I finally found a book about women’s spirituality that is (a) not about single life and (b) one I like! That is a rare find. I read (and write) a lot about being a single Catholic woman. There’s a market for it. There’s also a need for materials that explore women’s spirituality, but that usually turns into stuff for moms. I stop short of demanding that everyone cater to my needs, but it stings to feel left out. I am delighted to share that, through the kindness of a good friend, I stumbled across the book I’ve been looking for: Discovering the Feminine Genius: Every Woman’s Journey, by Katrina J. Zeno. In it, I finally began to discover what this whole “feminine genius” thing is about, how it applies to me, and how it fits into my real life and relationships in the light of the Theology of the Body.
Zeno begins her book with basic questions of identity formation, the same thing that starts plaguing us in adolescence. We all ask, “Who am I?” Zeno’s revolutionary (at least to me) answer is that we are first daughters of God, and then the bride of Christ. One of the nice things about still being single is that I’ve had no other choice than to form my identity as a woman without a man, as a daughter of God rather than the wife of my husband. (I also have a fantastic earthly father.) Zeno shares her own process of learning to find a new identity when the plan she’d built so carefully started to unravel. Her skill as a writer and storyteller is apparent; she starts with her own story, but she never made me as a reader feel disconnected just because my story is different than hers.
Yet no discussion of women’s spirituality is complete without a treatment of motherhood. I have no children of my own. I only know spiritual motherhood. I am blessed to have three godchildren (two of whom are my siblings), but anyone who suggests the experience of spiritual motherhood is a substitute for physical/biological motherhood is way off base. I realize that most people who suggest that are trying to be helpful; that doesn’t actually make it helpful. It feels like a consolation prize for my failure to win the cuddly baby lottery. Zeno offers the first integration of both kinds of motherhood that I have ever seen, thus making spiritual motherhood not feel like a runner-up crown.
Before her book, I’d never thought about how physical motherhood also requires spiritual motherhood. I’d always seen them as a dichotomy: either a woman is a spiritual mother or she is a physical mother. There’s no reason to create that divide, though. People are body and soul, physical and spiritual. A woman who only cares for her child’s physical needs neglects the spiritual and therefore neglects an integral part of her child. Physical mothers are also spiritual mothers. My spiritual mothering doesn’t have to be just a sad substitute. It can also be preparation for (God willing) my future. That brings me more comfort than platitudes ever have.
“God designed us to image the Trinity by being one nature embodied in two ways, for the purpose of union and communion through a sincere and fruitful gift of self.”
Apart from motherhood, Zeno also shares very interesting thoughts on fruitfulness. As with motherhood, it can be spiritual or physical. It’s not necessarily synonymous with raising children, she says. That made me wonder about the applications for my own life. If fruitfulness can be spiritual, can single people be fruitful? If, as Zeno writes, fruitfulness “implies the cooperation of others,” can single women be fruitful without any others? Do her “others” change, perhaps including friends, her family of origin (parents and siblings), her parish, or other people’s children? It’s a useful point of contemplation for me, since I’ve always thought of fruitfulness as being the result of a vocation, and I do not consider single life a vocation.
My absolute favorite thing about Zeno’s book is that it is a gender-specific book about spirituality that doesn’t ignore the other gender. I was not expecting to find such a great reflection on men’s spirituality in this book, but I’m so glad I did. I noticed that balance missing from Wild at Heart and Captivating and mentioned it in my reviews of both. Rather than finding it a distraction or a waste of time in a book for women, I found it immensely helpful to reflect on spiritual priesthood and spiritual fatherhood in relationship to my life. Why am I not called to priesthood? What is missing in fatherhood that motherhood fulfills, and vice versa? It was a nice change to not have to read something directed at men to find those points.
“When a man holds a woman, he holds the body of Christ in his hands.”
Reading this book was a surprising, humbling experience. I’ve heard the term “feminine genius” before. It fell into my mental encyclopedia with some other phrases coined by St. John Paul II, including “new evangelization” and “theology of the body.” The new evangelization is not so new; I managed to start to wrap my head around it after reading, writing, and thinking a lot. I’m also pretty familiar with the theology of the body. But I would have been hard pressed to explain the feminine genius. Now I’ve at least started down that journey. Zeno manages to strike an excellent balance between a primer for total beginners and the depth of philosophy and reasoning that I tend to like in my books since I’m a little further along in my spiritual education. It’s not often that I find a theological book I can recommend to people at all levels. This is one of those.