The Beauty of a Virtuous Woman's Heart
Men are indebted to women. A virtuous woman is immediately attractive. In response to this virtue, men desire to praise, honor, encourage, and cultivate virtue in the woman so possessing it. This is absolutely basic to the affection between men and women.
When a man seeks a woman's affection, he is a debtor. He has done nothing other than what he desires to do; it is the virtuous woman who has accomplished the difficult task of acquiring virtue. When a woman who has reached the heights of virtue by self-denial gives her affection to a man–a man who has done nothing to clothe his beloved in virtue–he is a debtor, seeing sin in himself against the virtues of his beloved.
Necessity of Women to Practice Virtue
A classic definition of love, given by St. Thomas Aquinas, states that: "To love is to will the good of another."1 This definition says nothing about the lover, but rather focuses on the beloved. It clearly defines that love is in the will: "Love [is] sustained choice,"2 and not founded in the emotions. And it specifically defines love as having as its object the serving of another person (since only persons–whether human, angelic, or divine–have a free will, only persons can love; hence, the "other" can only be another person).3
It is the nature of love to give, to give completely and entirely. The lover does not say to his beloved: "I will love for seven months." Rather, he says: "I will love you forever." The Second Vatican Council teaches that the human person can be fulfilled "only in a sincere giving"4 of the self. For example, "Woman's unhappiest moments are when she is unable to give; her most hellish moments are when she refuses to give."5
To prompt this self-giving desire in men [as opposed to instigating lustful desires, born of selfishness], women must cultivate the practice of those virtues more particular to their nature. That is, to be true to the vocation of woman, virtues that demonstrate a giving of self must be displayed.
To attain to the true vocation of woman is not the same thing as "being oneself." In fact, it is precisely the opposite. The "seven pallbearers of character"6 –the seven capital sins–must be overcome. The sisters of the seven capital sins must also be overcome, that is, those faults more "natural" to women than men: jealousy, fault-finding, gossiping, sensitivity to the opinions of others. It is worth noting that the faults to which women are often most subject are related to persons, not related to things. This is expected, because women are closer to persons (whereas men are closer to things).7
Similarly, the virtues women must cultivate are related to persons: understanding, sensitivity, creativity,8 acceptance, resignation, submission,9 intuitiveness, generosity, fidelity,10 receptiveness,11 and equity.12 Pope John Paul II writes that the virtues of women must correspond to the nature of women, which is constituted in such a way that each woman's mission is "to welcome [and] to care for the human person."13 In another place, the Holy Father writes of the "naturally spousal predisposition of the feminine personality."14
The gifts of femininity have long been amply praised in former times for their uplifting effect on humanity. No less than fourteen beautiful female figures depict the seven sacred sciences and the seven liberal arts in the left wall of Andrea di Bonaiuto's Spanish Chapel in the Dominican Church of St. Maria Novella in Florence. The feminine gifts of prudence and religion prompt Raphael in the Hall of Constantine and the gift of faith prompts Podesti in the Room of the Immaculate Conception to portray these and other virtues by a female personage. It is perhaps the humility of women, which makes their voices nearly angelic, which inspires Faure in his Requiem Mass to direct female voices to convey the joy of the glorious In Paradisum immediately after the male tenor voice dominates the travail of the Libera me. Homer extols the forbearance and fidelity of Penelope when Ulysses is away at war, and Fra Bartomeleo paints a compassionate St. Mary Magdalene as embracing Our Lord's feet in his "Pieta." Archbishop Fulton Sheen observes:
The level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. The reason is to be found in the difference between knowing and loving. When we know something, we bring it down to the level of our intelligence. Examples of abstract subjects must be given to children to suit the level of their minds. But when we love something, we always have to go up to meet it. For example, if we want to master music, we must obey its laws and meet its demands. Since a woman is loved, it follows that the nobler a woman is, the nobler man will have to be to be deserving of that love. That is why the level of any civilization is always the level of its womanhood.15
When men, assisted by grace, recognize the excellence of femininity by encouragement and praise of feminine virtues, women will teach men how to love. Civilization will be raised from the depth of selfishness and despair to the height of selflessness and hope.
What is the essence or foundation of a woman's virtue? We have stated that her virtues are related to persons. Pope John Paul II brilliantly summarizes the nature of feminine virtue, and simultaneously explains why such virtue is so heartwarming, when he writes:
Our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that 'genius' which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance.16
Necessary emphasis should be placed on the 'genius of women', not only by considering great and famous women of the past or present, but also those ordinary women who reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives.17
Vocation of Woman
What is the vocation of woman? According to Pope John Paul II, a woman by her very nature is called to manifest the truth to everyone of the existence and depth of the love "with which every human being–man and woman–is loved by God in Christ."18 The Holy Father also writes: "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."19 Dr. Alice von Hildebrand quotes St. Edith Stein: ". . . the particular mission of women is to protect, to preserve, to shelter, to guard, to bring warmth in a cold, icy universe. In other words, to be maternal."20 It is perhaps for all these reasons that Pope Pius XI wrote: "For if the man is the head[of the family], the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love."21
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are Integrally Related
Women faithful to their true vocation attain beauty. This beauty is interior and spiritual, and displays itself in the deportment and countenance of women. St. Thomas Aquinas gives three characteristics of beauty: radiance (claritas), harmony or due proportion (consonantia or debita proportio), and wholeness (integritas).22
Interior virtue has an exterior manifestation. Beautiful things shine23–in a virtuous women's actions, of course, in her smile, but also, as noted above, simply in her countenance. Speaking of Blessed Fra Angelico's altarpiece in the Dominican Monastery of San Marco in Florence, Professor Saward notes: ". . in Angelico's Madonna, the fairness of her soul, the substantial form, shines through the fineness of her features."24
Singing the virtues of the Mother of God, St. Albert the Great wrote: " 'All fair art thou,' that is, in body and in soul: in body, through the integrity of in-corruption and the unimpaired purity of all the senses; in the soul, not only all fair through humility, but very beautiful, most beautiful, through the perfect plenitude of all the virtues."25
Wholeness indicates nothing deficient or lacking; nothing extraneous or superfluous. Again, with Holy Mary as an example, we have wholeness unlike any other creature: she is Virgin and Mother; Daughter, Mother, and Spouse; a human person yet without sin; a Handmaid yet a Queen; humble yet exalted; a creature yet Queen of Angels. In her did the Son, whom the heavens cannot contain, dwell for nine months. Through her did salvation, in the Divine Person of Jesus, come to men. She, Iota pulchra, is entirely, wholly, completely the person whom the Holy Trinity desires her to be.
To attain goodness, through a virtuous life, is the purpose for which all human beings, men and women, were made. Beauty is "the radiance of the one and the true and the good."26 Beauty is also the "splendor of truth."27 The Source of unity and truth and goodness is the Holy Trinity, and holiness in creatures is attained "essentially by the possession of divine grace and morally by the practice of virtue."28 Sanctifying grace is the created effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can understand that, in creatures, holiness produces beauty.
Influence of Virtuous Women on Men: Men Attempt to be Worthy of a Virtuous Woman's Love
Men know they cannot be worthy of the love of a virtuous woman's heart. Men, too susceptible to pride and lust, cannot fathom the gentleness of a woman's heart. Men are often too ambitious for worldly ac claim and worldly things to focus on each person as a gift. Men frequently need a multiplicity of reasons to love, and cannot understand the simplicity with which women love the person as one who is "created for love."29 Men simply do not have the same relation to persons that women do. Indeed, God "entrusts the human being to her in a special way."30
Despite this unworthiness, a man wishes to entrust himself to a woman. Men desire to be awed twice over: once, because of the life-giving ability of the woman, and second, by a selfless heart which, to his astonishment and for reasons he cannot understand, might give itself to a sinful man.31 Consequently, he develops the desire to serve this generous woman purely to please the beloved. Physical appearance may make a woman temporarily attractive, but it is beauty of heart that makes a woman irresistible.32
"We love anyone only in the measure that our minds tell us how good that person is."33 This is especially true for men, since they emphasize the rational, thinking dimension of the soul, whereas women emphasize the affective dimension of the soul. For this reason, women who engage in the marriage act outside of or before marriage receive no honor from men. Such conduct instructs men that a woman places her sensible appetites above her heart, which is another way of defining selfishness.34
In contrast, a virtuous woman offers men the opportunity–or rather, actually prompts the desire–to praise, honor, and cultivate her virtues. Why? To attempt to be worthy of a woman's love and affection. While men know this worthiness is unattainable, men must prove their love for the beloved by acts of love. Men must demonstrate their love; otherwise it dies. And, by a marvelous ordaining of Most Holy Trinity (the perfect Communion of Persons):
One desires the good of the other because he or she is recognized as worthy of being loved. This is a love which generates communion between persons, because each considers the good of the other as his or her own good.35
The virtue of a woman transforms a man to conclude that pleasing the beloved is equally or more important than pleasing himself.
The reason men are in awe of a virtuous woman who returns his affection is that the man's dignity as a child of God is affirmed! Some would claim that the basic desire of human beings is to be loved. Not so. When the soul is elevated by the supernatural grace of charity, the person is to desire to "love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God."36 Charity is the supernatural ability ". . . to practice the virtue of selfless love of others, which is the principal way we show our love for God."37 When the charity practiced by a man is returned by the affectionate charity of a virtuous woman, the man's desire to practice charity further is affirmed. And it is greatly strengthened.
This selfless love is not poetry or some unattainable ideal. This charity is at once ontological, and the effect of supernatural grace on the mind and will of men. "To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist 'for' others, to become a gift."38 When a man, in a state of grace, attempts to be worthy of a woman's love, the attempt is also to offer himself as a gift to that woman. Thus, "this 'new heart' [Ezek 36:25-26 and Jer 31:34] will make it possible to appreciate and achieve the deepest and most authentic meaning of life: namely, that of being a gift which is fully realized in the giving of self."39
Love as Sacrifice and Service
But the virtue of a woman must provide the "incentive" to engender this gift of self by man. It is a women's virtue which must provide the incentive to a man to die, if necessary, willingly, joyfully, to defend his spouse. Her social standing, material wealth, physical appearance, or any other temporal characteristic will not provide this incentive. A man's self-love is too strong to permit him to die for his spouse on his own. A woman's selfless love must inspire a heroic self-sacrifice. A man will not make the sacrifice of himself for his spouse unless he has previously died to self daily, in a thousand acts of charity, all in order to please the beloved. And the heart of a virtuous woman is, in man's estimation, worth dying for. Why? Because dying for the beloved is the ultimate act of charity40–the ultimate way in which man proves his love for his beloved.
God, through St. Paul, commands husbands "to love your wives as Christ also loved the Church. . ." (Eph 5:25a). Sacred Scripture immediately explains how this is demonstrated, since Christ "delivered himself up for it" (Eph 5:25b). As Jesus deemed the Church worthy enough to die for, so a man must deem his beloved worthy enough to die for.
The Church often speaks of the nature of married love as a mutual sell-giving of the spouses.41 From a philosophical perspective grounded in the inherent dignity of the person, Wojtyla writes: "If marriage is to satisfy the demands of the personalistic norm it must embody reciprocal self-giving, a mutual betrothed love."42 Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand writes: ". . . the two partners give themselves expressly to each other . . ."43 This mutual self-giving, especially on the man's part, is born of a mutual desire to serve the beloved, in order to please the beloved.
Joys a Virtuous Women Gives
The interior beauty of virtuous woman manifests itself in her countenance, her deportment, and above all, in her actions, and these three expressions can be summed up in the word "heart." When true to her vocation, a woman must clothe her body but reveal her heart. When that vocation is to the religious life, the heart is often revealed to the Divine Spouse gradually, due to perceived unworthiness when compared to the Sacred Heart. When perfected, a bride of Christ gladly and entirely reveals her heart to Jesus. When that vocation is to the married life, a woman must at first reveal her heart gradually, this time because mortal man cannot grasp the brightness of a virtuous woman's heart all at once. The man is fearful of learning of too great a secret before he has acquired the needed virtues himself to be entrusted with the glorious gift of a woman's heart. Women must reveal their sweetness slowly.
Men desire to rest in the heart of their beloved in an embrace. This rest is unlike any other natural rest, because it is founded on trust. And trust demonstrates honor. Through this embrace man perceives his temporal completeness–all he lacks by lacking femininity is provided by the heart of the women he wishes to serve. A virtuous woman, in loving a man who knows himself a sinner, also fosters humility in the man.
Another joy a virtuous woman affords a man is to serve a beloved daughter of the Eternal Father. In the Old Testament, we read the words of Boaz to the Moabite woman Ruth:
Blessed art thou of the Lord . . . For all the people that dwell within the gates of my city know that thou art a virtuous woman. (Ruth 3:10-11)
And another joy given by a virtuous woman to her beloved is the calming effect he receives. A virtuous woman does not try to make herself attractive so as to arouse physical desire in men. Rather, the modesty of a woman is immediately engaging. It is a form of gentleness. In her modesty, she shows a greater concern for the state of soul, both hers and her beloved's, than for ornamentation of the body, which appeals to men because it demonstrates her value of the entire person.44 The message of immodest dress is one of indulgence, of passion that is known to be fleeting and which leaves emptiness as its fruit. Far more attractive is the woman who conceals her feminine mystery, revealing it only as a man proves trustful. This revelation is understood by man as a reward for his trust.
Another spiritual benefit received from a virtuous woman is that man receives a great joy from serving a woman who provides the stability of love. Vice results in uncertainty, a great danger in a man's mind. How the rational faculty in the male leads him to seek certainty and dread uncertainty!
Specific Acts of Virtue to Practice
A few applications are in order. Grace precedes virtue; therefore, men and women must seek grace for themselves in the four ways the Church has taught: prayer, fruitful reception of the Holy Sacraments, the practice of living a virtuous life, and patience in suffering.
Avoiding occasions of sin, especially in our day, is a necessary step to achieving holiness.
Since Jesus is the Source of all beauty, we must become more like Him.45 This cannot be done by the natural power available to human nature. Consequently, we must avail ourselves of the Holy Sacraments, but especially of the triple sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist:
- We must visit Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
- We must receive Holy Communion with great reverence.
- Most importantly, we must unite ourselves with Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, wherein He offers Himself again, mystically, to the Eternal Father, and includes the whole Church in His offering. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass affords a primary grace of self-surrender46, which is vital to men, who are called to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church."
Men must continually make this offering of themselves, with Jesus, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this way, they will prepare to die to themselves daily, in a multitude of acts of charity, to please their spouse.
May we have constant recourse to her who is tota pulchra, in whom the Divine Child, the Source of all Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, dwelt for nine months. By imitation of the virtues of Holy Mary and through the intercession of her prayers, may we experience the joy of her Sweetest Heart by always pleasing her Divine Son.
Robert Wenderski is a free lance writer from Detroit, Michigan.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, paragraph 1776.
2 Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., "The Morality of Sex Stimuli," Side 1.
3 Cf Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, Ignatius Press, 1993, tr. by H.T. Willetts, p. 29. In context, while not denying to angelic or to Divine Persons the ability to love, Wojtyla writes "Love is exclusively the portion of human persons" (emphasis in the original). cf. Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, August 15, 1988, no. 29.
4 Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965, no. 24.
5 Fulton J. Sheen, The World's First Love, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952, p. 81.
6 Fulton J. Sheen, Lift Up Your Heart, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1950, pp. 89-102.
7 For a clear and penetrating discussion of the differences between men and women, see Fulton J. Sheen's The World's First Love, Chapter 6, "The Virgin Mother," pp. 7585 and Chapter 12, "Man and Woman," pp. 147-159.
8 Mulieris Dignitatem, nos. 15, 16, and 19.
9 Sheen, The World's First Love, p. 81.
10 Pope John Paul II, "Letter to Women," June 29, 1995, no. 2.
11 John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 135.
12 Sheen, The World's First Love, p. 187.
13 General Audience, November 24, 1999.
14 Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 20.
15 Life is Worth Living, Second Series, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954, p. 173. Emphasis in the original. Pope John Paul II notes that "it is she who receives love, in order to love in return" Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 29. Emphasis in the original.
16 Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30. Emphasis in the original.
17 Letter to Women, no. 12. Emphasis in the original.
18 Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 29.
19 Letter to Women, no. 2. Emphasis in the original.
20 Conference entitled "The Privilege of Being a Woman," given at the Human Life International World Conference on Love, Life, and the Family, 1997.
21 Encyclical Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930, no. 27.
22 Saward, p. 43.
23 Saward, p. 43.
24 Saward, p. 44.
25 Saward, p. 118, footnote no. 15, quoting De laudibus Sanctae Mariae; Beati Alberti Magni opera omnia, ed. A. Borgnet, vol 36 [Paris, 1898], 274.
26 Saward, p. 46.
27 Saward, p. 114.
28 Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., Pocket Catholic Dictionary, An Image book published by Doubleday, 1985, p. 177.
29 Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, December 8, 1995, no. 8. Emphasis in the original.
30 Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30. Emphasis in the original.
31 "For we must not forget that every true love possess an intrinsic spiritual fruitfulness and that conjugal love harbors this spiritual fruitfulness of love quite independently of procreation." Dietrich von Hildebrand, Marriage, the Mystery of Faithful Love, Sophia Institute Press, 1997, p. 30. Emphasis added.
32 As St. Augustine says, "The basis of married love is the attachment of hearts." Sheen, The World's First Love, p. 87.
33 Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., "The Good Angels Glorify God and Serve as His Messengers to the Human Race," Side 1. "Thou art all fair, 0 my love, and there is not a spot in thee." Canticle of Canticles 4:7.
34 And selfishness, the antithesis of charity, opposes the good of the person. "To the degree that a person weakens chastity, his or her love becomes more and more selfish, that is, satisfying a desire for pleasure and no longer self-giving." The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 16.
35 The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 9.
36 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1822.
37 Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., "The Most Blessed Sacrament and the Immaculate Heart of Mary," Side 2.
38 Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7.
39 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, no. 49 Emphasis in the original.
40 cf John 15:13.
41 For example, Gaudium et Spes, no. 48, Humanae Vitae, no. 9, Familiaris Consortio, nos. 11-14, Letter to Families, no. 11, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2337. Especially noteworthy are the words of Pope Pius XI, writing of matrimony, which involves "the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof" Casti Connubii, no. 24. Cf. no. 7.
42 P. 99.
43 PP. 21-22.
44 "Sexual morality comes into being not only because persons are aware of the purpose of sexual life, but also because they are aware that they are persons. The whole moral problem of 'using' as the antithesis of love is connected with this knowledge of theirs." Love and Responsibility, p. 33.
45 A definition of holiness is "Christ-likeness. " Fr. John A.
Hardon, S.J., "The Morality of Sex Stimuli," Side 2.
46 St. Peter Julian Eymard, founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in 19th century France, advises: "The best method of participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to unite oneself with the august Victim. Act, therefore, in union with Him, and with the same intention. United to the offering of Jesus Christ, your offering will be ennobled, purified, made worthy of God's attention." Holy Communion, Emmanuel Publications, translated by Clara Morris Rumball, pp. 32-33.
© Robert Wenderski 2001
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