St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: The vocation and role of woman
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was a brilliant philosopher, an accomplished author, a Jewish convert, a Carmelite nun, a martyr, and a saint. In her great body of writing, she considered the unique gifts that God has endowed upon women and asserted that “woman’s intrinsic value must be investigated in relation to her unique nature.”
Recently, I attended a talk that explained her writing on the vocation and role of women. The following excerpts from her work which we explored express, in turn, the equality and complementarity of man and woman, sexual confusion, the unique and distinctively feminine vocation and, lastly, the sharing of virtues that is possible in the transformative union with Christ our Lord through grace, imitation, and love.
“In the first account of the creation of man, the difference between male and female is immediately proclaimed. But mutually they are given the threefold vocation: they are to be the image of God, bring forth posterity, and be masters over the earth. It is not said here that this threefold vocation is to be effected in different ways by man and woman; at best, this is implied. … The second passage of Genesis, which deals more extensively with the creation of man, elucidates the question a bit further. It relates the creation of Adam. … “But no helpmate corresponding to him was found for Adam.” The Hebrew expression used in this passage is barely translatable (Eser kenegdo) which literally means “a helper as if vis-a-vis to him.” One can think here of a mirror in which man is able to look upon his own nature. … But one can also think of a counterpart, a pendant, so that, indeed, they do resemble each other, yet not entirely, but rather, that they complement each other as one hand does the other.”
“Everywhere about us, we see in the interaction of the sexes the direct fruit of original sin in its most terrifying forms: an unleashed sexual life in which every trace of their high calling seems to be lost; a struggle between the sexes, one pitted against the other, as they fight for their rights and, in doing so, no longer appear to hear the voices of nature and of God. But we can see also how it can be different whenever the power of grace is operative.”
“A quality unique to woman is her singular sensitivity to moral values and an abhorrence for all which is low and mean; this quality protects her against the dangers of seduction and of total surrender to sensuality. This is expressed by the mysterious prophecy, become legendary, that woman would be engaged in battle against the serpent; and this prophecy is fulfilled by the victory over evil won for all humanity through Mary, Queen of all women. Allied closely with this sensitivity for moral values is her yearning for the divine and for her own personal union with the Lord, her readiness and desire to be completely fulfilled and guided by His love. That is why, in a rightly ordered family life, the mission of moral and religious education is given chiefly to the wife.”
“[Christ our Lord] bound Himself so intimately to one woman as to no other on earth: He formed her so closely after His own image as no other human being before or after; He gave her a place in the Church for all eternity such as has been given to no other human being. And just so, He has called women in all times to the most intimate union with Him: they are to be emissaries of His love, proclaimers of His will to kings and popes, and forerunners of His kingdom in the heart of men.To be the Spouse of Christ is the most sublime vocation which has been given, and whoever sees this way open before her will yearn for no other way.”
“It is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect, to belong to God in love’s free surrender and to serve Him. The further the individual continues on this path, the more Christ-like he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in Him all bias and defects are removed, and the masculine and feminine virtues are united in their weakness and redeemed; therefore His true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. This is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination.”
Source: “Vocations of Man and Woman” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Volume Two. Washington: ICS Publications, 1987.