It's part of what makes women different from men -- but society doesn't always affirm it.
Is there an inherently feminine rhythm to a woman’s life? What’s a woman’s mission in the world? How does the feminine rhythm differ from the masculine one, and do we reconcile them together? Aude Suramy, vice dean of the philosophy department at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse, France, discussed some of these big questions, and how they affect modern women.
Aleteia: Do women follow their own rhythm? Is it recognized and respected in today’s society?
Aude Suramy: The rhythm of Western societies is often frenetic and seems to me to be detrimental to women. Notice how many women are exhausted and stressed by an overload of work of all kinds. They are very courageous and adapt well. It’s not so much the weight of the task that seems to be an obstacle to their fulfillment — women are capable of carrying heavy loads with impressive strength. In my view, the problem is more with a rhythm that is irregular and too fast. I think women could be more fulfilled if they took, or were given, more time.
Femininity is beautifully expressed through the body. The language of the body indicates that its rhythm is intimately tied to receiving and sharing gifts. This is particularly visible in the conjugal act but it applies to all dimensions of feminine life. This receiving and sharing of gift, typically feminine in character, requires listening in calm and silence. It’s expressed in the patient and profound welcoming of each person and thing, the fruit of which matures over a long gestation.
The theology of the body of St. John Paul II, as well as many other thinkers, authors, and sciences, help us to understand this uniquely feminine capacity. It’s important for us, as women, to rediscover the genius of our rhythm for the salvation of our families, our overly activist society, and even for the salvation of the world.
Do you think women have a particular role to play in the salvation of the world?
Christians believe that salvation doesn’t come from us: “It is a gift from God,” says St. Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians. But it’s a gift that we must be able to receive. Since women are naturally receptive, they play an important role in salvation. In the image of Mary, who by her fiat receives divine mercy for each of us, women must relearn to receive God’s gift. Receiving the gift of mercy requires us to recognize our poverty and need. The Holy Spirit uses this receptivity to enlighten our hearts and minds. “The Church,” says Pope Francis, “cannot be herself without the woman and her role.” He says that women are indispensable for the Church.
In listening to the Holy Father, I can’t help but think of the Poverello of Assisi. In a homily in Assisi in 1989, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, “The first response of St. Francis to the command of Jesus to ‘go and rebuild my Church’ was stones and silver. But the Church of the Lord is a living house, built by the Holy Spirit with living stones.
“The second definitive response comes through divine mercy, by the initiative of the Holy Spirit; the response is this young woman, Clare, who desired to make of her body a temple for God alone. […] It is not without profound significance that St. Clare was called to San Damiano.” Obviously, few women are called to the cloister. However, all are called to make of their lives a temple for others and for the Absolute Other, who is God alone.
Women want to integrate every dimension of themselves into one — what are the consequences of this?
A woman cannot be sectioned into pieces. Her body, beauty, physiology, psychology, her way of thinking and loving: everything is linked! It seems to me that the lack of integration of one of these dimensions with the others is a deeper source of malaise for women than for men. Integration is highly important for women.
Edith Stein, in her articles and conferences collected under the title The Woman, insists on women’s particular vocation “to completeness and homogeneity.” Men, on the other hand, tend more towards abstracting certain elements of their lives in order to concentrate on only one thing at a time, leaving others aside. A woman writing a document at work might also be thinking of picking up her kids after school, dinner preparation, the discussion she had that morning with her husband, their romantic holidays, a recent argument with her mother-in-law, what she will wear tomorrow, last Sunday’s homily, and her list of errands — all at the same time! This is her particular strength and also her weakness.
When he left for work, her husband forgot to tell her that he loves her, that she’s beautiful, that those red shoes suit her perfectly. She feels hurt and everything else suffers. When a man is at work he thinks of his work and not much else. When he’s cooking pasta, he thinks about pasta and not much else. This is his particular strength and also his weakness. A man who has argued with his wife in the morning might go to work and throw himself into his tasks without thinking of the argument, even at the risk of forgetting the affective dimension that caused the problem. A woman, on the other hand, might be distracted at work because she is torn between her professional duty and her disrupted emotions. I’m offering a caricature but it’s only to highlight certain traits more typically feminine or masculine. If a woman’s affectivity has been disrupted, so are her psychology, the rhythm of her thoughts, and the rhythm of her body. The rhythm of her love, which St. Thomas Aquinas calls her “principle of movement,” is also disrupted.
How can feminine and masculine rhythms be reconciled?
A woman’s rhythm is slower than a man’s and therefore she must take and be given more time for fulfillment. In the figure of interior movement, continuous and slow, we notice a movement still to come, ready to welcome man, who “gives meaning to the eternal value of an instant,” as Gertrud Von Le Fort underlines, in La femme éternelle. Certainly the rhythm of spousal love, which is exemplary of all love, is founded on the more continuous and slow rhythm of the woman. In relations between spouses, if the man does not take initiative, nothing happens; but if the woman is not ready to receive, it doesn’t work either. It’s a fact of nature that the man must make his own faster rhythm coincide with the slower feminine rhythm. “That which is received is received according to the mode of the recipient,” of the one who receives, declares Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Humanitatis. In this sense, it’s the rhythm of the woman that directs spousal love, forming the foundation of all fecundity and of society itself. This is reassuring for us women, since societies that try to move too quickly, out of step with our rhythm, are destined to disappear.
Both men and women need to know all of this. But since women have a more intimate rapport with all the dimensions of themselves, self-knowledge is a greater need for them than it is for men. To better know oneself is to better own oneself, to be able to integrate one’s spontaneous dynamisms in a way befitting one’s dignity. It is to practice self-determination and have a greater ability to exercise freedom. To know oneself is to be better able to receive and give, and to love more fully.