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Women as Guardians of Purity

by Alice von Hildebrand

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  • Description:
    Alice von Hildabrand calls on us to rediscover the unique role of the woman. Divine mercy has transfigured the blemish that Eve put on her sex, with a glorious victory--the victory of chaste love over self-seeking.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 14-18
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, March 2004

In most societies, women sinning against the sixth commandment were much more severely censured than men. The latter were usually excused under the slogan: they had to sow their wild oats. In the Old Testament, in literature and in life, women who had committed adultery (one of the sins that calls for a partner) were often ostracized and treated as outcasts and lepers. This crying injustice has often been used by the feminists to justify their position.

Simone de Beauvoir—the mother of French feminism-defends the rights of women to enjoy the sexual privileges granted to men. In her best selling book, The Second Sex, she even advocates the creation of brothels where women were not paid for the doubtful privilege of selling their bodies to men, but would be paying to satisfy their sexual cravings. As a matter of fact, one such was created in San Francisco, but apparently without much success.

Looked at from a Christian point of view, it should be obvious that adulterers—whether male or female-are equally guilty before God, assuming that both freely collaborated. To condemn women, while exonerating their male partners is obviously unjust.

I shall defend the thesis that this "injustice"—and indeed it is one, is a sort of derailment of something which gives us a deep insight into the nature of women and their God-planned mission: to be the guardians of purity. In his great book, The Journey of the Soul to God, St. Bonaventure writes that the world is a book containing a divine message, which we must learn to read. God is the architect of the female body. How should this fact be interpreted? What is the message that it carries? Alas, few of us learn to decipher this script, but those who do are granted a knowledge that no experimental science can possibly teach us. The reading of this message tells us plainly that "noblesse oblige." A creature that has been given a special mission and fails in this mission does more harm to herself and to others than one who commits the very same sin, but has not received this special calling. A priest who is irreverent toward the Divine Host offends God in a deeper sense than one of his parishioners who has not been ordained, and not received the extraordinary grace, which is the sacrament of ordination.

A clue is given us by the architecture of the female body that differs from her male counterpart in some meaningful ways. First of all; her intimate organs are hidden from sight: they are inside her body. What is hidden usually refers to something deep and mysterious: we hide secrets; we hide what is personal and intimate. Moreover, and this is deeply meaningful, these organs are covered by a veil called the hymen. The symbolism of the veil is obvious: it always refers to something marked by sacredness. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after having spoken with God, he covered his face. When Christ is present in the tabernacle, the latter is covered by a veil. The veil symbolizes sacredness. The fact that the woman's intimate organs are veiled gives us a clear message: they belong to God in a special way. Knowing from all eternity that his son was to be incarnated in the womb of a virgin, it was "proper and just" that the latter should have an exterior sign of its sacredness. The hymen does not serve a practical purpose. But it has a deep symbolic meaning. All women, having the privilege of sharing the sex of the Queen of Heaven, partake of this same privilege. In his treatise on virginity, St. Augustine remarks that even when a little girl is the product of sin, be it incest, rape or adultery, she partakes of the same privilege.

Many ardent Catholics—conscious of the dignity of the female body, have deplored the introduction of sex education programs in Catholic schools, imposed from above, often against the express wishes of parents. We all know that these programs—far from teaching children the true meaning of this mysterious sphere—burden their young souls with information that, inevitably, will warp their sense of the depth and mystery of this sphere. Either the information given is purely biological as if young children needed to know the technique of this sphere, or alas, it gives them information, which they need not know at all. It will feed their imagination with images, which will stain their innocence. One cannot help but recall the terrible words of Christ about scandalizing the little ones.

Following the lead of St. Bonaventure let us try to meditate on the message that these physical facts convey. First of all, they indicate plainly that these organs belong to God in a special way—I say, in a special way because everything we are and have belongs to the Giver of all gifts, but no doubt, there is a hierarchy among them. This is what the veil conveys. The Canticle of Canticles refers to a "closed garden" (hortus conclusus), the keys of which belong to God. He alone has the right to give these keys, and he has decided that they can only be given to a spouse in the holy sacrament of matrimony. How beautiful when the young bride can say to her husband: "with God's permission, I give you these keys, knowing that you will penetrate into this mysterious garden with reverence and gratitude." Once again, the reading of the book of nature intimates very clearly that God's presence is required in the marital embrace—not only in a general sense as indicted by the concursus divinus, but as the master of a domain in which God allows his creatures to collaborate with him in giving life. Once again, the divine message is clear to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. The marital embrace is meant to be an expression of love, that is, of the donation that the spouses make of their own body to their spouse, "ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est." Where there is love, there is God. By its very essence, love is fruitful and in the case of the marital embrace this fruitfulness is expressed by the fact that it can lead to the conception of a new life. Once again, following the lead of St. Bonaventure, we can see that if the spouses willingly choose to impede a conception by the use of artificial means, they in fact choose to eliminate love from their union which inevitably will become a self-seeking act instead of a self-giving one. Once God is excluded from the nuptial chamber, the love of the spouses is threatened at its deepest roots. It should surprise no one that couples who practice artificial birth control are much more likely to divorce than those who live their married life in conspectu Dei.

This leads me back to my main thesis: women are the guardians of purity. A reading of the Bible clearly indicates that the woman who, from a secularistic point of view seems to be a background figure in the history of salvation, is from a supernatural point of view definitely privileged. She is the only creature as we are told in Genesis whose body was fashioned from the body of a person, made to God's image and likeness. Tragically enough, she yielded to the serpent's alluring words: "thou shalt be like God," and was particularly severely punished. She is told that there will be an antagonism between herself and the serpent—indicating that she will be in the fore front of the war that the evil one will wage until time is no more. She suffers in giving birth, intimating that in this vale of tears there is an intimate link between love and suffering. For it is through suffering that the Son of Man, who is love itself, will redeem the sinful world. The uniqueness of her role is gloriously revealed in the New Testament: it is to a young virgin of the name of Mary that Gabriel appears, and offers her, as God's messenger, to become the mother of the Savior promised to Israel. When a woman is privileged to conceive a child, made to God's image and likeness, it is in her body that he creates a soul, which neither father nor mother can possibly produce. All they can do is to "procreate." They cannot create. This implies clearly that there is a direct contact between God and the woman, (the husband is totally out of the picture), and once again, this divine touch gives her body a special dignity—a nobility which indicates that she is granted a special calling to respect this mysterious sphere. She is the one whose flesh was the Savior's food. She is the most perfect of all creatures; she is the one at whose request Christ performed his first miracle. She is at the foot of the Cross—the Mater Dolorosa, who felt in her heart all the agonies of her divine son. She is the glorious Woman depicted in the Apocalypse crowned with stars.

The Fathers of the Church and innumerable saints proclaim her to be the new Eve, the one who crushed the serpent's head, the one, as St. Louis de Montfort wrote, the Evil one fears above all things, the one whose humility crushes his pride.1

She is the one teaching us the road to humility, which is the joyful acceptance of one's weakness (exaltavit humiles), coupled with the unshakeable certitude that all things are possible with God. For the all- powerful one accomplished great things in her (The Magnificat). She is the one teaching us that holiness means total receptivity to God's grace. She knows that a creature's title of honor is to declare himself to be God's servant, and it is as servant of the all-powerful one that she becomes the mother of his son. "Servire Deo regnare ist" (to serve God is to reign) says the Liturgy. Living as we do in a society in which "action," creativity, productivity is everything, she reminds us that the way to holiness is total openness to God's grace: be it DONE to me according to thy word. Receptivity is not passivity, as Aristotle wrongly believed. It implies an intense collaboration with another, a generous giving of oneself to fecundation, and a grateful acceptance of this fecundation.

Because of her humility, Mary is granted the privilege of being both mother and virgin. She teaches us that virginity—far from being a renunciation of motherhood—the glory of women—is a higher form of motherhood. The true virgin is not giving up this female privilege: by freely choosing to be only fecundate by God's grace, she can become the mother of innumerable souls. Lapa, St. Catherine of Siena's mother, bore twenty-four children. The consecrated virgin finds this too little: she wants to open her maternal heart to the whole world. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta cannot possibly count the number of children that she has had; it is legion.

In her Liturgy, Holy Church seems to make a subtle distinction between celibacy and virginity. It is meaningful that whereas she has many devotional Masses for the apostles, popes, confessors, martyrs, she has none dedicated to celibacy. However, when she has a votive Mass for virgins she always indicates whether a female saint is virgin or non virgin. Throughout the New Testament, the privileged position of women in the economy of redemption is constantly highlighted for those who have eyes to see: it is to be in the background. Few are the words of Mary recorded in the Gospels (six in all). St. Peter is the central figure and his voice is heard, I believe, twenty eight times. But Mary is at the foot of the cross. The Apostle to whom God has given the keys of his Church not only denied his Savior a few hours after having solemnly declared that he would die for him but when Christ was arrested he fled. Yet, he is the head of the Church; he together with the other apostles is given the power to consecrate, and to forgive sins. Those in a prominent position are not ipso facto those closest to the Savior. The tragedy of feminists is that, having lost the sense for the supernatural, they have become blind to the fact that God often uses the little ones, those who the "world" considers to be of little value, to collaborate with him in the building of his Kingdom. The question all of us should ask is not: how can I get the most power in the Church, but rather how can I serve my Lord best? If he makes it clear that it is by humbly serving, without any "recognition," we should lovingly accept it. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, the lovable St. Francis of Sales remarks that it is an awesome privilege to work as porter in the King's palace.

It is to a woman, Mary Magdalen, which Christ first appears after his resurrection: not to Peter. She is told to inform the apostles that Christ has conquered death. They typically refuse to believe her message: "after all, she is only a woman." We can assume that she lovingly accepted this humiliation: she knew she was right; her faith was stronger because her love was deeper. In the Stations of the Cross, women play a prominent role: apart from the heart-rending encounter between Mary and her Son, it is a woman, Veronica, who dries his bloody face; the women of Jerusalem are those who cry over Him. May we not assume that they did not scream with the mob: "Crucify him, crucify him"? Mary is "but a woman," but she is the Queen of the Apostles, of the Angels, of the Martyrs. Divine mercy has transfigured the blemish that Eve put on her sex, with a glorious victory: the victory of humility over pride, the victory of chaste love over self-seeking.

One of the most successful lies that the Evil one has spread in the modern world is the claim that the Church has always treated women as inferior. The very opposite is true: but this truth is visible only to who those know that, supernaturally speaking, the Church rates silence and contemplation above speech and action; humble service above brilliant exterior deeds, love above intellectual accomplishments. Feminism, which has created havoc in our society, can only be explained by a loss of the sense of the supernatural, and a victory of secularism. Blindness is a serious defect. The tragedy today is that the blind, not knowing that they are blind, are leading others down the slope of sin, with the use of clever slogans that are gleefully swallowed, because they flatter their pride and spirit of rebellion.

That the Church reveres the dignity that God has given to the sex of the Theotokos is best shown by the fact that, when in the fourth century, the Church gained recognition and was allowed to practice her faith in the open, she waged war on a typical pagan cult: the veneration of the male organ. But she replaced it by a prayer prayed by millions of faithful through centuries honoring the female organ par excellence, the womb: "blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus." This is why women are clearly designated to be the guardians of purity.

End Notes

1St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Montfort Publications, Bayshore, New York, 1981, p. 23.


Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was born in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University. She was the wife of the famous philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is the author of Introduction to Philosophy and collaborated with her husband in the writing of Situation Ethics, Graven Images and The Art of Living. In 1989 Sophia Institue Press published her book, By Love Refined. She has lectured extensively and is Professor Emeritus at Hunter College of the City of New York.

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