Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

01. Mystery of Woman

by Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty

Descriptive Title

Mystery of Woman


Chapter One of Cardinal Mindszenty's book, The Mother.

Larger Work

The Mother



Publisher & Date

Radio Replies Press, 1949

Is not woman like the veiled face of the sphinx? She stands within a sacred compass. The unfathomed mystery of life has been placed in her hands.

Yet women have played a prominent role in fields entirely foreign to their personal, spiritual talents. They were even adored as idols, and before them rose the incense of adoration.

In the Front Lines

History presents us with pictures of various warrior women on the type of the "Amazons." Among these were Princess Catherine Sforza, and Emilia Plater, the banner-bearer in the Polish war for freedom; also Ranavanola III, Queen of Madagascar, who wore the sword and ruled for three years with might and power. And on the Janiculum hill in Rome there is a statue of Garibaldi's daughter. She stands exultant with a child at her breast and a pistol in her hand. She seems intent upon storming the lines of the enemy.

There have been women diplomats and women politicians, like Livia, wife of Caesar Augustus. In more modern times, it is a well-known fact that women have exercised influence in various fields of public endeavor. The peace of Cambray was concluded by two women, Louise of Savoy and Margaret of Austria. Many queens move through the pages of history who ruled a loving and devoted people. Among them we find Tso-Si who reigned in China; in old Egypt we have Tije, Netacorti, Hatschofsitu; in Byzantium, Eudoxia, Irene, Theodora; Poland presents us with Wanda, a most beautiful and wise woman. When the German forces were put to rout and the German king suddenly came face to face with Wanda, he exclaimed: "Wanda shall reign over heaven and earth, over land and sea. Commander, leader, I yield myself to death, so that Poland's children and her children's children may enjoy the dominion of this woman." And thereupon he fell upon his sword.

Anne Fernstrom was the queen of the depths of the earth. With American help she drove the deepest shaft known into the earth. Women such as Lady Humphrey and Van Wolsston made a name for themselves as hunters of tigers and elephants. The English physician, Rita Jessup, the bravest of women, crossed the snake-infested territory of Burma without fear, to reach the famous blue diamond.

According to Armand Rio women are more fit to be aviators than men, for their bodies are lighter and require less oxygen. Consequently, they are more capable of attaining greater heights; and their acuteness of mind and swift grasp of a situation give them an added advantage. It was Annie Johnson who broke the record in flying across the Sahara.

Woman is also a leader in matters of genius. There is Helen Lorin Grenfels who was secretary of education in Colorado; Madame Jeanne Dieulafoy conducted the excavations in Susa-Persia; Madame Curie, university professor and twice winner of the Nobel prize, discovered radium X-rays. Sonia Kovaleska was a renowned mathematician; Caroline Herschel a great astronomer, discovering five new planets; Eugenia Colombo is directress of the Scala Theater in Milan. Women also rank high in literature. The works of Selma Lagerlof have been translated into thirty languages.

We pay all due honor to these famous women who have remained true to their psychological genius. Still, this cannot be said of all of them.

For although women have been famous as rulers, diplomats, and politicians, although they may have shown bravery as hunters and discoverers, even though the world has read their books, yet this does not constitute the proper sphere nor the core of the mystery of woman.

Woman, thou sphinx of life, who can explain thee?

When Vishnu, so the legend goes, wished to create woman, he cudgelled his brain for a long time, wondering how to begin. Suddenly a thought struck him and he went to work. He proceeded to take the slimness and lissomeness of the reed, the beauty of the flowers, the delicate quivering of the grass, the tender blushing of the rose petals, Woman's joyousness he took from the sun's rays, and from the fire her warmth of heart; her tears he gathered from the clouds. Then in a roguish mood he mixed the chattering of the magpie with the confidential cooing of the turtle-dove. From these precious ingredients he created woman. There is the reason why the soul of woman is open to suffering. For what is more delicate than the breath of a rose and what more shy than the quivering grass? Yet in her very weakness lies her strength. She is magnificent in humble submission of self, in obedience and in her abiding patience, anxiously troubled about her loved ones.

The soul of woman is not so much self-assertive as impressionable, receptive, and responsive. She does not tend to acquire knowledge by a long process of thought, but rather embraces it in one intuitive act. Man is influenced by truth, but woman by the eternally beautiful. She loves the smaller things of life and gives them attention. Her memory is lively and impressionable, her fantasy can produce wonders. Compared to her, man's world is scanty and sober. Woman is guided by her heart. Her nature is as sensitive as a magnetic needle which trembles at the approach of the slightest electric current. A small pleasure, a slight sorrow, yes, even its very suggestion can arouse deep feelings in her soul. Her lively power of imagination can affect her hope and fear far more than man's.

The Eternal Image

In the Bible we read that God created man to his own image and likeness. Were we to ask wherein the "eternal likeness" of man and woman consists, wherein they are like to God, we could say: Man symbolizes the eternal Word, through Which all things were created. But the rays issuing from the heart of Eve suggest the Holy Spirit, Who is the flaming love of God.

Man puts all his strength into his work. Not so woman, for she conserves her strength to pass it on to those who are to come. Man is worn out by his work, it absorbs his very blood. But woman moves on into the future through her children and her children's children. The span of woman's work is of longer duration than man's. The hour, the moment, the now belongs to man; but woman has the future of nations in her grasp. Man is the rock against which time breaks, to come to a standstill; whereas woman is like the waves caressing the rock, embracing and carrying it out into the uncertain swelling ocean. Woman is the ever flowing, the boundless, the universal; while man is the massed, egoistic, and personal. Woman is not so very self-assertive, not impelled by her own creative urge; she is rather the helpmate, the co-worker, and co-operator. She is witness to the fact that the shining visible pillar does not alone bear the world's structure, but that its true foundation is the unseen column within.

Man desires to conquer, to win. The world must belong to him. The old adage expresses it: "The home of man is the world, but the world of woman is the home." At the very core of woman's soul is motherhood. All her thoughts center about this. In it she sees her greatest happiness. From all this it can be seen why the nature of woman is designed to be so receptive, so susceptible in the finer sense of the word, and so open to suffering. Her observant mind enlivens and transforms the world; it notes even the slightest impulse, when the life of her child hangs in the balance. The preservation of life is within her hands. In the service of this life she is ready to make the most stupendous sacrifices.

She feels at once what must be done in unforeseen circumstances. When the life of her child is in jeopardy, an unexpected courage, even foolhardiness, awakens in her.

Woman's nature is inexpressibly rich. Is she not by nature and inclination closely allied to religions? Is she not the door that leads to God? Man easily loses himself in selfishly defying the world, but woman knows—and this is a natural knowledge to her—that her status consists in bowing to the inevitable.

Where a man with words and weapons
May defy a callous fate,
Subtler weapons has a woman,
Who can always pray and wait.

(Weber's Dreizehnlinder— The Lament of Hildegunda)

Where woman's presence is lacking to diffuse the glow of life, necessity groans forsaken. Gentle compassion is the duty of woman.

............................the very first
Of human life must spring from woman's breast,
Your first small words are taught you from her lips,
Your first tears quenched by her, and your last sighs.

(Sardanapalus—by Byron)

The solicitous hand of woman causes the works of charity and mercy to grow immeasurably. As a sister of mercy, as a watchful nurse at the doctor's side, as a motherly guide in the kindergarten, in orphanages, and in thousands of other ways, she knows how to meet necessity, knows how to show compassion, how to make a home for the needy. While men make great speeches and pretend to organize, woman has already reached out a helping hand, even when hope had been abandoned. Florence Nightingale was guardian angel of the sick (1820-1910). While Elizabeth Fry proved herself a solicitous mother and helper of prisoners, Marie Pauline Jaricot was a heroine of social service, and Harriet Beecher Stowe was a liberator of slaves.

What would become of our country, what would our towns and cities have done in time of need and misery, but for the helpful, understanding, and comforting heart of woman? The best, yes, the only one who gathers and holds together life's broken pieces, is woman. She brings into the home in her apron more than man can bring in and out with a team of four horses.

The Spoiled Pearl

But enough in praise of woman. Even though we do not view woman with the gloomy eye of a Strindberg, yet there seems to be some truth in the words of Hamlet: "Frailty, thy name is woman." For in the corner of the eye of woman is secretly ensconced the demon, the seductive devil.

What would have been the greatest and most valuable pearl in the world was taken from the waters about Bathurst Island. It weighed about 260 grams and would have been of inestimable value. But unfortunately a worm had bored through the shell into the very center of the pearl, spoiling a treasure worth an entire world.

Is not this symbolic of woman? As a Christian, she too is of inestimable value; but allied to sin, she brings death, Here we can apply St. Ignatius' idea of the two standards. Woman has a two-fold spiritual inclination. She leans towards hell and heaven at the same time. She is Eve and Mary in one body. The choice rests in her delicate hand. Herodias chose to satisfy her revenge; she demanded the head of John the Baptist. "And his head was brought in a dish and was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother." (Mt. 14/11.) But Mary chose to sacrifice her heart; she offered herself with her child as a holocaust in the temple.

Even in our day there is to be found among women the virginal Nausikaa, the self-sacrificing Antigone, the faithful wife Penelope; even in our day there is a Beatrice who understands how to lead the way to spiritual maturity with her chaste, loving hand. For the secret key to these things has been entrusted to woman; she can be the guide to the wonders of the thousand hills of God.

Nor is Circe quite dead, she with her magic wand, with her beauty, using her voluptuousness to entice—to entice to a sweet death, the hero who was born for greater things. Delilah who sheared the mighty Samson of his strength is still alive. There is still a Cleopatra who brings Antony to a disastrous dalliance on the road to fame.

Yes, O woman, you can be either a blessing or a curse, as the poet sings:

In thy hands so skilled to mould
My heart I freely lay
Angel or devil will it be?
Thine it is to say.

(Szasz Karoly, "Angel and Devil")

At a convention of doctors held in Chicago, Dr. Read asserted, that according to statistics, the women of the modern generation in America were on the average taller than their grandmothers. Supposedly, this was the blessed result of the last period of peace. Or is it to be taken as a sign of elevation of mind that even such accidentals in woman can be pleasing to man?

The more mankind withdraws from God, the more difficult becomes man's task of comprehending and justly evaluating the proper worth of woman. We do not evaluate woman by the number of inches taller she is than her great-grandmother; what we should prefer to do is to interpret the immeasurable sea of woman's soul by the resources given us in revelation. Revelation is the only true mirror of woman.

The Spirit of Wisdom shows us the lowest point in depth, and also the most radiant peak of womankind. "From the woman came the beginning of sin, and on her account we all die." But it is also written by the wise finger of God: "He who has a good wife, has chosen a good portion." A pious and modest wife is happiness upon happiness. In the Apocalypse woman is clothed with the sun.

The Weaker Sex

During thousands of years the weaker sex has walked beneath precipices, between the yawning abyss and the shining peaks. This weakness may be taken in two ways. Woman is weaker in body, but spiritually more receptive, and far better prepared to make sacrifices out of love.

It is strange that the Holy Spirit describes especially these "negative" virtues of woman as the true spiritual strength of woman. "Who shall find a valiant woman? Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her. The heart of her husband trusteth in her: and he shall have no need of spoils. She will render him good, and not evil, all the days of her life. She hath sought wool and flax, and hath wrought by the counsel of her hands. She is like the merchant's ship: she bringeth her bread from afar. And she hath risen in the night, and given a prey to her household, and victuals to her maidens. She hath considered a field, and bought it: with the fruit of her hands she hath planted a vineyard. She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm. She has tasted and seen that her traffic is good: her lamp shall not be put out in the night. She hath put out her hand to strong things: and her fingers have taken hold of the spindle. She hath opened her hand to the needy, and stretched out her hands to the poor. She shall not fear for her house in the cold of snow: for all her domestics are clothed with double garments. She hath made for herself clothing of tapestry: fine linen, and purple is her covering. Her husband is honourable in the gates, when he sitteth among the senators of the land. She made fine linen, and sold it, and delivered a girdle to the Chanaanite. Strength and beauty are her clothing: and she shall laugh in the latter day. She hath opened her mouth to wisdom: and the law of clemency is on her tongue. She hath looked well to the paths of her house, and hath not eaten her bread idle. Her children rose up, and called her blessed: her husband, and he praised her. Many daughters have gathered together riches: thou hast surpassed them all. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: the woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands: and let her works praise her in the gates." Proverbs XXXI, 10-3.

The Heart of the World

Behold here a mirror of woman three thousand years old. But the "ideal woman" has undergone many changes in the course of history. In Plato's ideal State woman played a far different role than among the people of the Far East where from her seclusion woman worked the renewal of the race. The ideal of womanhood among the Spartans was a warrior who reared her children as warriors. During the days of the Renaissance she stands forth as a self-conscious personality, as embodied in Vittoria Colonna and Lucrezia Borgia. Protestant pietism cherished the ideal of woman in the pious housewife. The days of the Enlightenment were enthusiastic about her beautiful soul. Only a few years ago, Ibsen's Nora was the perfect woman. And today's ideal is the woman of athletic prowess. But is not all this an attempt to get away from the real meaning of woman?

The ideas and ideals of the world are as changeable as a weather-vane, but the sun of Christianity shines out over all the world and in all ages. Figures of women like the sisters Martha and Mary, like Magdalene the penitent, like Monica, the mother ceaseless in prayer, or like Elizabeth of Thuringia who with silent footsteps brought comfort and help to the poor in the quiet of the night........ such figures can only mature under the sunshine of Christianity. And what can we say about the woman among women, Our Blessed Lady, the Mother of the Lord?

There are wondrous many highlights, great and small, in the life of woman. Lovely they all are, in the best sense of the word, revealed to us as in a mirror by the descriptive words of the Holy Spirit. At Berlin, during happier days long ago, an exposition was held entitled "Woman," to show all the fields influenced by woman. The part entitled "The Housewife," showed by pictures and cold statistics how the happiness of the family is dependent on the housewife. It took into consideration not only the individual family, but at the same time the weal and woe of the nation. It showed that from 60 to 70 per cent of the peoples' buying power is in the hands of the woman.

Another picture showed how much bread one farmer's wife had baked in thirty years, how many fruit trees she had planted, how many potato plants she had set, how many gallons of milk she had milked, what efforts she devoted to raising cattle. What an immense performance of an unknown woman of the people, completed in the quiet of the home!

We cannot entirely agree with the opinion that woman should absolutely remain within the sphere of the home. This is a difficult question. It might be possible in the United States with its surplus of eight and a half million women. For there are places and tasks where woman simply must play a part, as for example in Domestic Relations Courts. According to statistics, there are more women than men. Hence there must be openings for women to earn their livelihood. When, for example, women teachers are forbidden to marry, or will be discharged in the event of marriage, common human rights are being violated. But, after all, these are concessions made to the circumstances of the times. The ideal must be upheld that the married woman should consecrate all her time, her efforts, and her love wholly and entirely to the family.

From a purely economic standpoint it is more advantageous that the mother remain at home. What she could accomplish outside the home cannot counterbalance the loss sustained in the home. Consequently it must remain the main basis of Christian social policy that the worker receive a wage sufficient to allow the wife to remain at home with the family, to watch over and care for the home and children.

The vocation of woman is not that of bread-winner, not public life, nor science. Plato, Aristotle, Keppler, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Beethoven, and Wagner cannot envision a woman among the spirits in Olympus. George Simmel may offer woman the consolation of saying it is their womanliness that has set the spark of inspiration to the geniuses of the world. And Guggisberg may even state that a genius among millions of men may owe his success to a woman. Yet it is a fact that the greatest creative minds have been and are, without exception, men. Really valuable histories, operas, tragedies, comedies, epics have not been given to the world by women. It is true that beginning with Sappho there have been a number of poets among women in the different countries. Up to the year 1900, according to the Count of Naude Gabor, there had been about 1,200 women of letters. Ferry Guizot has left to posterity a library of 32,000 volumes, all works by women. Basing our statistics upon the survey of the Dutch psychologist, Heymans, addressed to 3,000 doctors, teachers, and professors, we ascertain that among 500 discoverers, only six were women. Among thousands of intellectual giants, only fifty were women. Among men there are more geniuses (and more who became mentally ill) than among women. Women's accomplishments in philosophy, mathematics, and allied branches are mediocre; they rate higher in art and literature. When woman does rise to any importance in the world, she must always pay the price in the sacrifice of her womanliness. Before the maid of Orleans trod the triumphal road, she occupied her time in spinning and knitting, and praying and alms-giving.

Szechenyi speaks truthfully when he says: "The sword and pen belong to man; to woman, the home and the cradle." In normal times and under normal conditions woman will find her way to marriage. Wherever a woman may be, whether in the lecturer's chair or in the factory, her subconscious aim will always be matrimony.

A Baby and a Record

In many regards the stability of man is greater than that of woman. But from this it cannot be adduced that woman is of lesser worth. In the eyes of God her work has the same value. The precious characteristic of woman does not consist in her intellectual capacity, but in her strong genuine feelings, which draw her to the beautiful, the pure, the eternal, the divine. The task of woman is not the independent creative faculty, but that of vitalizing co-operation, the untiring urge to make even the great final sacrifice. Thus, generally speaking, she will be ready, like Grillparzer's Sappho, to exchange the laurel wreath for one of myrtle, and to sacrifice science for the happiness of being a bride and mother. The field of public life and support of the family belongs to man. The vocation of woman is not in the realm of the mind, but in the realm of the heart, the family home. Here she can be the helpmate of man, urging his spirit to nobler heights, forming and fashioning his heart. As bride and mother she reaches the sacred heights. After all, the most beautiful blossom and the most glorious crown of woman is the dignity of motherhood. This makes her queen, this makes her priestess of the great mystery of life. Such a dignity is worthy of reverence. What approaches closer to the sacred than reverential love?

This thought was well expressed by the husband of Miss Earhart when, meeting his wife after her record flight over the ocean he said: "A tiny baby would have been preferable to this record. Had you died giving birth to a child, it would have been a more beautiful death than if you had found your grave in the waters of the ocean."—Modern woman has taken up every field of man's endeavor, but meanwhile she has forgotten one thing, how to be a wife and mother. And yet Josephine Widmar exclaims in her psychological novel: "The body and soul of woman yearn for motherhood." Sigrid Undset has one of her heroines cry out: "I am a woman and so I must find my happiness in motherhood." Knauck Kahne expresses the same thought: "To be womanly, means to be motherly."

In the creation of our first parents God signified the duties which He was assigning to woman. He did not create the first woman from the head or foot of man. For woman was to be neither the ruler nor the slave of man. He fashioned her from man's side, close to his heart. She is not merely an instrument for the arbitrary use of man, she has the same human nature as he. She is called to be the helpmate of man, and chiefly to help him realize the blessing of God: "Increase and multiply." Her vocation is to help the temporal and eternal happiness of the family.

The Ivy and the Tree

Eotvos compares woman to the ivy, and the comparison is really apt and ingenious. With thousands and thousands of small, yes, the smallest tendrils, the ivy twines itself most closely about the tree. What we look for in woman is not the stubborn, weather-beaten, gnarled tree, but rather the tender yet strong devotion of these little tendrils and vines. In fine, woman has come forth from the hand of God in order to raise us out of ourselves, to be at our side, to strengthen and comfort us in joy and sorrow. A good wife is always a good portion. A saintly and modest woman brings happiness upon happiness. Pope Pius XI says the same thing: "Woman is the heart of the family, she can and must bespeak the realm of love, for this belongs to her." The sceptre of government pertains to man, but mankind bows voluntarily and unconstrainedly before the dignity of womanhood, even before the words "I will" cross her lips.

In harmony with the order ordained by God in creation the words of Mulford Prentice are true: "At the side of every great man, at his every forward step, in each of his bold undertakings, there stands, let her be visible or invisible, the woman who has stimulated and sustained his genius." Schiller states that the honor and purity of mankind has been placed in the hands of woman,

In your shaping hands, O woman,
Man's frail dignity e'er lies;
Yours to be its preservation,
Yours its working and its rise.

The great St. Bernard expressed the same thought long ago: "When man falls through a woman, no one will raise him up from his fall except a woman." And Vorosmarty offers these touching words in praise of this wonder in his poem:

To a Noblewoman:
Childhood's sweetest slumbers, Mother,
Have you for their guide.
Ardent youth's best dreamings, Princess,
Picture you their bride.
Manhood's joys are full, O Lady,
With you at their side!

The Queen of the Universe

This idea is expressed in a painting by an unknown Dutch artist, picturing woman as queen of the universe. A similar idea is expressed in a painting on the ceiling of the great church in Melk on the Danube, which I had the opportunity to study for a long time. It represents Faith, Hope and Charity, each of the three virtues symbolized by a woman. Faith carries a cross and chalice; the figure of Hope holds fast to the anchor; and Love is pictured as the blessed mother of children. She holds one child at her breast, she is kissing another, and the third plays close at her side. All the talents of women are beautifully unfolded in the bosom of the family.

At a congress of independent women the complaint was expressed that the history of the world has been written one-sidedly, from the standpoint of man. This may be true. On the other hand, we must not forget how intimately and inseparably woman's life is interwoven with that of the husband, the children, the nation, and all culture. Her glory does not consist in being a flaming torch or a genius, but in bringing geniuses into the world. Women have given to the world a Watt, a Stephenson, an Edison, Charlemagne, and Napoleon. The first place among the world's great must be conceded to the mothers. Those who hold the scepter of the world in their hands are those who give life to children. Woman can well afford to admit that she was not the architect of the grandiose, magnificent plan of St. Peter's in Rome or of any other splendid cathedral. She has clothed with flesh something more magnificent, more beautiful than all the cathedrals in the world, namely, an immortal soul.

True, mother works in the home, but her quiet labor radiates upon the entire nation. She passes on the entire treasure of culture from generation to generation. She builds up the future, and not merely the future of this earth; nay, her task reaches out into eternity, to the very heart of God.

Without her there can be no family, no home. Without her the strongest sources of human strength will disappear. Without her, goodness, love, and mercy vanish. She is the sturdy staff upon which the weary pilgrim supports himself as he plods the dusty road of life. She is the unknown soldier of common everyday life. The hand that rocks the cradle holds the helm of the world. Everything that lives and dies on earth has its origin in mother.

"Man is born of woman," says St. Paul, consequently every work of man bears the imprint of woman. Man's place varies on the stage of history. Now he is the hero, in the spotlight; then he disappears in darkness. Woman works in secret, she is an image of the eternal and everlasting law, always creating new life. She points out to man the way, she plants the seed in the virgin soil of the soul. The face of coming generations is fashioned after the image of woman. From the mouth of a young woman, a mother of several months, was heard this sentiment: "The step from woman to mother is greater than from maiden to woman." The vexing and perplexing question which often casts its troubling shadow upon a young couple, namely, how love that has begun to cool can be restored, is solved by motherhood. Marriage is the place where God's melody is put to the song of love. It is the solution of the woman question. Woman attains her happiness in motherhood. Therefore marriage is, in the truest sense of the word, the home of woman. The life of woman is more quiet and retiring than that of man. But she can change the fire of the home hearth to the fire on a sacred altar, and daily sacrifice herself thereon in a silent consuming fire.

Whenever I behold a cross wreathed with flowers, I always think: this is a symbol of woman's life, a cross wreathed in roses. The life and vocation of woman is not all roses, nor all crosses. Both belong together, and this means living for others, seeking their happiness in every way, even though the price be her heart's blood.

The words of Leon Bloy are worthy of consideration: "The more saintly a woman, the more a woman is she." Schiller's warning is of enduring value: "Honor your women. They plait and weave heavenly roses into our earthly life. They weave the happy bond of love and though concealed behind their modest, charming veil, they carefully nourish the fire of noble aspirations."

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