Should women be “meek and mild” like Mary?
I’ve noticed a recurring theme among self-described “Catholic feminists,” to this effect: “I always heard about Mary being meek and mild and felt pressured as a woman to be that way, but that just isn’t my personality. Feminism taught me that I don’t have to struggle to put myself in that box.”
Many of these writers have rightly pointed out that “meek and mild” (a phrase that, as far as I can tell, originates in Christmas carols) is not a complete description of who Mary was. The relatively small number of words about Mary in the Gospels should be understood in light of those who prefigure her in the Old Testament. These include Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes, and Jael, who drove a tent peg into the Canaanite commander’s skull, both of them prefiguring Mary’s victory over Satan.
There is also the mother in Maccabees, who courageously witnessed and encouraged her seven sons in their martyrdom as Mary did with Jesus at the foot of the cross. From the very beginning Marian liturgies, devotions and theology have also gone beyond meek and mild: to give just one example, the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary bids her “Rejoice, because thou alone hast destroyed all the heresies in the world.”
On the other hand, Mary crushes the head of the serpent precisely by her humility and obedience (and certainly not by being a “revolutionary” in worldly terms, as some have attempted to recast her). Mary’s meekness and mildness, properly understood, are unavoidable for those seeking to understand her and imitate her rather than to “deconstruct” her and remake her according to their own desires.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll set aside the not negligible number who simply find the injunction to meekness offensive to their pride and self-will. For those who are genuinely trying to grow in the Christian virtues while also being true to themselves, there is a misunderstanding of Mary’s meekness and mildness that can be easily cleared up without needing to have recourse to any kind of “ism” or ideology. We just need to look at some very basic elements of our faith.
1. First, it is necessary that when talking about spirituality, we understand words in a spiritual sense. However the word “meek” may be understood in other contexts, in the Christian lexicon it becomes something of a term of art. Spiritually, meekness and mildness are not a matter of personality or temperament. They are not incompatible with a “strong” personality, though of course all personality traits must be moderated, tempered and transcended by virtue and grace. Meekness and mildness may be understood as humility and the preference to be gentle rather than harsh whenever possible. (Some alternative definitions are offered below.)
2. Everyone, not just women, is supposed to imitate Mary. If some women have encountered people who invoked “Mary meek and mild” to get them to repress their God-given personality, that is a shame, and if taken far enough, could be spiritual abuse. I don’t know where this idea comes from that Mary is a model just for women; regardless, glance at the teaching of the Church and the saints at any point in the past two millenia and you will find Mary held up as the universal model of Christian life (and as much more).
3. Following on that point, male saints, not just female ones, have always been praised for being meek and gentle. St. Joseph was meek in his initial reaction to Mary’s mysterious pregnancy and in his docility to God’s messengers. It should be noted that the elevation of meekness is not just found in sentimental carols about Mary. It is one of Christ’s own Beatitudes, the reason we use this particular word for a principle which permeated His every word and action.
Even in the much-trumpeted episode of the money-changers He did not cease to be meek, simply by virtue of being God descended into a lesser nature. The LORD became a little child and enjoined us to do the same. (Observe, incidentally, that those who object to “Mary meek and mild” are silent about “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.”)
4. Conversely, it can be easily seen that men may struggle even more than women to fit themselves into the meekness “box”. Again putting aside pride and self-will (not that anyone is exempt from these tendencies), this may be because the sentimental images of Jesus from American Protestant culture have given us a deficient understanding of what meekness is.
Without endorsing everything Jordan Peterson says, nor suggesting that his is a complete and perfect definition of meekness, I think he has done both men and women a service by suggesting that being meek is not being a pushover, but has an aspect of “having a sword but knowing when to keep it sheathed.” (For example, instead of making this article into a broadside against Catholic feminism, I chose to focus on some simple truths which I hope will be helpful to people no matter how they choose to describe themselves.)
Other definitions I have seen offered include “strength under control” and “the gentleness that comes from humility.” The Greek word translated as “meek” in the Gospels was apparently elsewhere used in reference to war-horses that had been properly trained and broken in.
Finally, for those of a naturally “mild” or even timid disposition who equate their distaste for being assertive with the spiritual virtue of humility, the words of Nietzche (to whom the same caveat applies as to Peterson) might be a prod into reality: “I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.”
In the above considerations, I don’t mean to flatten out the real differences between men and women. (St. Joseph, after all, was the head of the Holy Family despite being spiritually inferior to his wife and son, and.) It seems to be the case that there are virtues that come more or less easily to each sex. Perhaps, too, there is something to the talk of distinctively masculine or feminine spirituality. But the basic Christian virtues we are all called to are the same.
In particular, without meekness and humility, not only are our other virtues not secure, but they themselves become servants of that most deadly vice of pride. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, humility is the mother of all virtues. If Mary is the mother of all Christians and our second-greatest master in humility, so is she the safeguard of our humility and through it, the perfection of all our virtues and of the beautiful, strange, and unboxable personalities God has given us. Let us all, women and men alike, entrust ourselves to her.
Jesus meek and mild, Mary meek and mild and Joseph meek and mild: pray for us and make our hearts like yours this Christmas season.
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Posted by: p.hession20095038 -
Jan. 02, 2019 10:35 AM ET USA
I believe that all the attributes of God are present in both men and women. Some are more dominant in men and some more dominant in women.
Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus -
Dec. 23, 2018 10:34 AM ET USA
james-w-anderson8230: I suppose I just take it for granted that having been given a body and a soul by God with gifts and talents that come from and reflect Him, we can say the same about personalities. That does not mean they cannot be defective, or that they cannot change to a certain degree, or that they do not need to be improved and filled out.
Posted by: garedawg -
Dec. 21, 2018 11:21 AM ET USA
My own mother tended toward the "meek and mild" end of the personality spectrum, but often she had to get tough with me and crush the head of her little serpent. Fortunately, Mary didn't have to deal with _that_ challenge!
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
Dec. 21, 2018 1:47 AM ET USA
"personalities God has given us" is a concept that I am not familiar with. I know that God has given us life and a soul but can you back up your statement?