time with God to remember that we are loved by him completely, totally, unconditionally; he loves us perfectly as no other human being can love us. He wants to take us into the desert and speak to our hearts; he wants to lead us up the mountain so that we can encounter him in a very special and intimate way. And when we experience his love for us, then we are better able to communicate this love to others. Then our loved ones will really flourish like the grass; they will laugh with the joy of life in them, because we have effectively channeled the living waters of God’s grace to them!
“The true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being. It is not a boisterous voice, forcing itself on me and demanding attention…It is a voice that can only be heard by those who allow themselves to be touched.
Sensing the touch of God’s blessing hands and hearing the voice calling me the Beloved are one and the same. This became clear to the prophet Elijah. Elijah was standing on the mountain to meet God. First there came a hurricane, but God was not in the hurricane. Then there came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. There followed a fire, but God was not there either. Finally there came something very tender, called by some a soft breeze and by others a small voice. When Elijah sensed this, he covered his face because he knew God was present. In the tenderness of God, voice was touch and touch was voice.” (from The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen, p. 40)
3) The Eucharist is our food for the journey of life. Elijah receives all he needs from the ravens who bring him bread and water, which is a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, our food for the journey. This is what gives him strength and hope for his mission. Twice he tells the Lord of all the misfortunes that have befallen him, of how no one seems to honor his name, and we can feel like this many times. “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” (v. 10 and 14) We feel defeated by all the evils we see in the world; we feel utterly helpless, and then we feel even more crushed when we turn to the problems we face every day in our families, our work, etc. But if we honor the Lord first by going to receive his love in the Eucharist, we will receive all the strength we need for our day and the rest of our life! We have the opportunity as Catholics to receive this sacrament of love every day if possible; am I taking advantage? The Eucharist is the marriage supper of the Lamb, the union of Christ with his bride, the Church, and I as a woman am called to participate in this sacrament in a very special way. St. Hildegard wrote of “the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).” When I receive Christ in the Eucharist I am united to him body and soul; I receive his divine life. When I receive this gift with humility and gratitude, then I have all the strength I need to do what must be done; I have the certainty of being loved.
4) The courage to be a prophet comes from the grace of God, from a profound encounter with him. Elijah receives the nourishment and strength he needs, and then he receives his mission to go out, to bring about justice. It is not easy to do this, but when we have the certainty of being loved, when we know that our cause is just, then we can set ourselves to work without fear. We have contemplated and prayed before acting; we have the assurance we are acting on God’s behalf. We need to see clearly what needs to be done before doing it, and have the blessing of the Church on our work. St. Hildegard experienced this herself because she had to confront a corrupt emperor who sought to divide the Church for his own benefit.
“[W]hen the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander III, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgment. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” (ibid., p. 412).” (Wednesday Audience, September 8th, 2010)
Part of being a woman is to be tender and sensitive, but also to be strong, to speak out against injustice, to stand up for her beliefs. It is her special prerogative to defend the rights of the unborn, the elderly, those who have no one to speak for them, because the woman is called to take care of life in all its stages. When we speak to God, when we really experience him in our times of prayer, then we will have the strength to take up the cause that he places on our hearts in his name. We cannot allow these just causes to absorb all our time and energy to the detriment of family life, but they are necessary to undertake for the good of society as a whole. Elijah was not afraid to be God’s prophet even at the risk of his life. He knew that the evil queen Jezebel wanted him dead, but he had gained all the strength and serenity he needed from his prayer, from his deep communion with God. So he was able to come down the mountain and accomplish the work of the Lord with his grace and strength, which parallels Christ’s descent from Mount Tabor, where he was transfigured before his apostles. Christ wants us to ascend the mountain, to see his glory and to be very close to him in prayer, but then we need to go down the mountain to bring this love to others, knowing that he is always with us. With God all things are possible!