Three Types of Valour

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.

Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.

I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.

I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.

Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.

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20 thoughts on “Three Types of Valour”

  1. I am absolutely persuaded that Sister C is the lady who speaks truth to power in the form of Father X – and others. And that she gives hope and courage to those of us who remain in the church but struggle daily with the patriarchy.

  2. You are more charitable than I could be. If your analysis is correct, Fr X sounds a very insecure (young?) man who is turning his fear of women into an ‘intellectual’ conviction of man’s superiority. But thank you for the reminder about Felicity and Perpetua.

  3. Unfortunately seminaries are turning out young priests who make a golden calf out of their love for tradition and fine vestments and are convinced Jesus preferred men and who even today will not permit altar girls to serve, nor laypersons to distribute Holy Communion. Case in point on Ash Wednesday no lay people assisted in the imposition of ashes, resulting in a lengthy service which was already off to a late start.

    Our Holy Father’s reasoning as to why women cannot be ordained as deacons or priests is yet another example of backward thinking, yet hard identity members applaud that decision as a “consolation”. The excuse that Jesus chose only men is silly – Jesus exercised his ministry in accordance with historical time and culture. There are plenty of holy, well qualified women serving in many capacities in other denominations where their churches permit the Holy Spirit to form both men and women equally.

    If our only use is in cleaning up after Lenten soup suppers, arranging flowers and praying, then our church is missing out on half of what it could achieve. But the praying is both essential and we are guaranteed of God’s love for us all.

    • While on many respects, I agree with you (and have the … luxury? of being Anglican where things are less … bad?) I also think it is important to value the faithful service of those who do the flowers, hospitality and tidy up. Sometimes, when we express our frustration and desire to do more, I think we underestimate how important what we are currently permitted to do can be.

      Can a church grow and thrive if it cannot provide a welcome, peace and joy of a house worthy of God? These things are important, and the women who (generally) take care of these things are important and essential to the life of their churches. However, (and I personally think this is the really important thing) they are jobs some men will do just as well… and need to be encouraged into, too.

      There are many kinds of leadership, and I think some of the problem is that we are conditioned to think the person at the front leading in that way, is a more leadery leader that the person sorting out the flower rota, or organising fund raising efforts!

      Possibly this is a separate and different issue, but I find it very concerning that sometimes discussions in this area start with an inherent assumption that there is a heirarchy of roles: Before God, we are all equal.

      My caveat, though, is that I am not well educated in the theology of the church in these areas, and keep a light touch on my church involvement because I don’t want to be hurt by these issues. I write informed by my experience as a female leader in science and engineering.

  4. Dear Sister Catherine, women are in no way inferior, either intellectually or morally, to men. Father X has led too sheltered a life and possibly isn’t fit to minister to his flock. Hopefully his pastoral care makes up for his poor view of the opposite gender.
    This leads me onto a point on which we disagree. I firmly believe that the Mother Church should be accepting of and ordaining female clergy. Patriarchal domination of the development of the early Church and of the Bible and liturgy was in line with the unnatural and wholly illiberal domination of females over the centuries.
    Females played much more of an important part in the Christian Church than the males were prepared to recognise.
    You, dear Sister, would be a wonderful priest and are probably more talented, better educated and more spiritually prepared for clerical office than many of your male colleagues in the Roman Catholic church.
    I will not tempt your discipline on this matter further and no doubt expect that you will apply intellectual rigour in countermanding my views. If so, l will stand admonished.
    God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you.

    • I agree with your first sentence (how could I not?!). I can’t comment further on Fr X: everyone is entitled to their good name, and I certainly cannot judge his fitness to minister to others, and as I said above, my post is not about him, anyway. As regards the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II prohibited us from discussing the matter (the only subject, I think, that may not be discussed.) As I regularly have to deal with people who seem to enjoy sniffing out what they regard as heresy and the threats they make, I prefer not to state any opinion on the matter.

  5. Perhaps Fr. X is troubled by God’s choice of Our Lady to be instrumental in the Incarnation, and of Mary Magdalene to experience the first manifestation of the Resurrection, in both cases without the presence or mediation of mortal men.

    How can Fr X reconcile the exclusive role of women in these greatest events in the redemption of humankind with the idea that women are entirely inferior to men, and are loved less by God?

  6. Thanks for this post, I’ve never really thought about Mary as a powerful woman in her own right, in charge of her destiny, but also that of many more, because she had free will to choose. Will go on thinking.

  7. Mikeala, you make excellent points with which we completely agree. The issue, though, is about a leadership which refuses to make use of women’s God given talents in serving the faithful. It’s not about a hierarchy of roles but rather a controlling of women’s contributions to further a male favoured and dominated institution.

    I’ve made my share of soup, baked squares and served at funeral lunches – I don’t have the aptitude to arrange flowers or decorate for special days but never felt my service nor that of my fellow volunteers was undervalued. That said there are parishes with no priests to celebrate Mass and offer the other Sacraments so parishioners do without. We are frequently reminded of the priest shortage while we have good, holy, willing women to serve but are forbidden to do so simply due to “tradition”.

    Interestingly, I have noticed the church cashes our annual offertory cheque no matter whether it is I or my husband who signs it.

    God bless you for your faithfulness and contribution to this discussion.

  8. It is very sad, I agree with most of the above. I think the laity will become very selective regarding what it gets involved with in the Church, and will probably put much of what the clergy say under the microscope. How can it be otherwise? Each of us will have to pick our way through the rubble created by the various scandals which have rocked/continue to rock the Church and what may emerge may be more authentically Christ‘s Church. It is a time of flux, just as in political and social spheres. Your words of wisdom help a lot, Sr Catherine, in our searching for the way through.

  9. Diana, I so agree with you. My own daughter left the church and she and her husband were married by a wonderful woman Anglican priest. The daughters of my catholic friends have, with one exception, either left the church altogether or found a home in the CofE or the Society of Friends. It’s only reading words by Sister Catherine and a few others that keeps me here. And, I suppose, after all these years a knowledge that change happens at a glacially slow rate and I’m too old to change.

    • Thank you, MiceElf! Lovely name. I‘m English but live in Bavaria, Germany, which is supposed to be deeply Catholic. The Church here is constantly being shattered by varying scandals, so it is really necessary to take up some kind of defensive position. I suppose mine is really what St Peter said to Jesus, when he had the chance to leave Him : where should we go if not to Christ? Trouble is, finding Him amongst all the rubble! But Sr Catherine is a great help. God bless!

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