Woman: Icon of the Church

It was always there in the language and theology of my Catholic upbringing, but I never really gave it much thought, until one day there it was, fresh and new, a treasure hidden in plain sight. The Church is referred to as she, and she is called Mother Church. Scripture is full of references to Christ the Bridegroom, and his bride, the Church. Ancient iconography has depicted the Church as a woman. Theologians also speak of Mary, the mother of God, as the image of the Church, but perhaps it would not be wrong to say that all women have a share in this role as icons of the Church. In fact, it seems to me that the physical realities of femaleness reveal this spiritual truth: women are icons of the Church.

The Liturgical Cycle

Percentages are approximate. The times and lengths of each season vary slightly according to the calendar year.

Let us consider the Church’s Liturgical Cycle, that is, the Church seasons that order the year around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The first day of the liturgical year is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of Preparation, in which we prepare our hearts (and environments) for the celebration of Christmas. Christmas day is the first day of the Christmas season, but the whole season lasts a couple of weeks. After the Christmas celebration comes the season of Ordinary Time, or, as it is sometimes known, the “Growing Time”. So we prepare for Christmas, we celebrate it, then we grow.

Then the pattern repeats. With Lent comes another season of Preparation in which we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The Easter celebration begins on Easter day. It is the liturgical high point of the entire year, and so we really celebrate for a whole fifty days, in fact. Pentecost is the concluding feast in Easter, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then comes Ordinary Time. This second Ordinary Time in the Church year is quite long, lasting almost the whole second half of the year.

The fertility cycle

Percentages are approximate. Exact percentages vary among women or among particular cycles.

One day, as I was studying a material designed to explain the Liturgical Year to young children it dawned on me that the liturgical calendar looks remarkably similar to a woman’s fertility cycle. And, in fact, my previous struggles in explaining and classifying the different parts of a woman’s cycle were clarified and resolved when viewed through the lens of the Church year.

Let me explain. We can separate a woman’s fertility cycle into three parts: the Early Infertile Phase, the Fertile Phase, and the Late Infertile Phase. The first day of a woman’s cycle is the first day of her menstruation. Physically, of course, this phase of her cycle is characterized by her menstrual flow. Interiorly, however, it is characterized by a heightened interest in reflection and reevaluation. She naturally feels pulled inward during this time and she wants to let go of unhealthy behaviors or thought-patterns that are not serving her well. This can be a powerful time of prayer with renewed clarity of her calling and her purpose. After menstruation ends some women have what we Fertility Awareness Instructors call her Early Dry Days. Not all women will have a time of infertility between menstruation and the start of their Fertile phase, as women with short cycles may go from menstruation right into their time of fertility. Therefore the Early Infertile Phase is typically the time of menstruation and it may or may not include some days between menstruation and fertility.

In the language of the Church, the seasons of Preparation are penitential, and there is a heightened emphasis on metanoia, that is a turning around to face a new direction. We are called to examine our lives prayerfully and discern what is holding us back from being who God is calling us to be. This is exactly what women naturally do during their Early Infertile Phase, and therefore I think we could call this time in a woman’s cycle a season of Preparation.

Following her Early Infertile Phase is a woman’s Fertile time. This is the time in which she is capable of becoming pregnant. Despite the fact that I have spent a significant portion of my fertile times avoiding pregnancy (and therefore abstaining from sex) the Fertile time has become a treasured season for me. It is the time when I feel my best. I feel energetic; creativity comes more easily; I’m brimming with ideas, and I’m ready to take on the world. Physically, a woman is most interested in sex at this time and wants to give her yes to a man (and she’s emitting pheromones that make her husband most want her as well), and this is also true in her spiritual life. She wants to be generous with what God may be asking of her. Like the Blessed Mother, she will more easily give her yes. Spiritually, it is the task of every woman who is in her fertile phase to discern how God is asking her to give life. Is she called to be open to physical life through the conception of a child within her? Or is she called to give her yes, and give life to the world through some other creative endeavor? Because a woman experiences peak creativity and energy at this time, physically feels her best, and is also capable of conceiving a new life, I think it is appropriate to call her time of fertility a season of celebration.

Previously, in my discussions and writings on the fertility cycle, I have always struggled to classify the Late Infertile Phase. What goes on interiorly? The couple of days prior to menstruation a woman feels more sensitive and vulnerable, but what about the ten or so days before that, when a woman is no longer fertile, but she’s not preparing to menstruate either? While the time of menstuation is certainly noticable, and the time of fertility is sort of epic the high point of the fertility cycle, what about after these times? In my experience I always just feel, well, ordinary. I’m not tired and super reflective, but not overflowing with creativity either. But perhaps that’s precisely it. Like the Liturgical Year, after Preparation and Celebration come the woman’s Ordinary Time.

The word ‘Ordinary’ though comes from the Latin ordinalis, which means ordered, but this understanding of the word is also fitting in regards to women’s fertility cycles. Like the Church calendar, a woman’s bodily calendar, and the pattern by which we are to live, has been ordered for her. In the Liturgical year, the second Ordinary Time lasts almost the whole second half of the year, and likewise, in a woman’s fertility cycle, her ordinary time (or Late Infertile Phase) is also almost the whole last half of her cycle. It would also be appropriate to call this phase in the fertility cycle the Growing Time because physically, the inner lining of the woman’s uterus is growing in thickness under the influence of progesterone and also, if she has conceived during her fertile phase, the new life within her is already growing, though she won’t know it until her missed period two weeks later.

universal church and domestic church

GreenCircleFractal

So in the Liturgical Calendar, the whole Church prepares, celebrates, then grows, and fixed into the body of every woman we see this same repeating cycle. Mother Church calls all her children to live by the rhythms of this cycle, this pattern around the life of Christ. Similarly, in my home, the Domestic Church, my family is pulled into my rhythm. My children all know that I have a “rest week” when I don’t have as much energy and my husband and children do some of my chores to allow me more time for rest and reflection. During my time of fertility they see me buzzing about full of energy and ideas (and maybe roping them into things), and then life is again ordinary.

My husband observed that a woman’s whole life also reveals this pattern. A young girl is in her Early Infertile Phase, a woman in her childbearing years is in her fertile phase, and a post-menopausal woman is in her Late Infertile Phase. Preparation, Celebration, Ordinary Time. My husband likened it to the self-similarity within a fractal, that is, the same pattern repeating at different scales. To be a woman is to enter into the lived experience of this repeating pattern, and hopefully, the wisdom that living this pattern inspires.

So it strikes me, if God has placed this pattern into the body of every woman from the beginning of humanity, and the Holy Spirit has placed this same pattern into the Church year, it must be important maybe even vitally important. God seems to be saying, “Pay attention! Something great and significant is here!” It seems to me that if the very physiology of women model the liturgical cycle of the year which is itself patterned around the life of Christ, then it is also true that women’s bodies, from the beginning of humanity have prefigured the life of Christ, and, from the time of humanity’s redemption on the cross we have modeled it. Christ is the blueprint for all creation and it is a singular gift to women that we physically image and model Christ’s pattern of redemption in such an incarnational way.

In its teaching on the Church as mother and teacher (and which I think could be applied to women as a particular image of the Church), the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

From the Church [the Christian] learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary; he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it; he discovers it in the spiritual tradition and long history of the saints who have gone before him and whom the liturgy celebrates in the rhythms of the sanctoral cycle (CCC, 2030).

As the Church goes, however, so go women. To me, it is no surprise that a culture that has decided it no longer needs the Church, her sacraments, her rhythms, and her traditions has also decided that it no longer needs femininity itself. In fact, so useless does our culture deem our way of existing in the world, that it routinely convinces millions of women to expunge our natural rhythm from our lives entirely. I believe it is one of the biggest tradgedies of the modern world that millions of girls and women have been convinced that their time of peak energy, creativity, and generosity that they experience mid-cycle is of no importance or use, or worse, is actually a burden and thus better to just be medicated away through chemical birth control. And on top of this, so many fail to recognize the dignity of women and girls in their full humanity and instead view them solely as a means of their own selfish gratification.

you are beautiful in every way, my friend, there is no flaw in you! (Song of Songs 4:7)

Woman, the culture in which you live might not understand or value who you are, but your Creator does. I am convinced that each part of your being is the result of a loving decision by the One who made you. Furthermore, your value doesn’t come from your ability to emulate the masculine pattern of living. On the contrary, it is your pattern of reflection and reevaluation, of celebration and growth that should be the model of a holy life centered on the incarnate Christ because you are a woman, bride of Christ, and icon of the Church.

The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.

O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, for even if the labor and pain of her long exile may have discolored her, yet heaven’s beauty has adorned her.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (CCC, 771)

Work Cited:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2030.
  2. St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible Revised Edition. (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1970).
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 771.

Reclaiming the Peaceful Quiet of Advent

Reclaiming the Peaceful Quiet of Advent

Advent is just around the corner so I thought I’d share what my Advent plans are for my family. Advent has become one of my favorite times of the year, and it has become for me a season of quiet and peaceful waiting. It wasn’t always this way, but through some careful decisions about how I’ve wanted to observe this season, I think it has become that season of joyful anticipation it is meant to be.

In this season that is typically high stress for so many people, I see more than ever the wisdom of Mother Church doing things differently. The Church says, “Right now is not the Christmas season. This is the season of Advent, which is a season of waiting and preparing. It can be hard to wait, but don’t worry; the celebration will come in its own time.” I think when we jump the gun and try to start the celebration too soon, it’s hard to fully celebrate. We may be trying to celebrate and get into the Christmas spirit, but our minds are so busy running through their mental checklists of all the things we have yet to do to get ready for Christmas: put up the decorations, bake the Christmas cookies, build the gingerbread house with the kids, see the lights, buy the gifts, wrap them all, send them out, plan the Christmas party, attend the parties, make and send the Christmas cards and on and on! Christmas Day happens which has its own kind of busyness, and then whew! Just like that it’s all over. Seems like a recipe for stress, guilt about all the things we couldn’t get to, and disappointment that things didn’t — couldn’t? — live up to all the hype.

So I’ve worked hard to reclaim Advent, which isn’t easy to do in this culture that tries to make Christmas barge in before Advent has even started. But here is what my family does, and if any of these ideas resonate with you, perhaps you can try them and see if you too can reclaim a bit of the quietness and peace of the Advent season.

I shop for Christmas all year long.

This is super important because gift getting takes a lot of time! Also, buying for everyone on the Christmas list in one or two months is financially stressful. If you haven’t done that this year, I know it’s too late, but you can definitely try this one starting in January. One year it dawned on me that I buy for the same people every year. Also, those same people have birthdays every year. So I made myself a schedule. In the schedule I listed all birthday and Christmas gifts I need to buy during the year, and I divvied it up throughout the 12 months. I have a monthly gift budget, and every month, I need to buy about four gifts.  At the beginning of every month, I refer to my list to see what gifts I need to buy this month and then I get them some time during the month. It is sooo much more budget friendly and less stressful than saving all the shopping for the last month or two of the year. I store them all in an unmarked tote in my basement (amongst other storage totes) and my kids are none the wiser about what is in this one particular tote. Come December, save a few small items, nearly all my Christmas shopping is done.

We put up Christmas decorations on December 17th at the earliest.

Christmas treeI sort of feel like if I put the tree up before Thanksgiving, in my house with four kids, one of whom is a toddler, all the beautiful decor would be quite tired looking by the time Christmas actually rolled around. Or even if I managed to keep it looking nice, I might just be tired of looking at it by then. To try to live this season as a time of waiting, however, we wait until Christmas is right around the corner to put up the decorations, and my kids know that when the tree and lights go up, it’s time to get excited because Christmas will soon be here!

We put out an Advent wreath.

Advent Wreath

Advent is a season of waiting for the Light to come, and trying to prepare our hearts for that Light. So for the evening meal, we eat by the light of the Advent wreath. I got this idea from Mary Haseltine when we tried it last year and we loved it! The first week of Advent, we light one candle, and eat our supper in near darkness. Each week, however, we light one more candle on the Advent wreath, and as we get closer to Christmas, we can see the light grow brighter and brighter. There is something about the meal enjoyed in the darkness with the candle light that makes it seem more special. It marks Advent as set apart from all other seasons.

We put up the Jesse Tree.

Our Jesse tree is a small tree, about the height of a four or five year old, and each evening before bed, we read about one part of salvation history — about how God prepared the world for the coming of His Son through the people and events that happened before Jesus’ birth. This year, I bought Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp, and downloaded the free ornaments that come with it. So we’ll be reading her beautiful reflections each day and hanging one ornament.

I try to wait to celebrate Christmas until the Christmas season as much as possible.

When it comes to the celebratory events, I try to wait. We do drive around and look at Christmas lights before Christmas, mostly because I’m afraid if we wait until after Christmas, many of them won’t be lit anymore. If we are invited to a Christmas party or recital, I won’t decline. But, when possible, I save the celebrating. Last year, a local museum had guided tours through their large mansion with live performers dancing scenes from the Nutcracker with the tickets being available even after Christmas, so I bought my tickets for then, rather than going earlier. I usually make out Christmas cards during the Christmas season as well. Maybe everyone thinks I’m late, but I think I’m right on time! Things like making Gingerbread houses or other such Christmas crafts, I do with my children during the Christmas season, rather than try to fit it in before.

We celebrate the whole Christmas season.

Family at Christmas

Christmas day is just the first day of Christmas, and we aim to celebrate all 12 days. We don’t do any formal school lessons during the Christmas season; we simply relax and focus on celebrating. We watch Christmas movies; make Christmas crafts, enjoy Christmas stories, enjoy some Christmas treats, and the like. For the first time last year, rather than have the children open a mound of presents all on Christmas day, they opened one gift each day of Christmas. Last year, once all the gifts were wrapped and had arrived, I counted up the gifts from my husband and me, the gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the small gifts the children had made for each other, and each child had about 12 gifts, which seemed rather perfect. So each morning, they opened one gift.

The year before, I had tried to write down each gift in order to have the children make thank you cards later, but in the chaos of ravenous Christmas-morning gift opening, it didn’t quite happen that way. Later I found some gifts that I hadn’t written down and I asked the children who gave it to them and they didn’t have a clue. So much for gratitude when they didn’t even know who gave it! That’s sort of the nature of things, however, when we have a pile of Christmas gifts to get through. We can try to instill gratitude and make the focus of Christmas less about materialism, but I feel like we can be fighting an uphill battle by trying to do that while observing Christmas as it currently exists in our culture. As Kim John Payne says in his book (my favorite parenting book, btw) Simplicity Parenting, nothing in a pile will be appreciated. So, by opening one gift each day, I felt that the children could really savor and appreciate each gift, while also preserving the anticipation of Christmas by knowing that the next day there would be another gift to open. This year, I asked the children if they wanted to open their gifts throughout the Christmas season again, or if they wanted to go back to opening them all on Christmas day. They all were adamant that they wanted to open them throughout the season, even the six year old, who sometimes has a little more trouble waiting for things.

I think by trying to focus our attention on waiting and preparing during Advent, and then fully celebrating during the Christmas season, I enjoy Christmas so much more. When “the holiday season” was a month-long sprint trying to do it all and get it all in, with the culmination of one epic Christmas day, I feel like I almost couldn’t avoid feeling a little let down and burned out by the end of it. And trying to fully enjoy Christmas celebrations when there was so much to do meant that the celebrations themselves were really just one more thing on my to do list. Now, however, with the attitude of waiting for the Light and preparing for Christmas during Advent, and then, when all the preparations have been made and the work has been done, to allow myself to fully relax and enjoy the Christmas celebration (spread out in small doable pieces), I can really enjoy and appreciate so much more the beauty of the Christmas season.

Thoughts on Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

I read a couple news articles last night before bed. The news coming out of Pennsylvania, and the long-term, widespread sexual abuse of children and its cover ups by the hierarchy was sobering.

I experienced anger and disgust. When it comes to the abuse of children, I feel this is only appropriate. I hate that I even have to say that or justify feeling anger. But I know from experience that when it comes to every crime under the sun, people urge justice and encourage the victims to seek justice. Except sexual assault, that is. When it comes to the destruction of homes and property it goes without saying that of course the first thing one ought to do is to call the police and press charges. But when it comes to the holy temples of God that is our bodies, people urge forgiveness instead. “You can’t change the past,” they say. “You just have to get over it and get on with life.” “There’s no use bringing it up and ruining the abuser’s whole life because he made a mistake.” They forget that “bringing it up” doesn’t ruin lives; choosing to abuse and rape other people does. I’m not saying I don’t believe in forgiveness, I do. I believe in it whole-heartedly. But forgiveness doesn’t erase the need for justice and it doesn’t mean enabling a person to abuse again. Also, forgiveness is probably the last stage of the healing process, not the first.

Jesus’ most well-known instance of indignation was with the money-changers in the temple. He overturned tables and even made a whip out of cords to drive them out. He defended the dignity and worth of the temple vehemently, and time and time again Scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19) “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1 Cor 3:16-17) So I always hear the Scripture story thinking that Jesus too feels great anger when thieves desecrate the holy ground of a person’s body and if we claim to be Christian, we ought to do the same. Our bodies are sacred. They are worth so much more than stone and they are worth passionately defending.

Of course I also feel sadness. As a survivor myself I know firsthand the devastation that sexual abuse causes. I know without a doubt that, despite the American culture saying that sex is no big deal and that sex can be casual, sex matters. What we do with our bodies and what others do to them matters. Our bodies — those holy temples — are sacred and our sexual parts are the most sacred. I’m positive they are closely linked to the very core of our being, of our personhood, and when a person chooses to sexually abuse another, the damage is catastrophic, life-long, and pervasive. I’m not saying a person can’t heal from sexual abuse; they can, but it takes a long time and they will never return to who they were before the abuse. Even healed, they will never stop living with its effects. I don’t think our culture as a whole understands how insidious and insipid abuse is, how it worms its way into every aspect of one’s life and changes everything. But it does, and until we as a culture and as a Church acknowledge that, we will forever give offenders a slap on the wrist and offer them more compassion than we do their victims.

Part of me also feels some sense of relief, because I see a lot of people getting angry, and I think, “Finally. Maybe we’ve finally acknowledged that sexual abuse is a big deal and its victims are worth getting angry about.” Indeed they are worth getting angry about. We should be very very angry at those who abuse children and those who enabled their abuse, and probably especially so clergy who represent and act in the person of Christ.

I used to be an Advocate for a Sexual Assault Resource Center. I was trained to answer the crisis hotline, to be a support person through medical examinations and evidence collection, during court proceedings, and police questioning or reporting. I’ve talked to tons of survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose families didn’t believe them. I’ve talked to some whose families did, but were so embarrassed by the shame that Uncle Joe’s or Grandpa Sam’s behaviors would bring to the family, they collectively chose to keep the abuse quiet.

I once remarked to a friend that people think honor killings don’t happen in the States, but they happen every time the body of a child is desecrated and the family chooses their own honor and good name over justice and healing for the victim.

I’ve seen mothers choose “not to ruin” the life of their friend’s son over seeking justice for their own daughter. Once I even saw an entire close-knit community choose compassion and support for the rapist over compassion and support for his victim who was also one of their own. In that case, it wasn’t even an issue of believing his word over hers, as he admitted to the deed, and in fact videotaped the assault. So even though everyone knew that, without any shadow of doubt, he abused the girl, the entire community expressed their support and “forgiveness” to him (even though they themselves weren’t the ones he assaulted). During the court hearing, his side of the court room was filled with his supporters. In contrast, the girl sat with her parents, and behind them a couple of advocates. Furthermore, outside the courtroom, she and her family were harassed so much that they ended up leaving town.

The tendency to side with the abuser over the victim is a thing, and it’s pretty prevalent. As a survivor, it’s something I have trouble understanding. Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand the destruction that sexual abuse causes. To us survivors though, it feels like we are being stripped of our humanity and dignity yet again, that our families and communities feel like we don’t really have any value and we aren’t worth defending.

So while I feel anger and sadness, I also form a question in my mind. Once we have demanded justice and the abusers and the enablers within the priesthood and the Catholic hierarchy have been appropriately dealt with, will we sit back in comfort and pretend that the problem has been dealt with? Or will we acknowledge the abuse that is ubiquitous in our society? Will we decide that other victims are worth defending too, and acknowledge that our own institutions and communities need repentance and reform as well?

As a Catholic, I don’t base my belief on fallible humans but on the doctrines of the Church that I believe with my whole mind and heart, but I will continue to be saddened, disappointed, and angered at the wolves in our midst. I will continue to pray for the many holy and faithful priests that have personally blessed me with their sacrificial witness to the love of Jesus Christ. I will be praying for healing for the Body of the Church who has been damaged — not by the report or by victims coming forward — but by the wrongdoing of abusers and enablers. I’ll be praying for the survivors. I’ll also be praying for the abusers because I believe that whenever we become aware of another person’s sin, that that is God’s way of asking for prayers for that person, and whenever a person sins against me I offer the very hurt they caused, all my anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal and sadness as a prayer for them. It is what Christ did for us on the cross, offering the very suffering that we ourselves caused to win our salvation, and so we must do the same.