By Daniella Palmiotto
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of high school women about the mercy of God. When I first heard of the topic, I did not even know where to begin. Scripture alludes to God’s mercy in so many places. We read that His mercy knows no bounds and that because of this mercy, He is slow to anger. We also read in Lamentations 3:22-23 that His mercies are new every morning. Luke 6:36 commands us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” God’s mercy is not just something that we experience, but rather it is something that we are instructed to give to others as well. The standard is high since the mercy of God prompted Him to send His Son to earth and prompted the Son to give His life. Every moment that Jesus lived on earth was filled with mercy.
One of my favorite stories is in John 8:1-11 when the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery. The Jewish law’s punishment for the woman was for her to be stoned. Jesus’ response was to stoop down to the ground and to write in the sand. The crowd was waiting to hear from Him. He said to them, “Let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone.” Jesus stooped back down and one by one all of the accusers left until Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus stood up and asked her, “Where are your accusers? Did any of them condemn you?” She responded, “No, Lord.” Jesus told her, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Imagine yourself in a similar situation – feeling terrible and ugly with sin. Perhaps others are not condemning you, but you are condemning yourself and you are having a hard time forgiving yourself. Picture Jesus being there with you writing in the sand; He is writing words of truth, words of life, and words of hope. Then He stands up and tells you that He is not judging you but that He is calling you to go and sin no more. He is calling you to a life a holiness and a life of abundant joy. His mercy gives each and every one of us hope! And it also gives us a mission to share that mercy and hope with others. Another element of this story in the Gospel of John that makes it very meaningful is Jesus’ treatment of the woman. He saw her in her brokenness and treated her with dignity and respect and His words were meant to help her see that dignity and respect within herself as well.
I began to think about how we could more fully understand our call to extend mercy to others. As women, extending mercy and being relational is innately within us. This is what we call the Feminine Genius. Edith Stein was one of the first to discuss the Feminine Genius. She was born and raised in Germany to a Jewish family but she was an atheist. She lived during the time of WWI and experienced the Nazi movement. She was a very smart woman who studied philosophy and was working towards becoming a professor at a time when women typically did not have the opportunity to do so. She came to learn about the Catholic faith after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, another Catholic intellectual. Edith Stein converted to Catholicism and began giving presentations and lectures on the role of Christian women; and she became a Carmelite religious sister taking the name St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She ended up dying at the age of 50 in a gas chamber in Auschwitz and Pope John Paul II canonized her a saint in 1998.
The concept of the Feminine Genius to which we were introduced by Edith Stein was so rich that St. John Paul II built upon it with his writings on Love and Responsibility and his 129 Wednesday audiences to which we refer as the Theology of the Body. In her Essays, Edith Stein writes that the Feminine Genius means that women naturally seek to embrace that which is “living, personal, and whole” and that they are inclined to “cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth.” Women have a special way of bringing God’s love into the world and a special way of extending mercy and relating to others. It is built into our beings to be physical mothers and this also translates to us being spiritual mothers – we connect and seek relationships with others. What does this look like practically? As women, we love to meet for coffee, to shop together, to learn about other people, to talk about our feelings and emotions, and to hear about love stories. These are the practical manifestations of our longing for relationship and connection and our desire to know others and to be known by others at a deeper, emotional level. We can use this inclination for good by extending mercy and love and by getting to know other people. But we can also use it for bad. What does it look like when we allow this inclination to be used for bad? We gossip, we compare ourselves to others, we form cliques and exclude others. This is femininity gone wrong and we want to be sure to use our built-in inclination for connection in a way that upholds the dignity of those around us and in a way that extends love and mercy to others instead of judgment, comparison, and criticism.
How can we be sure that we are using our femininity for good? It requires us to fill ourselves with goodness and to deeply root ourselves in our identity as beloved daughters of God. When we are deeply rooted in how loved we are, we are not ruled by insecurity and fear and we can appreciate and recognize the beauty of the women around us. St. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” We need to fill our hearts and minds with the lives of Jesus and Mary and to pursue virtue, which includes all that is worthy of praise, including love, peace, gentleness, and mercy. When we allow God to transform our hearts and to root out all that is unworthy of praise, including envy, comparison, insecurities, fear, and jealousy, then we allow our Feminine Genius to be firmly established and to bear fruit in a way that will benefit not only us, but also others. Edith Stein tells us of the feminine qualities and virtues for which we can pray. These include expansiveness, which means that we are open to all human beings; quietness, that we are reflective and bring things to prayer instead of automatically dumping all of our thoughts on other people; and warmth, that others feel safe and at home when they are in our presence. Other feminine qualities and virtues include clarity, that our thoughts are pointing upwards instead of confused by the trends and changes in our society; independence, that our identity is rooted in how God sees us instead of allowing our view of self to be determined by relationships or how others approve/disprove of us; selflessness, that we can look out and recognize the needs of others around us instead of focusing on ourselves; and self-mastery, that we are free and not bound by attachments or addictions. As women, our hearts, when directed by love, will allow us
to discern and to meet the needs of others in the most empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, and merciful way possible.
Another important point in all of this is to appreciate the gift of men. We live in a society where women feel that they need to compete with men. In talking about the Feminine Genius, Edith Stein reminds us that men and women were not created to be in competition but instead to complement each other. We are most authentically feminine when we recognize the good in men and the traits of strength, courage, and leadership, among the other traits that God has given to them. It does not mean that women do not have these traits, but it means that God created men to be exceptionally skilled in these abilities and virtues. Men and women express dimensions of the human person in different ways, and together these expressions reveal the fullness of the human person. It is really beautiful to reflect on how God designed us to complement each other and how as women, we have the opportunity to be merciful, relational, and invitational, in a unique way.
May the mercy that God gives to us lead us to turn away from sin and towards virtue and these beautiful feminine traits so that we may be firmly rooted in our identity as beloved daughters of God. When we are firmly rooted in this identity, our Feminine Genius is most fully alive and we are able to extend mercy, love, and hope to others and we are a safe place where people can experience rest and peace when they are in our presence. This is an attribute of God that as women, we bring into the world in a special way.
Thank God for His mercy towards us and the hope that this gives us, and may we each be vessels of God’s mercy in the world. May we pray for the grace to encourage and remind each other of the important mission of sharing God’s mercy since we cannot do it alone and He gives us Christian friendships to be accountable to one another.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.