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Hilary Hart’s Body of Wisdom was given to me as I’d been speaking about How Women Disintegrate and How Women Heal. I did resonate with about 70% of what she said, felt wary, but interpreted positively, about 20% more, and must reject the last 10% unequivocally. That leaves me in a quandary.
I can’t recommend the book itself, on the chance that a poorly-grounded Catholic might not discern the problems in it, but I feel the kinship of lived experience, and am grateful for the author’s poetic depth and insight. Read as a theological argument, Body of Wisdom is easily dismissed. But it would be unreasonable to read in that way what is meant as an evocation of conversation among wise, mature women. I must enter into such a book as I would enter an encounter with a person – in awe of the mystery before me, with respect for our differences, and appreciation for every good, true, beautiful, praiseworthy aspect of her being. With that in mind, and with no love for any ‘feminine spirituality’ that leads outside the bounds of my Catholic faith, I call attention to what edifies me in Hart’s offering.
First, I’m thrilled at her acceptance of gender as an essential aspect of being – a signifier rich with metaphor, that points toward the realization of a distinctively feminine approach to life, relationship, spiritual growth and service. Contra the androgynous, mentalized, self-defining ‘spirituality’ of modern Gnosticism, Hart’s approach is earthy, grounded, embodied in and affirming of physical reality. Contra the anti-human, mechanistic efficiency of modern scientific materialism, Hart presents woman as deeply spiritual and irreducible to objective functions or roles.
I’m also delighted to see, on every page, the affirmation of life’s sacredness, of child-bearing as a sacred trust, of new life as a wonderful treasure. It strikes me that we would do well to make such a beautiful, feminine appeal to women’s life-giving nature a greater part of our own fight against abortion.
Hart counsels, as I do, that women must be deeply true to themselves in order to give fully and effectively to their families and others. She thinks – and I heartily agree – that friendships among women (when ordered toward high good and away from rage, despair, pettiness and superficiality) are essential for the development and realization of what St. John Paul II called ‘feminine genius.’ We also agree that the world (even the Church, I’d say) desperately needs the gifts, giftedness, and self-giving of women to rebuild social capital, lines of communication, and networks of support for a culture of life.
A woman’s capacity for creativity, social influence, and healing can be ignored (or dismissed as ‘New Age-y’, which is ridiculous, but I’ve seen it happen), or deeply engaged to restore balance and bring healing to the disordered, broken world around us.
I suggest we focus on what Hart – passionate, poetic, person-oriented – has to teach about waking up the genius of women, and leave a modest veil over her understandable excesses. They are understandable, because she, as yet, stands outside the protective covering of a Church structure that she interprets, wrongly, as all-masculine. Where the Church has gone far beyond her thinking – female saints and doctors, Marian devotion, theology of the body, for instance – we can amplify her sense of the positive power of womanhood. Where she excels – attention to the lived experience of women, rich and emotionally engaging prose, respectful interfaith dialogue, for instance – she should lead us.
This book has a place in the conversation of discerning, well-formed Catholic women – especially those who nurture friendships with non- or newly-Christian women.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the classical myth, Cupid and Psyche, in which Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, instructs her son Cupid to make her fall in love with a hideous monster. Instead, Cupid falls in love with her himself and becomes her unseen husband, visiting her only at night. Psyche disobeys his orders not to look at him loses him, and must undertake a series of difficult tasks set by Venus to win him back.
C. S. Lewis chose to rewrite this myth not as a Christian story, but in light of the fact of the Resurrection, after which no real new mythology could be generated. His rendering of the pre-Christian pagan story as a proto-evangelion, or preparation for the Gospel, is a masterpiece. And it’s chock full of interesting themes to explore.
I have offered pre- and post-reading discussions for readers of this book, because it can be a hard one to dig into on your own. I’ve also spoken on its implications for our understanding of human personhood, sin, growth, and redemption (in a talk called The Veiled Self).
Every time I read this book, I get something new out of it!
Differences between the original myth of Cupid and Psyche, and C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the myth in Till We Have Faces have the effect of revealing new dimensionality in the Christian understanding of both myth and of the human person. The pre-Christian myth, like the pre-Christian person, is veiled in a darkness that constitutes a reduction from an ideal – a flattening of the fullness of story, or of person.
Lewis retells the myth in the inescapable light of the Incarnation, and in doing so, illuminates and revivifies the notion of personhood, as expressed through its characters. It’s fascinating to note that Lewis wrote this book at about the same time as his autobiographical Surprised by Joy. Peter Schakel, author of Reason and Imagination in C.S. Lewis, believed these two books actually tell one story:
Orual’s account of her life, like Lewis’ account of his own in Surprised by Joy, is retrospective, subjective, and selective. It is striking, then, that suddenly he is able to complete successfully two stories he had long sought to tell but had been unable to: his own story and that of Cupid and Psyche. …Each is a story of consciousness, and of the achievement of wholeness through sacrificial death; and each is the story of Lewis himself.
Add to all that a discussion of the imagery of the veil in the life of a woman – her need for modesty, for beauty, for privacy, for mystery, and for self-revelation to God, and you have one of my favorite talks to give!
Here’s my take on The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.