I am fascinated by words: their origins, meanings, and sounds. I especially like to think about whether the sound of a word suits its definition.
Take the word “engage.” To my ear, it has a metallic ring. Maybe that’s because its sound is similar to that of the word “cage,” a sturdy steel enclosure that might confine an exotic bird, and “gauge,” a standard of measurement for lovely soft metals like gold and silver. The word’s hard “g” sound also gives it an icy edge that makes me think of a diamond. (Specifically, a large, pear-shaped diamond flanked by baguettes and set in white gold with a Florentine finish. But I digress.) It’s no wonder, then, that the definition of “engage” that springs to my mind – the “promise to marry” – involves precious metals and diamonds. A man “engages” his beloved with a diamond ring and a pledge.
A soldier hearing the word “engage” might also think of things metallic, but those things would likely be weapons of combat. To him, a “cage” might confine a prisoner of war; a “gauge” would mean the diameter of a gun barrel. What a soldier is expected to do on the battlefield is “engage” his enemy in order to keep him from gaining ground. Naturally, in a soldier’s definition of the word, diamond rings and earnest pledges have no place.
As Catholic women, we are called to “engage the culture.” The question is, are we to answer that call from the standpoint of a lover… or of a soldier?
If I’d been asked that question some years ago, I would probably have replied by hiking up my fatigues and spit-shining my carbine. At the time, our family didn’t own a television, and the reception on our radio was so poor that I didn’t have to worry about the actual effects of rock music, only the risk of ear strain to kids trying to hear Alien Ant Farm through the static. The home computer’s spotty internet was for the exclusive use of Mom and Dad, and even they didn’t want to get involved with anything having a creepy URL like www.facebook.com. (It sounded like a compilation of mug shots.) Eminem was just the phonetically spelled name of a chocolate candy, and if someone with “Slim Shady” on his iPod were caught loitering on the doorstep of my domestic church, I’d blow him away. My enemy was the contemporary culture, and my mission was to keep it from encroaching on the home front.
Or was it?
According to Francis Cardinal George, “Our culture is as much in us as we are in it… The evangelizer begins by taking responsibility for the culture to be evangelized.” He goes on to say that a Catholic should embrace the culture while seeking to understand it and, ultimately, imbue it with the message of Jesus Christ.
To embrace. To understand. To fill with the love of Christ. These are not normally the objectives of a camo-clad infantryman, even one from RC Company. But they are the aspirations of someone who seeks to “bring out the best” in another. Engaging the culture requires that we recognize its positive aspects as well as its flaws. That is what a lover does: he sees the good in his beloved and nurtures it, while admitting of her imperfections. And where nurturing is involved, who but a woman is most suited to the task?
So a nurturing woman on fire with the Gospel message is ready to turn the culture around. Does she need a bus ticket to the public square? Does she need a megaphone? How about a soapbox?
To borrow a pop culture maxim, all she needs is love.
“A program for evangelizing American culture,” states Francis Cardinal George “…begins, continues, and ends with love.” It makes sense, then, that the evangelization of the culture should begin within the family, where love is first cultivated.
It’s odd enough to think of a revolution beginning around the hearth. It’s stranger still to think that the sergeant is your mom. But Blessed John Paul II tells us a woman finds her purpose in life through motherhood, and that giving of herself is part of the feminine vocation. Whether she is a wife, a mother, a sister, or a single woman exercising “spiritual motherhood,” the Catholic woman is called to nurture her family into a stronger relationship with God.
Although there are few things that can make use of a woman’s gifts as effectively as can family life, discovering those gifts may require some discernment. Here are several ideas for a woman who seeks to discern her unique gifts:
—Take the time to pray. St. John Bosco says that no day should pass without a prayer for discernment. He recommends that we “often repeat with St. Paul, ’Lord, what will you have me do?’”
—Relate to others with an open heart. In discovering which qualities endear you to others, you likely will have discovered your gifts.
—Seek spiritual direction. A spiritual director may be simply a spiritual friend who will encourage a woman’s friendship with God, help her to grow in virtue, and become all that God wants her to be.
—Leave timidity behind. The servant who let his talent lie fallow told his master: I was “afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground.” (Matt. 25:25) Feelings of fear and inadequacy may prevent a woman from doing things that God is calling her to do. But some gifts remain hidden until they are called up for a particular task. Don’t be afraid to unearth and use them!
Although every woman has particular gifts, she also has inherent qualities which are typically shared by all women. Among these qualities are sensitivity, selflessness, and generosity. It’s easy to see how such pleasing attributes would endear a woman to others, and perhaps increase her influence on the culture. G. K. Chesterton said that, “The important thing for a country is that the men should be manly, the women womanly.” He was right. Women behaving like women – that is, using their feminine gifts – have the power to the transform our culture of death into a culture of life.
But women who are “behaving like women” are not necessarily moving mountains with their feminine gifts. Sometimes they’re just talking too much, or stressing over which outfit to wear.
And that’s okay.
Qualities like the gift of gab and the gift of fashion sense are also among women’s inherent traits, given to women by God for His own purpose. Although they may not be considered gifts in the usual sense, they can nevertheless be channeled to great effect in our culture.
Teresa Tomeo is one woman who recognizes the value of “the gift of gab.” A talk show host and motivational speaker, Teresa says, “The great catechist Fr. John Hardon said ‘there is no power as great in all the world as a woman when she falls in love with Jesus Christ.’ Imagine if all the Catholic women in love with the Lord used their gift of gab to sing his praises to their friends, co-workers, families, and people at the grocery store. Their joy would be life-changing!” Teresa is herself widely recognized as a powerful communicator “at the forefront of contemporary Catholic engagement with media and pop culture.”
If it were not for Jeanette Kendall’s fashion sense, “Success In Style” would not have been founded. S.I.S. provides fashion advice, business clothing, and interviewing tips to needy women and men seeking employment. Jeannette, a former fashion consultant, says “Success In Style helps our clients to see themselves as worthy people. It has a huge impact on entire families.” Its goal is to establish a culture based on Christian principles of equality and respect for all people.
Women like Teresa and Jeanette are an inspiration to many who would use their gifts in defense of Truth. But before opening other people’s minds to the truth, we must open our own minds to the humanness of those who disagree with us. We need to engage others with opposing views, and we need to do it by talking with them, and not at them. Where do we begin?
In the dichotomy of our present culture, the public square is both virtual and tangible, and women are called to bring their transformative gifts to both arenas. According to Francis Cardinal George: “An evangelizer of culture will look for the places where significant conversations take place. A culture is a communications network; the Gospel is a message.”
Clearly, the best man for the job is a woman since, as Blessed John Paul II said, “more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations.”
Knowing that God graced women with the ability to “see persons with their hearts,” how can a woman feel anything but empowered to enter the public square and transform it? Here are a few suggestions for sharing the truth in a non-judgmental way:
Find common ground – Do you work for the same boss as the person you’d like to engage? Are your children and hers members of the same sports team? Perhaps you’re both on the community council. Use shared interests to initiate a discussion.
Form friendships – Blessed John Paul II has said that the best way to engage Marxists, atheists, and radical feminists is to form strong friendships with them. This way, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of evangelization, you won’t merely be refuting arguments, you’ll be responding to friends.
Go online – Feeling timid? Because of the anonymity of internet communication, a woman who would not discuss her faith in person might be emboldened to do so through the social network. Post your status as an “evangelizer of the culture”! Blog the words of our Holy Father! Tweet your faith!
Admittedly, building communion instead of walls takes fortitude. And besides having to overcome cultural obstacles to the Gospel message, a woman may have to deal with self-doubt. Her natural openness, which makes her more vulnerable to temptation, may cause her to “buy into” a worldly view of femininity. “A woman must be thin and beautiful.” “A woman must be able to do everything that a man can do.” “A woman can and should find fulfillment anywhere and in any way she pleases, except through biological motherhood.”
But the principles of the “new feminism,” as outlined by Blessed John Paul II, empower women to respond confidently to these assaults, and thus attain the self-assurance they need to carry out their mission. Women are freed by the knowledge that they are made to God’s image, designed for motherhood, and find fulfillment, not in self-gratification, but in service to others.
Now, I’ve come to modify my definition of the word “engage.” My mission is no longer to keep the culture away from my kids, but to teach my kids how to engage the culture. I’ve consigned my fatigues and combat boots. I put my carbine way at the back of my “junk closet,” behind the fiber-optic swan and the shoebox that holds a secret stash of M&M’s.
And I often pray to St. Julian.
St. Julian of Norwich was an anchorite and English mystic who lived in the 14th century. Her cell contained three windows: one overlooking the altar, one opening into the room of her lay sisters, and one leading to the public lane. It is said that the windows represented Julian’s duties: first, the worship of God; second, the support of her community; third, the service of others. It’s interesting to note that, even though she was a religious committed to a secluded life, St. Julian did not have a windowless cell that shut out the world.
That’s how the authentically Catholic woman is to live if she wants to make a difference. Her domestic church will also have three windows: one through which to communicate with her God and ask for the graces suited to her calling; one through which to serve her family as Christ served; one through which to make her gifts available to a culture that desperately needs them.
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