Of Pillars and Spores: The Genius of Woman

SISTER RENEE MIRKES

Pillars and spores are images used by Edith Stein (1891-1942) in one of her essays on women. The woman who becomes or is becoming what she is meant to be, Stein explains, is “like a pillar to which many fasten themselves, thereby attaining a firm footing.” Further, women who are on their way to becoming whole persons can, in turn, help others to realize their personal fulfillment. In this way, Stein argues, women are like “healthy, energetic spores supplying healthy energy” to all whom God puts in their path. The metaphors of pillar and spore provide easy to remember associational images of how Stein defines the constitutive nature, vocation, and genius of woman.


Let me guess. Your first reaction to the title of this essay was something like this: What have pillars and spores got to do with the genius of woman?” By way of introduction, permit me to give the origin and general meaning of my otherwise enigmatic title. Pillars and spores are images used by Edith Stein (1891-1942) in one of her essays on women. The woman who becomes or is becoming what she is meant to be, Stein explains, is “like a pillar to which many fasten themselves, thereby attaining a firm footing.” Further, women who are on their way to becoming whole persons can, in turn, help others to realize their personal fulfillment. In this way, Stein argues, women are like “healthy, energetic spores supplying healthy energy” to all whom God puts in their path. The remainder of my investigation will demonstrate how the metaphors of pillar and spore provide easy to remember associational images of how Stein defines the constitutive nature, vocation, and genius of woman.

Throughout this article, I will be reinforcing Stein’s philosophy of woman with congruent teachings from Pope John Paul II. Fortuitously, I happened to be reading the second volume of the Collected Works of Edith Stein (Essays on Woman) at the same time that I was studying John Paul II’s encyclical The Dignity and Vocation of Women. I heard enough echoes of Edith Stein in John Paul II to suggest a definite influence of the former on the latter. It seems to me that it is reasonable to argue that the writings of this Pope who has consistently exhibited interest in phenomenological thought might be influenced by Edith Stein, a student of Husserl and an acclaimed champion of phenomenology. Whatever the case, whether the similarity of vision regarding the human person and womanhood are merely a pattern of coincidence or of studied intent or both, I believe that cross-pollinating their ideas produces a vigorous hybrid.

THE NATURE OF WOMAN

From her reading of Genesis and her general observation of people, Edith Stein concludes that the species of humanity, homo sapiens, is further divided into the double species of man and woman. Pope John Paul II teaches the same when he describes mankind as a bifurcated race. To be a member of the human race for a human being, the Pope insists, means to being so as a male or a female. Between the two sexes, Stein insists, “[t]here is a difference not only in body structure and in particular physiological functions, but also in the entire corporeal life.” The male-female bodily dissimilarities have implications for the distinctive way the male body relates to the soul of a man and for the way the female body relates to the soul of a woman. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that women and men have distinct psychosomatic identities. Furthermore, the femininity or masculinity of a person also leaves its mark on the person’s soul. The intellectual faculties, or spiritual “organs” of the male and female soul (i. e., the emotions, the intellect, and will) develop differently.

The feminine species expresses a unity and wholeness of the total psychosomatic personality and a harmonious development of faculties. The masculine species strives to enhance individual abilities in order that they may attain to their highest achievements.

The feminine species has two essential characteristics, Stein explains. First, woman is, by nature, person or subject-focused rather that thing or object-oriented. Quite simply, the woman embraces the personal aspect of life, i. e., she is interested in living, breathing people and all of their individual human needs. A woman manifests this natural feminine quality in a desire to assert her own identity and in her interest in the identity of other persons. In a statement that obviously arises from a similar insight, the Pope insists that, because of a woman’s moral and spiritual strength, God entrusts the human being to the woman in a special way.

Second, woman tends naturally to wholeness and self-containment. This characteristic manifests itself in a woman’s desire for her own wholeness and in her desire to also help others to become complete persons. At one point, Stein defines a woman’s self-containment as an integrity of her inner life which no extraneous intrusions can imperil. Here again the metaphor of a pillar helps us to understand the implications of the woman’s desire to attain wholeness of being. Such self-possession is essential for someone who is called upon to be a stabilizer for another who might be in need of a support and a surer footing. Pope John Paul II points out that woman can be a source of spiritual strength for other people as they discover the great energies of her spirit. And because the woman yearns for optimal perfection in herself — emotionally, volitionally, and intellectually — she also desires that same psychosomatic wholeness in others with an equal intensity. In this sense, Stein compares a woman to spores, or “potent seeds of germinating power.” She is capable of generating being like herself whose personal development is complete.

These two essential characteristics of woman — attraction to the personal and to wholeness — point to another hallmark of the female species. A woman’s emotional life is the source of her attraction to the personal and to wholeness. Whether it’s an awareness and sensitivity toward her own personal being or that of others, it’s the centrality of a woman’s emotions that is responsible for this feminine kind of wholistic knowledge and discernment. According to Stein, without the emotions, the soul of a woman could never know itself or others in their totality. If we think about it, our experience confirms the validity of Stein’s insight. Each woman perceives her own being in the stirrings of her emotions. That is, through her emotions, each woman comes to know who she is and how she is. Through her emotions, a woman also grasps the relationship of another being to herself, and then, consequently, the significance of the inherent value of exterior things, of unfamiliar and impersonal things.

A natural offshoot of her strong emotional life is a woman’s sensitivity to moral and aesthetic values and a natural desire for the sources of those values, God Himself. This hunger for God, John Paul II says, is evident in woman’s connaturality of the things of God, a true resonance for the divine in the mind and heart of woman. The sensitivity to things good, true, and beautiful is a woman’s built-in safeguard. It protects her from being seduced by anything low or mean or from “the dangers of seduction and of total surrender to sensuality.”

THE VOCATION OF WOMAN

Of what does woman’s vocation consist? Corresponding to the threefold distinction that characterizes every woman — namely nature, womanhood, and individuality — Stein teaches that there is a corresponding tripartite feminine or masculine call which comes from God.

...The person’s nature and his life’s course are no gift or trick of chance, but — seen with the eyes of faith — the work of God...it is God Himself who calls. It is He who calls each human being to that to which all humanity is called, it is He who calls each individual to that to which he or she is called personally, and over and above this, He calls man and woman as such to something specific.

From her analysis of Genesis, Stein concludes that, as human beings, our vocations are threefold: to be an image of God, to bring forth posterity, and to be masters over the rest of creation. As man or woman, we will be called to realize this basic vocation in different but complementary ways. The primary vocation of man, Stein opines, “appears to be that of a ruler” and, secondarily, but still integrally, that of a father or parent. A women’s primary vocation is that of a mother and “her role as a ruler is secondary and included in a certain way in her maternal vocation.” Each individual is called to live out his human and gender [contact here] vocations according to his particular gifts and temperament. As Stein points out, “...individual gifts and tendencies can lead to the most diversified activities.”

It would make sense that amongst the attributes of a woman’s vocation we would find the correlates of woman’s primary qualities — her predilection for wholeness and self-containment (summarized in the image of pillar) and her attraction to the personal and the living (summarized in the image of a spore). Human development,” Stein says, “is woman’s most exalted mission.” Any kind of lifeless matter is of interest only if it serves the personal. She will always be drawn intuitively and emotionally to the concrete rather than the conceptually and analytically to the abstract.

The vocation to human development is a twofold mission, that of being wife and a mother. Relying heavily on the creation story of Genesis, Stein describes the vocation of being a wife as standing alongside her husband as a partner or companion. Again Stein’s image of pillar is apposite. A wife, she explains, is someone her husband can lean on. She does this by sharing the life of her husband — his suffering, work, and difficulties. She interests herself in areas of knowledge and concern which, except that they are those of her spouse, would not ordinarily engage her mind. The Pope, too, spends a great deal of time exploring the notion of woman as companion and helper. He shows how Genesis teaches that of all the living creatures surrounding man, only the woman is a helper suitable for him. In this important sense, man and woman are called to exist mutually “one for the other.”

Stein explains that as a mother the woman demonstrates a germinating, spore-like quality as she gives life, care, and encouragement to her child, forms the child’s God-given gifts, surrenders herself to the child’s needs, and, then when the child has matured and is able to pursue his own life, quietly withdraws. A woman is called primarily to guard and teach her own children, but her basic maternal vocation also fosters life and growth in her husband and in every person with whom she associates. I will explain in a minute how the maternal quality of woman also includes a vocation to spiritual motherhood, a call to nourish others in the divine life and to lead them to God. Or, as the Pope emphasizes, the motherhood of woman is not only physical but also spiritual. It expresses a profound listening to the Word of God and safeguarding it. Whether exercising physical or spiritual maternity, Stein insists that a woman’s mission is universally toward being rather than having, toward community and humanity rather than toward possession and power.

Finally, by virtue of who she is, woman is called to develop her genius by exercising her gift of discernment. With her ability to grasp the concrete and the living, woman is naturally strong in her receptivity toward others. John Paul II explains that it is the woman’s “readiness to accept life which marks her ‘ethos’ from the ‘beginning.’“ She is naturally capable of adapting herself to the inner life of others, to their goals, and to the way they intend to meet those goals. With her discerning heart, she is sent to human souls to show that the universal desire for union with God reveals the highest meaning of each person’s life and course of events. With her gift of discernment, a woman can uncover the hidden burden laid on every heart and can help to carry it; she can search every heart for the treasure lying within it and bring it to its best use for the individual and the community.

Woman is called to develop this intuitive gift of discernment by responding to her call to develop the kind of soul which will capitalize on this aspect of her genius. The soul of a woman is called to be expansive and open to all human beings; it must be quiet, so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile birds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; self-contained, so that no invasions from without can imperil the inner life; empty of self, in order that extraneous life may have no room in it; mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.

Stein suggests that in working toward this “total condition of soul,” it can be best thought of in terms of complete surrender to God. God’s grace can effect these qualities in a soul. Consequently, a woman is strengthened in her call to love self, others, and God, each in its proper way. Concretely, Stein advises that no matter how busy a woman is, she needs to give the first hour of the day to the Lord if she hopes to develop her genius of discernment.

The duties and cares of the day ahead crowd about us when we awake in the morning (if they have not already dispelled our night’s rest). Now arises the uneasy question: How can this all be accommodated in one day? When will I do this, when that? How shall I start on this and that? Thus agitated, we would like to run around and rush forth. We must then take the reins in hand and say, ‘Take it easy! Not any of this may touch me now. My first morning’s hour belongs to the Lord. I will tackle the day’s work which He charges me with, and He will give me the power to accomplish it.’

Stein prescribes liturgical prayer as a further means to help a woman purify self and become a fit instrument in God’s hand.

THE FORMATION OF WOMAN: BUILDING A VOCATIONAL ETHOS

For Stein, the formation of a woman takes place fundamentally in the soul. There the spiritual powers of intellect, will, and emotions, like spores, “must grow and ripen into the perfect gestalt...” or character. In every woman, although there’s an “embryo of the ideal feminine soul,” it (her soul) requires a very specific and consistent “cultivation if it is not to be suffocated among weeds rankly shooting up around it.” Only a process of continual purification activates the germinating power of a woman’s gifts and leads to what Stein calls a vocational ethos. Appealing to the metaphor of spores as descriptive of the qualities of a woman’s nature, she reflects:

there are potent seeds of germinating power therein, and life in them is stirred into tremulous motion through the ray of light which comes from the other side of the clouds. But it would be necessary that the gross clods be cultivated in order for the light to penetrate the seeds.

Perhaps a good place to start in the necessary rooting up of weeds and planting of good seeds is for the woman to overcome the tendency to excessive concern of her personal worth. To accomplish this, a woman must work to be free of a fixation on herself, to be free of a vanity that tends to center both her activities and those of others about her own person, and to be free of craving for praise and recognition. And it’s not enough to make these changes on one’s power alone. Stein counsels that “[o]nly in daily, confidential relationships with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wished and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others.

Second, woman must overcome the tendency to fixation on others. This perversion of the woman’s natural desire for the personal can manifest itself in “an excessive interest in others as in curiosity, gossip, and in an indiscreet need to penetrate into the intimate life of others.” This misplaced sort of concern for others and their development frequently ends up with an abject kind of surrender that leads to errors of judgment and will. It is a part of woman’s nature to want to surrender herself to another and to possess the other completely. But Stein points out that such a total giving over to another person can become “a perverted self-abandon and a form of slavery” when it is directed toward a human person rather than toward God.

Third, woman must overcome the tendency to a unilateral emotional development to the exclusion of the intellectual and spiritual. The goal for her own human development as well as that of others is to become a whole person. That is, she should strive to be a well-integrated person who recognizes that the body ought to be governed by well-developed spiritual powers and her entire body-soul unity ought to be subject to God’s governance. A respect for the hierarchy of spiritual faculties means that she recognizes that emotions are not the only spiritual organs that need to be developed and exercised. “The libidinous drive is controlled by the will; the intellect, the eye of the soul guides the will” and the individual “along life’s path.” Therefore, exercise of her faculty of emotions together with her intellect, will, and interior senses is essential in the woman’s quest to become a whole person.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kineke, Genevieve S. “Of Pillars and Spores: The Genius of Woman.” Canticle vol. 1 Equality or Androgeny.

Reprinted by permission of Canticle Magazine: The Voice of Today's Catholic Woman.

Copyright © 2000 Canticle


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