Alice Von Hildebrand: Who is Woman?
Q: As a bookstore student of philosophy, I am curious about the ontological nature of womanhood. To put it plainly, who is woman?
A: The word ‘evangelium’ means good news , the amazing news that God in his infinite mercy sent us a savior: his beloved son. But reading the gospel of Saint John is likely to baffle us; for we find in it the terrible words of Christ himself: “I do not pray for the world” they are in sharp contradiction of the joyful message of the new testament. They need to be complemented by other words of our savior: that he does not intend to take his children out of this world, but to preserve them from harm. We do indeed find ourselves in a dangerous place but are not left orphans. Our savior having shed his blood for us, will not abandon us. He left us the Church, a loving mother who will guide our steps provided that we receive her message on our knees.
This leads me to my topic: the role assigned to women in the story of redemption. This is made clear from Genesis: in the ascending scale of creation, she is created last, and her body is from the start given a special dignity: it is taken, not from the slime of the earth, but from the body of a person, made to God’s image and likeness. She is declared the mother of the living, clearly establishing a link between her and life; she joyfully proclaims her closeness to God in bringing new persons into the world. Adam’s name is not mentioned even though he too had a role to play. She is the one that the serpent addresses, not as the great, but inevitably fallible St. Augustine, declares because she was “the weaker” and therefore more easily defeated, but because the evil one knew the immense power that she had over him – not physical power because made less muscular than her husband, but because of the immense influence she had over him. If she induces him to sin, and he follows suit without a single word of protest, both are terribly punished: they are cut off from their creator. But, her punishment is much severe than his. She shares it, but moreover, is “cursed” by giving birth (her “glory” in pains (surprisingly the bible uses the words “increased,” intimating that giving birth and pain were already linked from the beginning). Moreover, she is subjected to her husband, giving him authority over her.
Aristotle, one of the glorious names of the pagan world, declares her to be inferior to the male sex because, he is “active” and she is “passive”. Genius does not prevent one from making mistakes and creating confusion, the master of those “che sanno” as Dante declares Aristotle to be fails to distinguish between passivity and receptivity. Obvious as it is the passivity indicates metaphysical inferiority, receptivity is a quality of such value and importance that one marvels at the fact that many great minds have not been eloquent on the subject. What is baffling is that very talented minds, often poisoned by their pride, can, when absent minded, make very deep and pertinent remarks.
A case in point is Nietzsche – whose poisonous philosophy has done a lot of harm and still does – remarks that before the French revolution, woman, while having less authority had more influence. This remark is so valuable that it deserves our full attention. Authority commands actions. Those having it can order action. Influence while more subtle is not only deeper, but far from profound: it changes persons. How many of us looking back upon their lives, will acknowledge that their grandmother, or grandparents, or parents, or teachers have had an enormous influence upon their development not by preaching but by the message of their being. Mary, the holy mother of our savior, speaks only six times in the gospels; I think that St. Peter speaks 27 times, but her messages of such important that his pale by comparison: let us just meditate on “I am the handmaid of the Lord” – the joyous acknowledgement that to serve god is to reign, and ‘be it done to me…” the word “done” deserves to retain our full attention; she tells us that women, being creatures, have the magnificent calling of being receptive. In our secular world, in which greatness is measured by accomplishments, performances, creativity… it is high time that the greatness and nobility of receptivity is once again properly valued. Let me quote the words mentioned in Corinthians; “what have you that you have not received?” Man, this creature is so weak, so helpless that he can only be properly enriched and fecundated except on his knees. One can learn technology standing. One can only read and understand the gospel kneeling, and at times, prostrated. This is the privilege of womanhood: it is easier for the “weak” sex to acknowledge that we need help, and to ask for it. Statistics tell me that there are many more women than men in churches (even though I start doubting that it is still true today) because it is easier for them pray; “come to my help, O Lord, without you I perish”.
Understanding this, we are now in a position to gauge the dangers of feminism: to willfully ignore the greatness and nobility of receptivity, to be animated by pride and the craving for power and for earthly fame assume and claim that it is only by doing that one contributes to the “wheel of progress” as Simone de Beauvoir would say. But, the appealing word progress is ambiguous: it can mean moving forward without telling us whether this motion will bring us toward something better. One speaks of the ‘progress” of an illness, meaning clearly that the patient is closer to death. When progress means “improvement” it should be qualified as such; progress in knowledge, and most of all progress in virtue, that is bringing us a bit closer to God. This is the type of progress which is most desirable but ignored in our decadent world poisoned by materialism.
Yet, we put hope in progress… in our amazing technological advances. In the 19th century our landing on the moon would have been viewed as a Jules Verne fantasy. But, today the younger generation is likely to believe that given time, everything can be achieved by man’s genius. But, we forget that we now have the possibility to destroy the world that we have and could not have created. We are told that our planet will be destroyed by fire, but are not told who will set the fire… it is quite conceivable that it might be “man’ himself.
In view of this, let us accept that man’s marvelous creations, starting with the Parthenon which for some 25 centuries has been the object of our admiration, will be reduced to dust. But, (and this should be written in golden letters) every single child that a woman has brought into the world, having an immortal soul, will enter eternity having freely chosen to serve God or to echo the horrible words of Lucifer: non serviam. May god in his goodness, when our body is breathing its last, put on our dying lips the blessed words of Mary, be it done to me… putting all our hope, not in our virtues and so called accomplishments, but in receptivity of His merciful love. May these few words open our eyes to the beauty of receptivity the words of Mary in Nazareth which gave us our savior.
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand (b. 1923), a Catholic philosopher and theologian, was born and raised in Brussels, Belgium in an environment steeped in Catholic tradition. In 1959, she married Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German philosopher who had fled Nazi Germany after publicly opposing Hitler and was teaching philosophy in Fordham University. After the death of her husband in 1977, Hildebrand dedicated much of her time to publicizing his works and writings. Since retiring from Hunter College in 1984, Hildebrand has spent her time writing and lecturing and has written several books, including By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride; By Grief Refined: Letters to a Widow; Women and the Priesthood; Soul of a Lion: Dietrich Von Hildebrand: a Biography; The Privilege of Being a Woman; Man and Woman: A Divine Invention; and Memoirs of a Happy Failure.