I think maybe the jello shot pastries were the start of it, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. A dear friend from our pilgrimage made them for the Christmas market tailgate we had planned, a tailgate that turned into a small celebration of your mother’s life, two days after she passed away. Over these sweet (and slightly alcoholic) treats, we talked about your mother, our mothers and our lives as mothers. We shared them with other ladies walking by, enjoying small moments of fellowship. A few days later at your mother’s reception my heart was full with the emotions of the day and everything that had transpired since you received the phone call. Looking around, I realized that in the course of that week, I witnessed what Saint John Paul II called “The Feminine Genius” in action.
It sometimes feels like the lines between the sexes are being blurred, what with a call to “ungender” toys and clothing and even to eliminate sex on birth certificates entirely. In the name of empowerment our culture tells women that we should seek earthly achievement and material gains but often ignores or even denigrates our true value as women. The Feminine Genius as referenced by Saint John Paul II is the innate value we women hold as daughters of the Blessed Mother. We are equal in dignity to men, equal in intellectual ability and opportunity, but we are not the same. Our nature is shaped by the fact that we hold within us a space for another person. Even if we do not become biological mothers, we are called to be spiritual ones—a special calling to nurture, to nourish and to encourage.
Jesus’ ministry started with his mother’s encouragement, an encouragement born of her emotional awareness and openness to others. At the wedding of Cana, she noticed that they were running low on wine, perhaps even as the men around her were too absorbed in the celebration. She was aware of the potential embarrassment to the groom’s family and she stepped in to try to prevent it. Just as Mary opened herself to the Holy Spirit to nurture the infant Jesus, later she emotionally nurtured the infant church in the same way.
Since your mother had special devotion to Mary, it is not surprising that I saw Mary’s servant heart at work in the women around us this week. I took a special joy in cooking for our group as we gathered in Virginia (I think southern women reflexively fix a 13×9 Pyrex casserole dish filled with comfort food the minute we hear of a passing). I was touched by your cousin who traveled hours to bring her elderly father to say goodbye to his sister. Your niece stepped out of her comfort zone to lead the younger cousins in the Offertory, in a faith tradition she doesn’t share. Sorority sisters and other pilgrim friends took the time to gather with us, and our conversations naturally turned to our children, our parents and how to serve these relationships. The word “serve” rankles our modern sensibilities, doesn’t it? It intimates that one who serves is one who is beneath—but as Mary showed, it is in the serving, in taking others to ourselves, that we fulfill our greatest dignity as women.
I live in a male world. I have three sons and a husband and I think God knew what he was doing when he gave me boys. Growing up, I wasn’t a girly-girl and I often preferred the company of guy friends, and sometimes still do, especially during college football season. But despite having our wonderful husbands, your tender son and dear brother around us, this journey from Doris’ death to burial to celebration of life felt like one we took together, in the company of women of all ages.
Walking away from the gravesite, I heard a small voice at my side. “Here, Aunt Susan!” Turning, there was your young daughter, handing me a pink carnation plucked from one of the floral offerings–a small moment of beauty during an emotional day. Feminine genius, indeed.