Evangelization of Women: A Conversation with Erin Graver
Tony Brandt and Chris Stewart
Why do you think it’s worthwhile to talk specifically about the Evangelization of Women – instead of just the evangelization of people in general?
1. Probably, much that is said of how to witness to women also applies to men and vice versa… but differently. And that precisely is the point. Both genders are obviously human, but in a different way. We’re the same but different! Men and women share a common humanity, they have a very deep unity and similarity – the story of our creation in the Book of Genesis makes this very clear, that they are both created in the image of God, in equal dignity.
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
This verse makes the point which is echoed later throughout the Bible, especially throughout Christ’ ministry and in St. Paul’s writings, that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. HOWEVER, and this is crucial, being equal does not mean being the same. Men and women represent 2 DIFFERENT ways of being the image of God, 2 DIFFERENT ways of being human. In the Theology of the Body, John Paul II wrote:
“Masculinity and femininity are “two different ‘incarnations’, that is, two ways in which the same human being created in the image of God is a body” (TOB 8.1).
So we have a comman humanity and common dignity as humans but live that out either as a man or as a woman.
2. I think in today’s age there is a temptation to dismiss the differences between men and women as being on the whole arbitrary. Probably, this is an understandable reaction to the negative ways in which the gender difference used to be construed and lived out. For example, women have objectively suffered a harmful domination throughout history exactly on the basis of their being different from men. And in the last century (or two) society has rightly begun to see the disorder and injustice in this and to fight against it. So, in an effort to avoid this disorder and domination, we might be tempted to gloss over or downplay the essential differences between men and women for fear they might be misunderstood and abused. But the problem is not the gender difference but a wrong way of understanding it. And in fact, to protect women and their dignity, and to serve their interests properly, we have to address and understand how they are different from men – otherwise we simply ignore an important part of who they are.
There is an increasing body of studies which focus on pointing out the differences between men and women – but common sense can tell us a lot if we simply listen to it. I was laughing this last week as I graded my student’s class notes they’ve taken the past few months. There were notes but there were also a bunch of doodles in the margins. The girls’ binders had hearts, and flowers, or drawings of girls wearing long ballgowns… and the boys of course drew cars, or guns, or Godzilla wrecking a city…. Think of how little children differ in how they play…
Can you say more about how we can misunderstand the meaning of what it means to be a woman, or misunderstand gender differences?
1.You can think of this as a spectrum, with two extreme views on either end and the correct one somewhere in between. On one end we have modern feminism which often makes the mistake of denying the difference between men and women out of the laudable goal of protecting women from injustice or discrimination. But in denying a woman’s femininity, modern feminism can be, ironically, very anti-woman.
In our times the question of "women's rights" has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the "unity" of the "two", that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination", women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality". There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment", but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness (MD 10).
2. On the other extreme end is the exaggeration of gender differences so it seems that the two genders are practically separate species entirely. This exaggeration is also motivated by the laudable goal of defending the identity of women and protecting their femininity so society doesn’t just force them to turn into something very mannish. An exaggeration of gender differences might lead to stereotypes that become way overblown, like women are all about emotion and men are all about reason. Exaggerating the gender differences leads to forgetting our deep similarities as human people and presents problems of its own.
To be honest, in my own experience, I’ve encountered the 1st extreme (of ignoring gender differences) in secular circles and the 2nd extreme (of exaggerating the gender difference) in Christian circles. Both extremes are trying to do something important but ultimately are unsatisfying to me as a woman.
3. What I want is a way of affirming my common humanity I share with men, this common dignity of being God’s creation and child, that also recognizes the unique gifts I as a woman bring to the table in the family, community, and the Church. And throughout this, I want to be recognized too as not just an anonymous woman that is exactly like all other women but as a particular woman, me. I’m not just a Woman I’m Erin.
What is in the middle of that spectrum? (How do we correctly understand what it means to be a woman?)
1. I think the most obvious place to begin looking for clues about femininity is to start with the body. The Lord is so concrete in how he teaches us, and he made our bodies in such a way as to give us hints about who we are and what we’re here for. This idea is at the foundation of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, where he wrote:
“The body expresses the person… in such a way as to make it clear who man is (and who he ought to be).” TOB 7:2
So he is saying that something about how our bodies are made tells us something about how we are in the very depths of our identities, and this is especially true for understanding gender because the body makes our gender so very clear.
“The body reveals the man… The theology of the body, which is linked from the beginning with the creation of man in the image of God, becomes in some way also a theology of masculinity and femininity” (TOB 9.5)
2. Okay so the body is the way it is for a reason and it tells us something. What does it tell us about women?
First, a woman’s body has the capacity to conceive a child, carry him or her for 9 months and after delivery to nourish the child with her own body. This capacity to make space within herself for another is so significant for women, and I mean for ALL women, whether or not they have children or ever will. This aspect of the female body implies that women are receptive in their very nature. What is true of them physically is also true of them spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Women are naturally open to other people, and are so ready and wanting to receive them into her life, to make a space for another person in her heart and in her life. This happens very concretely in how a woman receives her husband in order to conceive a child, and then again in the actual conception of a new person inside of her. Her receptivity bears fruit and gives new life. Again, that happens literally in procreation but also symbolically on a spiritual level especially in the way she loves people. So a woman’s receptivity makes her specially geared towards personal relationship,
“This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings - not only towards her own child, but every human being - which profoundly marks the woman's personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more” (MD 18).
“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way - precisely by reason of their femininity - and this in a particular way determines their vocation” (MD 30).
3. Receptivity - Wholeness & Contemplation
Another aspect to how women’s physical receptivity shapes her femininity is how women tend to take everything inside of them. Their relationship, their stresses, the concerns of those they care about, how their day was… women bring all of this inside of them. Just as a woman will carry a child inside of her, a woman bears many things inside of her. For example, the other day I was speaking with my husband about how in our relationship it tends to be me that brings up relationship issues to discuss. We agreed that this is a stereotype which is very often true! So many times it is the woman who initiates discussions. Which surprised me at first, in my own marriage, because I am married to a very good man who is by no means oblivious to the relationships in his life. But I’m still the one who usually initiates the discussions about our relationship. This makes sense, however, because women really take the relationship inside of themselves and bear it within them. In a way, it grows and lives somewhat inside of the woman much in the way a child grows inside a woman. And this is for better or for worse. It is a strength or a weakness depending on the spiritual maturity of the woman.
Women bear everything inside of them, all at once, they do not compartmentalize. Women tend to think of our life as a whole, I think as a result of how we take everything in, we think about everything at once! This is a strength because we see connections so easily and strive to integrate our relationships and our lives. And we can multitask! We see this aspect of women demonstrated even in how our brain thinks. There was a study done on patients with brain damage from various reasons. These patients had all lost the use of much of their left hemisphere of their brain, which is where our verbal abilities are thought to be located. What the study discovered is that in the male patients, this damage caused them to be unable to put their thoughts into words, and their lingual abilities greatly diminished. The surprise of the study was that the female patients had a much easier time verbally communicating, despite the brain damage, because in female brains language abilities tend to be spread all throughout the two sides of the brain whereas in men that mainly happens only in the left side. Female brain functions are more shared and spread out; different parts of the brains perform multiple functions. Male brain functions are more localized and focused, with language being here, and spatial abilities here, and logical reasoning here, etc…. Even female brains simply try to do everything at once. So we are great at seeing the connections in different ideas, how everything fits together, and communicating all of that but it can be hard for us to compartmentalize and focus on one concern and nothing else. Men, however, tend to be skilled at just that. There are positives and negatives to both.
How does all this affect a woman’s spirituality and specifically the way we go about evangelizing?
First and foremost, due to a woman’s receptivity and focus on personal relationships, a woman’s spirituality will probably include a deep focus on a personal relationship with God. (Men too need a personal relationship with God of course but will live that out in a masculine way.) Relationships tend to really motivate women due to their natural wisdom of how important love and friendship is to the human person. I myself first began wondering about who God is because of the beauty around me, I saw the beauty of creation and figured there must be a purpose and creator behind all of that. So God as Beauty got me asking questions, and God as Truth got me into the Catholic Church as I became convinced of the historical and factual truth of Catholicism, but it was seeing faith as a personal relationship that really made it come alive for me.
For example, I think as a woman it is important for me to see God as my Father, as a person who takes care of me and chooses me and loves me. A woman can worry a lot about if she is just too complicated, just “too much” for people, or on the other hand if she’s not good enough, just not “enough”. So she needs to know she is cherished by the Father, just the way she is. I think that especially given the brokenness of so many families today, an emphasis on the Fatherhood of God and his personal love for each of us is absolutely key because there are plenty of women who haven’t seen their fathers in years, or if they were not physically abandoned by their fathers were emotionally or spiritually abandoned by them. For a woman who has not known a trustworthy father, to be introduced to God as the One who always tells the truth, always protects me, and always loves can be transformative. When a person sees God as their Father who loves them, they can be healed of so many wounds as they discover that their identity is not based on the rejection or failure of an earthly parent but on the fact that my Heavenly Father has chosen me to be his beloved daughter. For women whose dad were a positive fatherly figure, it is also important to develop a personal relationship with God the Father, as that good family relationship will just be lifted up, blessed, and ultimately transcended by her relationship with God.
Another important consideration in evangelization is to help women see Christ as the perfect Bridegroom, as the One who loves them perfectly even to laying down his life for them. We need to know that Jesus has been pursuing us, waiting for us to accept his invitation to love Him, that it’s his most passionate concern to make sure we are never separated from Him. We need to know that He wants us, just as a bride needs to know she is wanted by her groom. A good friend of mine was involved with a missionary team who witnessed to young adults. The team leaders went on occasional retreats for spiritual formation, and on one of these treats the men in the group prepared a special activity for the women. They gathered them all together and explained that they were going to put on music and dance with Jesus. All of the women were blindfolded and instructed to reach out their hand, palm up, and wait to be led out on the dance floor to dance with a guy who would play the role of Jesus for them. My friend basically thought okay fine, it sounds a little silly but alright. And the music started, and my friend could hear other girls leaving her side to go to the dance floor, and the music was playing, and it was taking a long time for anyone to come get her. And what began as just a retreat activity turned into an important moment, because she had to choose to keep her hand held out and trust that someone would come for her. And when she felt a man take her hand and lead her out to the dance floor, she was full of joy and knew that it was crucial for her to believe that Jesus Christ always keeps his promises and never, ever stops pursuing his beloved bride.
Finally, I think that Adoration can also be a powerful way to reach the heart of a woman because it is a place where one can really be struck with the total gift of Christ the Bridegroom for his bride, where I realize he gave everything for ME, even his very body. This helps us know and trust in the abiding love & constancy of our Lord not to mention forms our understanding of how our earthly bridegrooms should love us.
What kind of role do women have to play in the world or the Church?
1. We spoke of how because of their special capacity for others, god entrusts women with the human person. Women are a powerful force to fight against the dehumanaization that goes on in our society, where the dignity of men and women is attacked, whether that be unborn life in the womb or sick and eldery life or simply the respect and attention due to people is missing whether through negative media messages or an overemphasis on efficiency and technology… women can focus the attention on the whole person in all his dignity.
In our own time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown. While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society. In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that "genius" which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human (MD 30)!
2. Also, a woman’s role in society is magnified because of how important she is to the family, which is the first and most vital cell of society. John Paul II reminded us in Familiaris Consortio that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.” Basically, if the families are weak than society as a whole will be weak. If the family is strong, the society as a whole will be strong. Women are the glue in families, as wives and mothers (also as daughters and sisters) they help hold everything together, and when joined in this task of protecting the family by husbands and fathers, women play a key role in creating a civilization of love instead of a culture of death.
3. As to the Church, a woman will first of all serve the Church when she serves the domestic church, her own family, which will be a witness for the whole Church to the love of God.
4. Finally, in her receptivity, a woman shows men how to be receptive towards God. All people, men and women, are receptive towards God, we must receive the Lord and his grace – we cannot grasp for it. Men can learn a lot from women about how to be receptive, and can be taught how receptivity is not being passive, it’s not just sitting there not doing anything. Receptivity is extremely active, as we can see in the fruit it bears whether it’s receiving a child in conception and giving it new life, or whether it’s in the spiritual life of grace working in my heart, or whether it’s the Blessed Mother receiving the Spirit of God so our Lord could be Incarnated among us. Receptivity indeed is a beautiful and hard work and women have a role to play in teaching the Church (including men and women) what it means to receive the love of God.
Erin was a guest host on Casting Nets with Tony and Chris to discuss this topic of Woman and Evangilaztion you can listen to the show by going to the archives of past shows.
Erin Graver holds her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame Univeristy and a Masters in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
in Washington, D.C. Erin currently teaches religion at Bishop Carroll High School in Wichita, Ks. She lives with her husband in Wichita.