"He must increase, but I must decrease." — John 3:30
In early June, I had the privilege of being a guest on the podcast Colloquium. Through some back and forth with their hosts Dylan and Nick on Instagram, they invited me to come on to speak about a topic that has become incredibly significant in my life: the feminine genius. You can listen to that episode here.
There was something different about this interview that compelled me to do a lot of preparation. It's not to say that I don't usually prepare for interviews that I do, but I'm typically of the mindset that preparation is fine, but the Spirit will ultimately speak. Maybe it was the Latin name of the podcast or the fact that the hosts previously discussed topics that I have no familiarity in like G. K. Chesterton or Dostoevsky. In any case, I broke out my entire arsenal of books on femininity, the feminine genius, and womanhood from a Catholic-Christian lens, and began to read.
One book that I spent a lot of time reflecting upon was Gertrud von le Fort's The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine. First published in Germany in 1954, von le Fort broke apart the war on womanhood and motherhood that was rampant at that time. Using Mary as the model, von le Fort reflected on Mary's fiat and obedience, and outlined how, when womanhood and motherhood are properly understood, we can better understand the soul's relationship to God.
As I read and prepared, there was a particular passage that struck me, and subsequently had me questioning how far back this term 'feminine genius' went. von le Fort says,
...the essential quality of the work of feminine genius is rendered understandable by the charismatic idea... Charisma does not mean the power of working out one's own achievement; it means, on the contrary, to obliterate the person to the point of becoming an instrument for God.
— von le Fort (1954, from the 2010 translation), p. 33. Emphasis added.
(If you're curious, I start talking I start having a conversation with Dylan and Nick about this quote at the 20:11 mark.)
"...to obliterate the person to the point of becoming an instrument for God."
That word "obliterate" is harsh. It's strong, striking, and almost removes all agency — and dare I even say, free will — from us as women. When I shared this with a group of friends one time, one said to me, maybe half-joking but also totally serious, "Aren't we as women obliterated enough?"
The first time I read through this book, I balked at that term too. I returned to this passage about a year and a half later, after having many conversations with different women about this very idea of the feminine genius, Catholic femininity, and ultimately what it means to be a woman in God's eyes. As women, we have a very unique nature and gift that only can be attributed to us as women — but it's not meant to put us in a box. The common traits we associate with the feminine genius, i.e. receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, maternity, can be lived out in a myriad of ways. In fact, since our God is infinitely creative, putting ourselves in a box is like putting God in a box.
To take the example of maternity, we can see the different ways that women are disposed to caring for another, whether it is biologically making space in their womb for another being for nine months and raising children, or a teacher looking out for all 30-something of her students, or a religious sister spiritually mothering everyone she comes in contact with. Motherhood is not one way. Just think about the way that your mom mothers versus an aunt of yours, or your grandmother, or the mom of your friends. They each have different qualities and traits that make them uniquely your mom; and yet, how often are we able to attribute 'mom-like' qualities that are fairly consistent across the board?
But perhaps in maternity we see the clearest example of obliteration — but not in the way that we might think. When I think of my own mom and other mother-figures I know, I always marvel at their selflessness and level of sacrifice for the sake of their family. We see how moms become synonymous with their home life, the cooking they do, their ability to keep an orderly house, and to multitask beyond belief. In many ways, maternity can only be understood in their relationship to another — a level of self-gift that absolutely borders on obliteration.
Is it correct to say that a mother is her home life, or what she cooks and cleans, or her ability to multitask? No. She is far more than that, and her value is infinitely more. But the movement towards self-gift and self-sacrifice for the sake of another — in this case, her family — we see a give and take, total love, and obliteration of self-comfort. A mother knows that she has the incredibly heavy and important task of raising children, and she will stop at nothing to ensure that her children are protected, cared for and loved.
It is here that I return to that word 'obliterate'. As I reflect on it, what instantly comes to mind is St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians: "...it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20a).
Being an instrument for God
St. Paul in this exhortation to the Galatians goes on to say in that passage, "...I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20b). In the same way that Christ gave Himself totally to the Church, we as pilgrims on this earth are called to give of ourselves totally to Him in the ways in which He calls us to.
When we understand our feminine genius, our personal God-mission, there is a certain level of freedom that comes with it. This does not come overnight; rather, it's through a process of prayer and discernment. We start to see what it is that we are drawn to in terms of unique gifts and personal charisms, and all of that informs our mission and vocation. As noted above, there are so many ways that God calls us to be a woman, and in fact there will be no two women who are alike in their calling.
This 'obliteration' does not mean that God strips us of all identity. On the contrary: We become more of ourselves as we come to know ourselves in relation to Him. As we draw closer to God in this vertical relationship, He expands and stretches us. He blesses and challenges us. It truly is no longer us doing the good works, but God Himself, working through us, as His hands and feet. It is here, as von le Fort writes, we are able to become 'instruments for God', to make His name and word known throughout all the earth.
These gifts are not mine
I was reminded very abruptly recently that everything that I have is not mine: my belongings, my job, my ministry, even my life.
For something like the podcast, yes, technically speaking it is "mine." My name, voice and to some extent my face is associated with The Feminine Genius Podcast. But it's not mine. It belongs to God, and it's temporarily on loan to me for a period of time. Why God gave it to me is yet to be seen, but I do know this: He's given it to me now, and I have the obligation to steward it.
I bring my full self and my whole heart to this, but I need to remind myself often that I need to check my ego at the door.
To bring us one level deeper, our lives are not ours. Our lives are precious, and they are also brief. We were bought with a price and given a temporary loan to truly make this world a better place.
But while life is a gift in and of itself — and I cannot understate that fact — our Lord did us one better and gave us life with purpose. We're not called to simply exist in mediocrity. He wants us to succeed and He wants to see us joyful.
When women live out their feminine genius and are aware of the call that they have to advance the Kingdom, incredible things happen. Truly, it is no longer we that live, but Christ in us.
On this feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist — the voice in the wilderness, the forerunner to the Messiah — this idea put forward by Gertrud von le Fort clicks. John the Baptist knew his role, and he knew that He had to decrease in order to point the people of God towards the true Messiah. May we also, in everything we say and do, also point back to God.
"In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." — Matthew 5:16