On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
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First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
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But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
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His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
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 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
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But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
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I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
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And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
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Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
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And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
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If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
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But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
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But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
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It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
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And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
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We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
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Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):
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[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

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Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
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It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
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Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
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Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
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I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
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Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.

 

Caress: Iconography for the Incarnation

Merry Third Day of Christmas! In haste, in between visits with family, I’m thrilled to share with you this icon of Joseph and Jesus, written by Nathan Hicks, which I hope you can enjoy in leisure:

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Note how Joseph’s eyes are perhaps a little wary and uncertain as he holds the Child; but Jesus puts His face right up to his foster father and encircles his head with His arms, totally ready to give all without reservation. Babies and God, I’m telling you, man. Pay attention, and you’ll learn something.

Note also how Jesus’ little legs extend past the interior frame of the image. On his blog, Hicks says:

Icons were ultimately a relational reality. The Kingdom of God  has pierced into our souls through our wounds, creating a dynamic space where the divine reaches to the human.

This divine movement to us is not intrusive and overpowering, but gentle and accommodating. God does not require us to move beyond our nature, but instead asks for us to allow Him to transfigure us as we are. There is no swallowing of identity, which is defined in part by our wounds, but a support of and a strengthening of our identities so that they show forth God. This means that God doesn’t eradicate the things that make us miserable, but instead give us the means to make those sources of misery a source of light and joy.

And that’s why I have the buildings and objects bending towards you, the viewer. God moves heaven and earth out of the way for you and condescends to make you a god by grace.

RELATIONAL. Lots to think about (and I hope you realize how rare it is to find an artist who is interested in sharing more than a word or two about his creative thought process! Most artists I know think with paint, and when they’re done, they’ve already said everything they’re going to say).

Here is another piece that Hicks has shared with us: “Morning Caress.”

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Hicks says:

“Morning Caress” is a Byzantine-style painting about the Earth and the environment. The Earth is a creature, just like us, and is in its own society with the other planets But with the sun the Earth has a special relationship. The earth reaches out to the sun and the sun to the earth. Morning Caress is the story of the unconscious love of the world itself.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, how the earth participates in salvation history without the capacity to be conscious of that participation — but it participates nonetheless. It makes me feel better about my sometimes absurdly passionate affection for the natural world, for fruits, for leaves, for textures and colors. It is all right to love the world, because God made it, God loves it, and most importantly, God is present in it.
I read “The Rape of Man and Nature”, a well-written (if somewhat poorly argued) book by Phillip Sheridan, a giant in the English-speaking world Orthodoxy, who finally stated the Orthodox standpoint on nature in a way that I could understand it: God is in nature in a way similar to us wearing clothes. The clothes aren’t us, but we are definitely connected to them and without us the clothes don’t have form.

And in a similar way (with much higher stakes!) we “take form,” and become who we are meant to be by our nature, when we allow God to dwell in us. Joseph was as ready as he could be to become the foster father of the Son of God, but what could he do? Saint or not, he was only a man, and could not possibly live up to the task, any more than a tree can understand the bounty of the warmth of the sun or the miracle of photosynthesis. The best he could do, the only thing any human can do, is to allow Him to come close and do what He will.

Oh, feel that sun.

Oh, time, strength, cash, and patience! I must come back to this later. Do check out Hick’s blog, The Dynamis Project, and his Facebook page, too.

St. Joseph the Window Washer

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Happy feast of St. Joseph the Worker! I was a little confused (NOT THAT I’VE BEEN A CATHOLIC ALL MY LIFE OR ANYTHING) about the day. Didn’t St. Joseph just have a day back in March?

Yep, St. Joseph’s feast day is March 19. St. Joseph the Worker is a separate feast day instituted by Pius XII in 1955, “apparently” (according to American Catholic) “in response to the ‘May Day’ celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists.”

I came across this enormously encouraging thought on Facebook, via St. Zita Catholic Worker Community of Green Country:

Barely making it, for a family, is quite an accomplishment.” –A resident at St. Francis House in Chicago.

If you’re not where you want to be, relax! Keep working because God is in the work.

Somehow, that is a tremendous relief to hear. Relax into the work. Even if you’re not there yet, you’re there, because God is there in the work. This dovetails nicely with a quote from Catherine of Siena, whose feast day was yesterday:

“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”

To be clear, it may not feel like heaven, but that’s because the world is like a damp spot, and original sin is like a mold that keeps growing over our front window over and over again. It’s hard work to keep clearing it off so we can see, but we do want to see clearly, don’t we? St. Joseph the Worker, intercede for us, so we have the energy to keep cleaning.

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