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.