Single, childless, I went to Rome for the Synod on the Family.
My model was Dorothy Day, about whom Russian émigré and convert Catherine Doherty wrote:
“Dorothy went to Rome during the [Second Vatican] Council. Several years later when I met her in Rome I asked her what she did during the time the Council was in session. She said she had simply taken a room in the poor quarter of the city, and for ten days she fasted and bread and water and prayed for the Council. That was all she did! Then she returned to New York the way she had come—on a freight boat! Maybe this was the reason why the Council was so successful. In the eyes of God, who knows?”
It wasn’t exactly like that for me. I rented an Airbnb studio in Campo de’ Fiori.
But in my way, I fasted. I ate simply: yogurt, pizza, fruit. I walked everywhere: to the Vatican, to the Villa Borghese, to the train station for a day trip to Assisi. Besides a dinner out and a few coffee dates and tours, I more or less kept silence.
I had a hard time hooking up the splendor of St. Peter’s with the Son of Man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, whose mother was illiterate, whose father worked with his hands.
I preferred walking along the banks of the Tiber.
While I walked, I pondered.
I thought of how Dorothy Day had given up the love of her life, an atheist who objected to having the daughter they’d conceived baptized. She laid down her life for the poor, the marginalized, the hungry. She remained celibate for the rest of her life.
I pondered how, one night at dinner, the priest with whom I was eating mentioned that the word mother comes from the same root as matter. Mater Dei. Mother of God, Matter of God.
I thought of a line from the King James Version of the Bible in which Luke writes that Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, Susanna, and many others “ministered unto him of their substance.”
The women ministered to Christ from their substance. From their matter, their substance, their essence.
The essence of women is that we have the astonishing, miraculous, stupendous, sublime capacity to bring new life into the world. We’re made to nurture, made for relationship, made to bring new life into the world. It’s not our only glory, but it’s our crowning glory.
That’s where the women’s movement went tragically wrong.
Women have the astonishing, miraculous, sublime capacity to bring new life into the world.
In many parts of the world, the violation of women has first to do with rights. The right to vote, the right to education, the right to basic healthcare, the right to choose a husband, the right to live without the fear of abuse, rape, and murder. These rights are precious.
But in the West, the worst violation to women is not so much of our rights as of our substance, our matter, our essence.
Instead of emphasizing the crazy miracle of our existence, this ability to bring new life into the world, the women’s movement diminished it. Like the men we sought to be liberated from, we put our emphasis on the demand to work more, to be paid more, to have more worldly power.
Consequently, we’re ever more marginalized, more overworked, ever more unfulfilled, more objectified, and more bullied by our fellow women into toeing the so-called enlightened party line: that the morning after pill after one more night with a guy who outside the bedroom wouldn’t give us the time of day will make us happy—and that abortion is without consequences.
In the Stations of the Cross, on his way to Calvary Jesus speaks to only one man: Simon of Cyrene. By contrast, he speaks to many women. He speaks the Blessed Virgin Mary, his mother. He speaks to Veronica, who wipes the blood and sweat from his face with her veil. And just before he falls for the third time, at the Eighth Station, he speaks to The Women:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children” [Luke 23:28].
I wonder if he wasn’t thinking of the abused children, the trafficked children, the children drafted into armies, victims all of a world-wide culture of violence and greed, a hyper-masculinized culture that the de-personalizing aspects of technology has only exacerbated. A world that has banished the life-giving force of the “eternal feminine.”
The antidote to any lie, including cultural lies, is the truth.
Here’s the truth: Men and women are very different. For one thing, when a woman has sexual contact with a man, no matter how inappropriate, substandard, or ill-suited he may be, she becomes emotionally attached. You can argue with that fact, say the fact is moronic, try to tweak the fact out of existence, but the fact remains. The latest brain science confirms it.
The seduction scene in the Flannery O’Connor short story “Good Country People” trumps every piece of feminist agitprop ever written.
For those who don’t know the story, the protagonist Hulga is an angry intellectual—and a virgin—with a wooden leg. Home from college, and incensed by the stupidity of her mother and country neighbors, she decides to seduce a traveling Bible salesman. As the two climb to the hayloft, Hulga shrewdly assesses the way she’s going to get this bumpkin to sleep with her, then dump him. But two seconds after they kiss, she’s visualizing her wedding dress.
After which the Bible salesman sweet-talks her into taking off her wooden leg, opens his suitcase to reveal booze, porn, and condoms, snarls, “You ain’t so smart, I been believing in nothing since the day I was born.” Then he dumps her, making off with her wooden leg and leaving her stranded in the hayloft.
I don’t believe that casual, uncommitted sex is anyone’s highest ideal or deepest desire.
In an opinion piece in the July 20, 2014 Sunday NYT entitled “Love People, Not Pleasure,” Arthur C. Brooks observed:
“In 2004, two economists looked into whether more sexual variety led to greater well-being. They looked at data from about 16,000 adult Americans who were asked confidentially how many sex partners they had had in the preceding year, and about their happiness. Across men and women alike, the data show that the optimal number of partners is one.”
Duh. A faithful, committed partner is what we want. What guy wants to be having sex with a woman who’s sleeping around? What woman wants to have sex with a guy who’s sleeping around? Yet where in contemporary literature or film is a story where the couple doesn’t sleep together, where a spouse refrains from cheating, where out of a higher love, two people attracted to each other voluntarily abstain? For two people to refrain from instantly jumping into bed is literally beyond the ken of our cultural imagination. The loneliness and emptiness of no-strings-attached sex is accepted silently, stoically, without comment, as proof of our liberality and open-mindedness. But I don’t believe that casual, uncommitted sex is anyone’s highest ideal or deepest desire.
In a recent New Yorker profile of feminist Gloria Steinem, a fellow feminist who’d recently returned from Amsterdam reported that the sex workers there despise good-will efforts of the West to wipe out the sex trade. “We like our jobs,” they insisted. “We’re free.”
Gloria explained that she didn’t see how any woman would choose, as her first, best option, to be a prostitute.
But why not? Steinem herself proudly touts the many lovers she’s had over the years, some casual, some longer-lasting. These include the real-estate developer and publisher Mort Zuckerman, Franklin Thomas, former head of the Ford Foundation, the “great alto saxophonist and composer” Paul Desmond, the director Mike Nichols, and the Ford Administration’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Stan Pottinger. From her two-story Upper East Side brownstone, she loves “great sex,” which is what we call it when we’re rich enough we don’t need to get paid for it.
The single woman who is poor enjoys no such luxury as casual “great sex.” The woman who is poor today is usually trying to feed the children she conceived during what was probably mediocre to bad sex, if you want to rate it.
In sobriety circles, we sometimes say that with every action, we’re always moving either toward a drink or away from a drink. We’re always either moving toward rigorous honesty, consistent reasoning, and an ongoing examination of conscience, or we’re taking the shortcut. We’re moving toward a lie.
In the same way, you could say that our actions and our reasoning are either going toward making women prostitutes, or away from it; toward cherishing and protecting what is most precious in women, or offering it up for grabs. A guy friend recently purported to be in favor of women’s “reproductive rights.” “It’s her body,” he insisted. “She should have an abortion if she wants one.” I refrained from saying, “If you’re so down with women, why don’t you stop watching porn?”
Men who equate abortion with freedom, in other words, also very logically tend to be for the freedom of women to be sex workers, prostitutes and porn stars.
I have never been financially supported by a man (that includes a 16-year marriage). I’ve made my way in the two traditionally male-dominated arenas: law and publishing. I’m appalled by the continuing discrimination against women the world over.
But I’m not sure it was lack of rights that drove all those repressed 1950’s housewives to the brink so much as it was consumerism, soulless capitalism, and the desperate attempt to maintain a controlled and perfect image in the eyes of their peers. Part of the human condition, and especially of American culture, is our deep-seated fear of being thought losers, of being poor in any way.
Men who equate abortion with freedom also very logically tend to be for the freedom of women to be sex workers, prostitutes and porn stars.
That’s what makes the family a burden rather than a joy. That’s why we so desperately want to control: because the family costs, in every way.
To be a mother is the most radical calling imaginable. Motherhood is hard. Motherhood is a crucible. Motherhood is beyond messy. All the mothers I admire freely say so. Every mother I revere and admire says, “I wouldn’t trade this for anything, but my God, this is hard.”
It is hard and it is the most important work on earth. That used to be why men worked, remember? To support the mother whose work of homemaking and childrearing was cherished—however imperfectly. To foster the family.
I wasn’t up to being an actual mother, but everything in me is made to nurture, to heal, to serve, not under men but alongside. I’m perfectly capable of developing my own itinerary. But in Rome, I more or less went where other people wanted me to.
“If you have a chance, could you go to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and say a prayer for me?” (this, from a husband and father of five who does not pretend it’s a picnic).
“Could you light a candle for me at St. Augustine’s, that I stay faithful to my vows?”
“Could you say a prayer for my new grand-daughter who’s coming in December and for my 82-year-old mother who’s still having difficulty adjust ing to being a widow?”
“Here’s 150 bucks in case you want to take a day trip to Assisi. Take yourself out for a nice dinner.”
“If you get to St. Peter’s, please say a prayer for my work before the tomb of Pope John XXIII.”
“Don’t miss the Basilica of San Clemente. You’ll never forget the apse.”
So my days were formed outward. In some very small, very tenuous, very unremarkable way they were oriented toward service. That is my life.
In some ways, St. Peter’s was hard to take. The paramilitary-trained Swiss guards, at their side the sword Christ told Peter to put aside the morning of the day he died. An altar that’s supposedly taller than the Statue of Liberty, designed by the sculptor Bernini, who had an affair with his assistant’s mistress, and when he discovered that the mistress was sleeping with his own brother, threatened to slash her face. After which she was jailed for adultery.
Still, a “patriarchal” Church—patriarchal in the misogynist, pejorative sense rather than a positive, protective sense—would likely have as its most enduring, reverenced emblem, say, a father possessively admonishing a daughter, or a father instructing his son in some form of violence.
Instead, the Church gives us a Mother: nurturing, delighting in, sorrowing over a Son.
Every mother I revere and admire says, “I wouldn’t trade this for anything, but my God, this is hard.”
In a niche at St. Peter’s, the Church shelters Michelangelo’s Pietà which, in spite of the hordes of selfie-stick wielding fellow pilgrims, stopped me dead in my tracks.
The seminarian who was giving me a tour pointed out that Christ is almost falling off Mary’s lap. It’s as if she’s delivering him to the altar from which he will feed the world.
Just as no woman would voluntarily choose as her first, most deeply-desired option to become a prostitute, few women would voluntarily choose to be husbandless, childless, celibate.
I didn’t choose it myself—it was given to me as a gift, a sign of contradiction.
No matter our age, socioeconomic status, or station, we are called to order our lives to the human family.
If we’re single, we are called lay down our lives for other people’s children. We’re called to hold the tension of creation to the breaking point, to resist to the last drop of blood becoming a commodity, a statistic, an algorithm in the service of the crushing worldly kingdom that worships money, power, and control.
Pietà means compassion, mercy. Virgin means at-one-with herself.
©Copyright 2015, Heather King. All rights reserved.