Mary, not Misogyny
It’s fair to observe that women tend to be more religious than men. A typical weekday Mass almost always has a disproportionate number of women in attendance. Prayer and religious devotion seem to be much easier for the ladies than for the gents. (So much for the “male-dominated” Church.) Is it possible women are genetically hard-wired to be more receptive to religion?
When I visit families with little children, almost always the little boys are “utilitarian,” attracted to things that do something, such as trucks and trains. The little girls are “relational,” attracted to “faces”—their dolls. I seriously doubt—nay, completely reject—the notion that this is “inculcated sexist behavior.” There are, of course, exceptions and the traditional “tomboy” girls can be charming and amusing. But I trust my eyes and experience: in the main, boys: trucks; girls: dolls.
Years ago I was a chaplain to a doctors’ group—all men—that met on early Monday morning after Mass. As a celibate, I asked them for help with a perplexing problem I had with a lady in the office. The lady was professional, competent, and very knowledgeable. But she had a tendency, with so much to say, to change the subject midstream in our conversation. What should I do, I pleaded, to keep her on track?
The doctors responded with a 45 minute animated conversation about the differences between men and women: a conversation that, if recorded, would provide cause to send them to a modern “That’s not funny!” gender sensitivity re-education camp. The most prominent point made was that women are hard-wired to bear babies and are therefore mentally equipped to “multitask.” As they plug the bottle into the mouth of a babe they move quickly to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the other kids. The unpredictable needs of a baby bring out the practical traits of a caring and empathetic motherhood, as they hop from task to task. They are masters at leaving many tasks momentarily undone, but not forgetting to get back to them in due course. So they’re less likely than men to leave the meatloaf in the oven too long.
In contrast men tend to be linear thinkers: Begin a job and don’t walk away from it until it’s completed. This explains a good deal of male impatience with the apparently desultory activities of the ladies. (“You mean my coworker is smarter than me?” I whined.) In addition, the doctors warned me, when wives have a complaint, it often seems insoluble to the husband, so he explodes, “What do you want me to do about it?!” But in their misogynist (sigh) wisdom, the doctors warned me women often do not want or expect their husbands to solve their problems; they just want them to listen patiently and understand. Good advice when priests deal with women.
If women are better at putting a human face—including the intricacies of human relationships—on life situations, what does this imply for our lives of prayer? If men “get things done,” women—specifically mothers—can guide and enrich a man’s life of prayer. I suspect when men “pray for others,” we have a tendency to make it a kind of task, scrolling through the names. (At least I do.) But women, if I’m right, take more time, more readily affixing a human face to the names, making them present by way of memory and imagination, and responding with empathy and affection. I know many devout ladies (my sister, for one) who are wonderfully capable of keeping an abundance of friends and family in prayer—and keeping others up-to-date. So I’d be surprised to be proven wrong by one of those multi-million dollar government research projects.
In an anecdotal way, distractions at prayer seem to be “feminine” and “masculine.” My distractions, if you insist on knowing, have to do with the tasks ahead or a preoccupation with some piece of equipment in need of purchase or installation. In conversation with the ladies—including a contemplative nun—I’ve discovered their distractions also include certain tasks ahead of them, but they tend to affix human faces to their distractions. The kids, as they name and envision them, need to be fed or grandpa needs a visit in the nursing home. The accents of prayer, and prayer distractions, vary between men and women. And even the garden-variety distractions during prayer seem to maintain a boys-trucks and girls-dolls distinction.
Hence, when asking for prayers I’d go with pious ladies in a shot—despite the fact that I’m paid as a priest to “pray for others.” (Holy Orders raises the efficacy of such prayers beyond the capabilities and merit of priests.) But men have something to offer women as well. When we’re praying on all cylinders, we show up, we get the job done and God is worshiped in an orthodox fashion. And the bills are paid. While it is difficult to tame a man with religion, once harnessed through persistent feminine devotion and motherly formation, he is capable of focus, great determination, and accomplishment. Consider the sacrificial lives of the Church’s many missionary priests (or the unassuming “just do it” devout fathers who never miss a Sunday Mass).
This reflection is merely a sketch, and not intended to draw bold lines separating the religious proclivities of men and women. But it’s useful, worthy, and playful to notice the masculine and feminine traits and inclinations from our experiences. Our musings may help us more deeply understand why our mother Mary, the Mother of God, is held out as the model of prayer, and why the Church is beautifully described as “Holy Mother Church.”
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