In honor of Mother’s Day and because it’s Mary’s month of May, I just can’t resist posting a plug for one my all time favorite books about women and mothers and Mary, by an amazing woman (but it isn’t only for women!). In 1934, Gertrude von le Fort published The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine. As Alice von Hildebrand writes in the introduction of the new edition – “there are books that being timeless are always timely.” ( p vii) The first time I read Le Fort’s book, I read it together with a friend. It was some serious reading – this isn’t a coffee table book! We often had to look up the art or philosophers or authors that Le Fort would reference as we slowly poured over the pages. But Le Fort’s work is personable at the same time – Hildebrand continues on to say this: “She outlines admirably the mystery of femininity….A highly cultivated woman, she wove her isights with artistic and literary references that are so enriching because they are not the fruits of abstraction but of meditation upon personal, lived experiences.” (viii) Digging into the pages of her book together, my friend and I were rewarded with much spiritual nourishment and things to talk about. Le Fort’s words are solid, full of meaning to be meditated and digested, but it also reads more like a poem than a theology textbook. It’s absolutely fantastic as spiritual reading for a small group like my friend and I did, or as personal meditation.
In the book’s introduction, Le Fort begins by explaining how she’ll be writing about woman as a symbol, in the language of symbols. She is concerned here with the archetype of woman, with that particular character she was given to reflect by the Creator. Each individual woman is her own unique manifestation of the Eternal Woman. “This blessed one,” she writes,” although she is immeasureably more than the symbol of womanhood, is nevertheless also this very symbol; for, in her alone, the metaphysical mystery of woman has assumed a form and hence become intelligible.” (p. 8, You can actually read the intro to the book here).
Le Fort speaks about woman in her many callings – mother, bride, nun, single – and of course, about Mary. She also speaks about man, too, about the complementation of the masculine and feminine spirit, and the interplay between them in work of salvation. She talks about the masculine side of femininity and the feminine side of masculinity as well. Although it’s absolutely difficult to pull out any short quotes from the book (because the book as a whole is so good, and so interconnected!) I want to give you a few small snippets to pull you in!
On Motherhood: Not alone is the child born through the mother, but the mother is born through the child…The child that at its birth breaks through its mother’s womb break through her heart also, opening it to all that is small and weak. (p 78-79)
On Mary: She says so, so much about Mary! But one thing she focuses on is Mary’s significance in teaching the mankind about surrender to God. Surrender is at the crux of man’s relationship to God – for since He has given us free will, He can work nothing in our souls or in the world unless we surrender our wills, our hearts, our minds to Him. Le Fort says
“…in the humble fiat of her answer to the angel lies the mystery of redemption insofar as it depends upon the creature. For his redemption, man has nothing to contribute to God other than the readiness of unconditional surrender. The passive acceptance inherent in woman, which ancient philosophy regarded as purely negative, appears in the christian order of grace as the positively decisive factor. The Marian Dogma, reduced to a brief formula, denotes the doctrine of the cooperation of the creature in the work of redemption.” (p 9)
On culture/society: Le Fort is a prophetic voice for our times. This work truly is timeless in that she could have published today, and that our society and our church today has much to learn from her.
“Whenever woman has been suppressed, it was never because she was weak, but because she was recognized and feared as having power, and with reason: for at the moment when the stronger power no longer desires surrender but seeks self-glorification, a catastrophe is bound to ensue.” ( p 13)
“The idea that nations and countries if they are to prosper need good mothers, expresses, in addition to its obvious, biological truth, the deeper reality that the world of the spirit also desires, not only the guidance of man, but likewise the motherly care of woman. At this point the lines intersect. If on the one hand the creature refused to cooperate with the redemption, it has on the other hand usurped redemption. The faith in self-redemption as man’s belief in his own creative powers is the specifically masculine madness of our secularized age and it at the same time the explanation of all its failures. Nowhere is the creature a redeemer, but it should be a cooperate in the work of redemption. Creative power can only be received, and the man also must conceive the creative spirit in the sing of Mary, in humilty and surrender, or he will not receive it all. (…) Surrender is the only absolute power that the creature possess. Only the Handmaid of the Lord is the Queen of Heaven.” (p 18)
You’ll really have to pick up her book for yourself – the few words I have written may do more harm than good since I cannot do her work justice!
Also in honor of Mary’s month of May and the crazy way Mary works in my life, I’d like to give a shout out to a fascinating woman who is providentially staying at my house right now- Meg! Life is all so connected! If you haven’t met Meg, you might meet her soon. Meg calls herself a “blogger, speaker and hobo for Christ.” She travels the country giving talks to all kinds of Catholic groups about all kinds of topics. Her spontaneous and whole-hearted way of following Christ is a totally unique manifestation of the Eternal Woman. I certainly don’t know anyone else like her! Through our blessed conversation and simple dinner, God brought to life many of the themes that had been churning in my mind as I’ve recently been re-reading the Eternal Woman. God’s creativity amazing me constantly in the beauty of His children. Each of us, each man and each woman, has truly such a unique and special calling – we are each a crazy original manifestation of God Himself.
Dear Blessed Mother, teach us to surrender in strength and grace as you do to the creative power of God within us! “Let us walk like you through life, let us mirror you forever. Strong and noble, meak and mild, peace and love be our endeavor. Walk in us through our world, make it ready for the Lord.”* Amen!
* Fr J Kentenich, Heavenwards