When one is planting seeds or nurturing delicate young shoots, certain conditions greatly aid the growth: a balanced supply of warmth, water and light transforms fragile seedlings into strong, vibrant plants.
These ingredients for proper nourishment are mirrored in the hearts of women who are particularly fashioned by our Creator as mothers, as shelters for souls.
Last time, we explored the quality of expansiveness and openness to others – a key element of the feminine nature. We discovered that a woman has the ability to take unto herself the needs and burdens of others and to give selflessly for those whom she loves. Now, we will look at three more qualities of soul which work to cultivate and care for those taken in by a woman's compassionate heart: quietness, warmth and clarity.
St. Teresa Benedicta, otherwise known as Edith Stein, paints a beautiful portrait of the perfection of woman's natural gifts in her lecture on "Principles of Women's Education."
She states, "When the heavenly fire, the divine love, has consumed all impure matters, then it burns in the soul as a quiet flame which not only warms but also illuminates; then all is bright, pure and clear."
What a lovely image, one which should make us long to approach such an ideal!
The first quality she mentions here is that of quietness of soul. What does this mean? Is she saying that women should be seen and not heard? Not in the least. The quiet to which she refers is an interior one.
Edith Stein believed that the relationship between a woman's body and her soul was so closely connected that it was almost inseparable. She taught that men have a more separated relationship of body and soul, and view their body more as a tool or instrument with which their soul can act.
What does this mean, practically speaking?
It means that men can much more easily compartmentalize emotions and situations in their life than women.
A woman's thoughts, feelings and actions are so closely knit together that it is often very difficult for her to set aside the emotions tied to a particular situation when faced with something else that requires her attention. For women, the "business of the heart" is central and plays into all of her thoughts and actions. She is strongly influenced by the strength of her emotions and it can be a hard struggle not to act on motives purely driven by feelings. It is a bigger step for women than for men to cast a calm and rational eye on a situation to which the heart is tied.
Such a swirl of emotions can easily lead to a great deal of interior commotion and agitation of the soul. This is why quietness of soul is so essential to a woman's heart if she is to be at peace and an instrument for the fulfillment of God's will in the world around her.
The good news is that this quietness is indeed an innate quality of the feminine nature. It is very often to women that one can turn for a depth of calm and peace that creates a welcome refuge for troubled souls. It is a mother who can so naturally suffer with someone and offer consolation – many times just by her presence, without even speaking a word. Such a grace-filled quietness is exemplified most perfectly by Our Lady.
This quality shines out as Our Lady gazes upon us from the many works of art depicting her as the Madonna with her Child, or as the Mother of Sorrows embracing the terribly tortured body of her Son in the shadow of the Cross.
Look closely at her face in either of these two images. The same composed, quiet calm is reflected in her eyes.
We cannot say that she experienced any lack of emotions and trials in her earthly life. What woman has had greater joys or deeper sorrows than the Virgin-Mother we encounter in the pages of the Gospels? We are told that she "kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart," as any woman would. But how composed was her bearing in either joy or pain, and how peaceful and well-chosen her few recorded words! There is much to consider in meditation and imitated in her example.
The quality of warmth in a woman's soul lends itself to similar comparisons. The glow of love within her heart should not be an uncontrolled, raging blaze, nor a dying flicker. It should be a steady, gentle warmth which keeps alive the often weak flames of others that she cherishes.
When the calm stillness of this quiet warmth takes root in the soul, then a women's strength of clarity will truly show forth. Her tender and intuitive heart, well formed by her growth in these virtues, will become a beacon of light for herself and those around her. A holy woman has an incredible ability to inspire others to deeper holiness and to shed love's light upon the path to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Next time, we shall look at two qualities that build upon this foundation. When the emotions have begun to take their proper place, the great gifts of being empty of self and self-contained lay open for the heart of women. It is here that the way is discovered to deep fulfillment of all that Our Lord has created the feminine nature to be.
Sister Marie Thérèse of the Divine Child Jesus is professed with the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration St. Joseph Monastery in Charlotte. Learn more about the Poor Clares at www.stjosephmonastery.com. This is the third in a five-part series exploring Edith Stein's views on womanhood. In the next edition: "Image of Love's Depth."