When speaking of differences between men and women, we must speak in general terms, because man and woman are more alike than unlike, and though they may strive to reach the true home of the soul by separate ways, yet the home is ultimately the same.
Still, we can note differences. Consider the differences in how men and women see, how they view the world.
When the great women saints and mystics speak of God, he is the passionate one who pursues them, who invites them into a personal relationship. He is the lover. And of course it is not wrong to experience him in this way. This is precisely what a nameless priest once recommended to the women in his charge, anchorites, each living alone in her cell. The Rule for Anchorites begs the women to imagine Jesus as a wooer of their souls who says to them, "Your love—it is either to give, or to sell, or to be ravished and taken by main force. If it is to give, where can you bestow it better than upon me? Am I not the most beautiful of all things … Am I not the freest to give good things? For people will say of a generous man who can hold nothing back that he has his hands pierced—as mine are. Am I not of all things the most fragrant and the sweetest?" (folio 107, verso).
"Stab me in the heart, Jesus," cries the fat wife of the hired man in Flannery O'Connor's story Greenleaf, as she takes newspaper clippings of disasters and plagues and murders and spreads them on the ground in the woods, flopping down upon them and flailing and moaning like a fabulous beast in the paroxysms of sexual heat. Or we may think of that good woman Margery Kempe, attending Mass on Good Friday:
The memory of our Lady's sorrows, which she suffered when she beheld his precious body hanging on the cross and then buried before her eyes, suddenly filled the heart of this creature. Her mind was drawn wholly into the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom she beheld with her spiritual eye in the sight of her soul as truly as if she had seen his precious body beaten, scourged and crucified with her bodily eye, which sight and spiritual beholding worked by grace so fervently in her mind, wounding her with pity and compassion, so that she sobbed, roared and cried, "I die, I die," so that many people were astonished at her, and wondered what was the matter with her. And the more she tried to keep herself from crying, the louder she cried, for it was not in her power to take it or leave it, but as God would send it … And this manner of crying lasted for a period of ten years. (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 57; 1521)
Men are—not like that. Consider it both a shortcoming and a strength, or perhaps an inclination toward a different kind of strength, a different faculty and power. Here is Dante, in the opening lines of the Paradise:
The glory of the One who moves all things
penetrates the universe with light,
more radiant in one part and elsewhere less;
I have been in that heaven he makes most bright,
and seen things neither mind can hold nor tongue
utter, when one descends from such great height,
For as we near the One for whom we long,
our intellects so plunge into the deep,
memory cannot follow where we go.
Nevertheless what small part I can keep
of that holy kingdom treasured in my heart
will now become the matter of my song. (1.1– 12)
If the woman's tendency is to draw all things inward toward the most intimate reaches of the soul, to dwell in the inmost cells of Teresa of Avila's interior castle, it seems that the man's tendency is to broaden out, to spread the vistas wide. The feminine tendency is toward the immanent, the personal; and its danger is emotionalism. The masculine tendency is toward the transcendent, the beyond-personal; and its danger is abstraction.
The risk in seeing the divine as immanent in all things is that we may lose ourselves in the things and call divine what is just a powerful feeling. Thus we must rise to a vision of the divine. The great male mystics, like Plotinus, strike us at first as cold and distant. But how can we most closely approach the divine? By a clean and clear subordination of our passions, which spring at least in part from what is irrational in him, to our reason.
Perhaps we may say that men and women go blessedly mad in different ways.
Man is the great maker of theories. In their lowest form, these are intellectual games. Every game is characterized by rules and by restrictive conditions. The pawns can move forward only, but they capture only diagonally. Very often, the restrictive conditions are necessary if you are going to make any headway in a particular branch of knowledge. The game of Marxism has its own prime rule, which is that all human phenomena must be resolved into an economic and political motive. Marx did not simply derive this game from his observations; the theory allowed him to see things that he otherwise would have missed. Of course your theory may be wrong—and then you see things that are not there, you attribute false causes or motives, or you miss things that are there. Marx was cursed with a dogged industriousness and relentless logic, so he went far wrong indeed. A woman would have been called up short by having to cook dinner.
At its noblest, though, theory is for seeing all that is true. It seems strangely dispassionate to most of us, but not to the people who strive for it with all their heart and soul; it is beyond the passions of the day, because its passion is for eternity. The Greek word theoria suggests a spectator looking upon the stage: He has a thea, a view. The word is a cousin to thauma, a wonder. The Latin mirus describes something to behold as a marvel, especially something delightful: so we find that it is a distant cousin to English smile. Our very word wonder comes from an ancient root that signifies what stirs the soul with desire, with love, and thus it is a cousin of Latin Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Dante captures perfectly the delight that proceeds from theory in this sense:
"To Father and to Son and Holy Ghost,"
sang all the heavens, "glory!"—filling me
with drunken joy; it seemed what I beheld
Was laughter of the universe, the glee
of laughter whose inebriating swell
enters by what you hear and what you see. (Paradise, 27.1–6)
Perhaps we may say that men and women go blessedly mad in different ways. It is near impossible to imagine a man as Margery Kempe, weeping so loudly at the Good Friday service that a priest had to lift her up and carry her away. It is also near impossible to imagine a woman as Benjamin Franklin, out in the middle of a storm with a kite, a metal key, risking being struck by lightning and electrocuted. Why did he do that? Why did Henry Hudson sail his ship into that interminable bay that now bears his name, where his mutinous men either slew him and threw his body into the deep, or marooned him on a treeless island? In one way or another, they all wanted to see. You do none of these mad things unless your soul is thrilled with a desire to see, to know—not particulars, but the great vast scene.
Anthony Esolen. Excerpt from "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." Regnery Publishing (2022).
Reprinted with permission from Regnery Publishing.
Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song.Copyright © 2022 Regnery Publishing
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