Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Mystery of Woman ~ Guest Post: Ryan Service

Ryan is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

    In the days leading up to that beautiful #2popesaints moment of history this weekend, I read for the first time Saint John Paul II’s (how wonderful to use that title!) Letter to Women. I can only summarise it briefly here, but I’d really recommend reading it in full.
    Saint John Paul II begins his letter by gazing upon the “mystery of Woman”. Gazing and beholding seem to be the right response to the “mystery of Woman”. It’s certainly present, with gentleness, in the Scriptures. 

    Gazing into the depths of the mystery of femininity I can’t help but think of those words from the Book of Daniel: “Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne on the cherubim…to be praised and highly exalted forever…” (3:54). God beholds his creation, his women. They are held in his eyes. 

    How many women must have prayed these words of Psalm 17:8: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”? Women want to be beheld by the God that made them. There are more words of beholding in the Gospel of John, with those three words that have spoken into our understanding of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (19:27). 

    Think how far this beholding, this gazing, differs to the story of Susanna (Daniel 13:10-12) where “both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desire to possess her.  And they watched eagerly, day after day, to see her.”

There is a beholding that desires to possess and a beholding that desires to protect.

    As a man, hearing those words “mystery of woman” I hear echoes of our culture’s search to know ‘what women want’.  I think of all those so called men’s magazines that make claims of revealing the mystery of womankind. Women are deprived of their mystery in these magazines. They are exposed. In using that phrase the Pope is entering into a completely different realm of thinking. The mystery of Woman is not something to be ‘solved’ in a 21st century rehash of an Agatha Christie novel. Rather, your mystery, women, is something that us men can only behold and never possess.

    Before the mystery of Woman it seems the first response is thankfulness. What follows is a litany of thanks. You women deserve to hear it in full:

Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail.”

Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.”

Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.”

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political.”

Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God's love.”

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”

    This list of thanks is more than an Oscar style winner’s speech of adulation. This list, a prayer of thanks in itself, is a powerful assertion of the role of women. There we have it; there’s not a single of mention of the shape or size of a woman’s body, nor hair colour, number of twitter followers, latest fashion, twerking and so on. You know the pressures. 

    Put simply, I think the Pope’s message is this: don’t let worldly pressures be a daily litany for you. Place yourself confidently within this litany of thanks, bathe in the glory of being a woman of God. It is this reality that you are called to.
    I remember at university a view that was often expressed about Christianity and womanhood is that there are only two role models for women: Mary the Virgin or Mary Magdalene, less of a virgin. We know that the church is not interested in such a binary. We know how Jesus ‘dared’ to be touched by women lovingly, how he spoke into their lives and told them of their worth. We know that Mary is more than the Virgin, she is the Mother of God. Mary Magdalene sinned, yes, but we know that our sinning is not the end of the story. Don’t allow history to write your status for you. 

    Forget pressures, Saint John Paul II is far more interested in that other ‘p’ word: precious. In this light he turns specifically to our mother Mary, “the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’”. 

    Saint John Paul II, however, doesn’t stop at thanks: “I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough”. He then examines the scandal of conditions that have harmed women and have written women out of the world’s history, for: “how can we not mention the long and degrading history…?” For men, this is our embarrassment and shame. We have perverted our gaze. We looked down upon you and you always had to look up to us. We looked at you in terms of meeting our desires and needs. 

    Men, we should be more like Simeon in Luke’s Gospel, turning to bless Mary and her new family [see this beautiful beholding of Simeon by Rembrandt]. He beholds her and speaks into the heart of Mary’s calling: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (2:35). 

    Or perhaps take on the silence of Zachariah as he awaits the promise of God to be fulfilled in his daughters of Jerusalem: “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20). 

    Similarly, we might gaze upon the mystery of women from the silence of Simon of Cyrene, carrying the cross with Jesus, seeing his face and seeing the face of the weeping women of Jerusalem (Matt. 27:32, Mark 15:21 and Luke 23:26).

    We think too of Lazarus in his dying days living in peace with Martha and Mary, who must have been filled with the promise of God, hearing how Mary had “anointed the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair…” (Jn. 11:2). We recall our moments of doubt and failed responsibility before the people of God, particularly our failure towards women. Here we might think of Moses and Aaron by the waters at Meribah where: “the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’” (Numbers 20:12). 

    Saint John Paul II ends his letter by entrusting all women to Mary: “May Mary, Queen of Love, watch over women and their mission in service of humanity, of peace, of the spread of God's Kingdom!” 

Women, we say thank you. Women, we ask for forgiveness, too, so that we can enter into a process of healing and allow your healing also.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Guest Post: Collette

Collette is an aspiring evangelist from the Midlands, and blogs over at Catholic Birmingham.

    Over Lent, my focus has been to grow more into my dignity as a beloved daughter of God. To learn a little more of what this means, I searched around for a Scripture to keep me focused during Lent.  The obvious ones came up such as "This is my Beloved..." and "You are precious in my eyes..."  However, as I brought these to adoration on the evening before Ash Wednesday, the Lord came back with an entirely different Scripture for my Lenten focus.

"We are God's work of art, created anew in Christ Jesus, to live the good life as He intended from the beginning" (Eph 2:10)

    It was so perfectly apt for my circumstances and proof that our Heavenly Father always knows what’s best for His children.  Meditating on this Scripture the last few weeks has highlighted 3 truths in my life that I would like to share with you:

1) I am God's work of art

    One can only imagine how the artist delights in his masterpiece.  Lovingly created by his own hands, stroke by stroke, turning a dream into a reality.  And then think of those that delight in his masterpiece – the many millions that have gazed in wonder and awe over a Rembrant, Monet or Van Gogh.  The same can be said about God.  The Father marvels at each one of us.  From before all time, you were on His Heart and even now He is lovingly perfecting you, stroke by stroke – ready for heaven and all eternity.  As the artist delights in the work of his hands, so too, the Father delights in you. 

    God gave me a real image to secure this during an evening of commitment to Christ in my parish during Lent.  I felt very low that day but knew this was an important night.  Taking inspiration from Rosanna's post on here, I put a nice dress on, did my hair and put my favourite lipstick on.  I had some flowers in my hand to leave at the Lady Chapel as it was the Feast of the Annunication.  As I walked up to the church, I felt like a beautiful bride… and then I felt really silly.  At that moment, it was as if the Lord whispered in my ear "Why do you shrink from who you are? You are my beautiful bride, hold your head high, know your worth and walk confidently towards the One who loves you so deeply and intimately."  

2) I am also His work in progress

    I think this is implied in being God's work of art but also in the little line that follows about being created anew in Christ Jesus.  I’ve learned a little more to accept that I am not yet the masterpiece God desires to create in me. Each day he chisels a little more off me or adds another stroke of paint here and there.  The final masterpiece will not be complete until I am in Heaven.

    My vocation is to become like His Son, and each day He is creating me anew in Christ. A huge weight is lifted off my shoulders when I realise that this work is His and not mine.  All I am expected to do is hand the troubles of my heart, my imperfections and my weaknesses over to Him.  We tend to want to put our best foot forward in life and this is even true with our relationship with God.  We come to the Lord having spent endless time and energy to make sure we look and sound good, we have ticked all the boxes and glossed over our struggles.  

    Or sometimes we don't even bother going to the Lord, because we think we’ll go when we’re better or holier... God can do very little with this.  He knows what’s really on our heart and therefore we shouldn't be afraid to hand over what we are really struggling with.  God likes mess, for it is in the honesty of this mess that He does His best work.  As Scripture reminds us, His Power is made perfect in our weaknesses! Every weakness is an opportunity for growth and grace if we hand it over to God.  

    Healing and wholeness is God's work, so even if I fall down on the journey I just need to keep on getting up and keeping my heart open to all He desires to create in me.

3) I am made for goodness

    When God created me He intended love and goodness for my life.  He had plans in mind to make me prosper and not to harm me.  This can be an incredibly hard truth to hold onto, especially when your life has been filled with a lot of darkness.  When your heart is wounded by events of your past and these moments still haunt you.  It can be a hard truth to hold onto when in your pain and hurt you’re crying out "God where were you?", and your heart might be resentful or angry because of this.  Maybe you doubt God's love for you because of the circumstances of your life.  What I want to say to you is this:

    Whatever horrible things you have experienced in your past, this was not God's plan for your life.  From the beginning, He intended love and goodness to fill all the days of your life.  Unfortunately free will of others and even of ourselves can get in the way, but that is why the Father sent Jesus.  He sent His Son to set us free and to lead us into the abundant life that He has promised to give us.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond redemption.  No matter how dark life can seem, Jesus had the last word on the cross and His love is greater than any situation you find yourself in.  Pope Francis sums it up so perfectly:

Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium #164)

    But what I have learned over Lent is that each day we have to choose to walk in this freedom.  We have to make a conscious decision to walk confidently in the knowledge that He intends goodness for our lives.  When the darkness threatens to overwhelm us, we need to ground ourselves in the Truth that this too will pass and to seek the goodness of God in all things.  We need to have the courage to pick up our cross and carry it as best we can, secure in the knowledge that our Father in Heaven is faithful and our resurrection moment will come.

And it will come.