Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In love with the 'she' of Catholicism

Sometimes my inner critic tells me that I seem to have a deeper fascination with the Catholic tradition than I do with the person of God, in Jesus, himself. Is my inner critic is the ghost of Karl Barth? I confess there is some legitimacy in the claim. Study is easier than prayer; as Blaise Pascal said, "Pious scholars are rare." When I do pray, I pray for deeper prayer; and I have never thought any description of the act more apropos than the Catechism's chapter title, "the battle of prayer."

But as regards my love for the tradition, I don't feel any particular guilt; and as I was developing a reason for this, I came up with a 'theory', though of course, nothing original, not even for myself.

As an entire way of being, Catholicism is radically and richly gendered. Of course, this did not begin with the dawn of Christianity, but has its roots in the Old Testament, in Wisdom literature, and perhaps might be counted as a basic anthropological fact. It is a feature arising from the fact that the most important human connections in life are personal ones, and we can scarcely have personal connections which are not also gendered.

Now, gender in the common sense is an inescapably bodily reality, and so the language of gender applied to spirit and to abstraction is always in some sense a concession to our mortal state. Incarnation and sacrament themselves are divine concessions, so Christian faith bestows a confidence that concessionary representations are not 'bad' things--not idolatrous or 'dumbed down' or 'corrupt' versions of the original, but rather testimonies to the stamp of ownership of the creator on every molecule of creation. Thus a single wave can contain the whole ocean. This is the mystery of Jesus Christ, than a single finite mortal man can 'contain' an infinite God.

So I conjecture that there is a legitimacy, and even a sort of divine seal of approval on the liberal application of gendered language not only for the person of God himself but also on every thing and every one divine or divinized, every gift given for our own sanctification. The consequence of such a notion is that the Catholic landscape, from the soaring heights of the liturgy and dogmatic theology to the daily drama of the domestic church, is everywhere bespeckled with he and she, everywhere interwoven with the and unitive-yet-preservative logic of Chalcedon.

Now, my being a male--and a male who grew up very close to a loving mother--is it really any wonder then that I have a special, even childish affection for the various 'shes' of Catholicism? Though I confess that I've never been well trained in Marian piety, Mary herself is linked by providence, analogy, and revelation to every 'she': the bride of the Song of Songs, holy Wisdom, the Law, mother Church, the woman clothed with the sun, and (what I will explain in a second) the female dimension of Christ himself.

Thus, to say that "Catholicism" or "the Tradition" or "doctrine" or "the Church" or "the saints" are not God, but rather are auxiliaries, helps, etc., that are not independent sources but rather reservoires of God's own grace, allowed to participate in God's self, makes me love all these things not less but more. As a Christian, I partake of the bride, and Christ is the bridegroom to whom "I" (not I individually, but I the bride) am sure to wed. As a man, I love the bride, and it is a love which tugs on the corporeal hooks of my sexed nature; again, a concession to my mortal state, but also an incarnation ordered toward divinization.

As regards the "female dimension of Christ," this bears some explaining. I am not particularly an advocate of female or androgynous crucifixes--which, like I complained about political art, have the depth of but a single idea; moreover, they offend against the particularity of the incarnation and have a gnostic disregard against the goodness and divine intention behind the sexed nature of the body.

That notwithstanding, as the second person of the Trinity, and in his loving obedience to the Father, Jesus has a (to use Von Balthasar's term) suprafeminine character. This character is accented, perhaps, by the patristic correlation of Christ with Holy Wisdom; and moreover St. Bernard of Clairvaux correlated Christ with the feminine 'beloved' in the Song of Songs.

I have to caution readers not to suppose that I am participating in the liberal project of feminizing Christ. Rather, what such points in the tradition reveal is that qualities commonly associated with 'femininity' (gentleness, receptivity, nurturing, etc.) were--and are--strongly present in the Godhead, and for that reason need to be strongly present in ourselves, even as males, if we are to receive the Grace necessary for salvation. Are we not each, individually as well as communally, desiring to give birth to Christ in our good works?

But I've strayed from the point. To be a Catholic, and thus to belong wholly to God, and yet to have a special passion for the Tradition or the Church, is not necessarily to participate in an "ecclesiolatry." It may be--particularly for males--a particular expression of a love for the Bride, the Mother, and thus in its own way an imitation of Christ.

No comments: