In Praise of Older Women
The Book of Sirach invites us ‘to sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations’ (44.1). I would like to change that very slightly and sing the praises of famous women, the other half of our ancestry. I do this because during the second half of November the Church celebrates the memory of a number of great women, outstanding for learning and holiness. As married women, as mothers, as religious sisters or as single women, these heroines of the Christian people continue to inspire, if not in the universal church, then at least in some part of it.
Margaret of Scotland (d.1093), wife, mother and queen is remembered on November 16th as is Gertrude (d.1301), philosopher, scholar and spiritual teacher. November 17th is the feast of Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1231), wife of a German prince, mother of a large family, a woman devoted to prayer and the care of the poor.
November 22nd is the feast of Saint Cecilia, a Roman martyr who became (through a mistranslation of the account of her death, it must be admitted) patron saint of music and of musicians in the Church. The Passion of Saint Cecilia recounts the circumstances of her martyrdom and there has been a basilica in her honour at Rome since the 5th century.
Towards the end of the month in the old calendar came the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (November 25th). There was a remarkable cult in her memory throughout Western Europe for many centuries. And she gives her name to a firework, the ‘catherine’ wheel. Legend has it that Catherine was a brilliant philosopher who confounded the pagan teachers of Alexandria with the depth and skill of her thinking. Sadly this Catherine, Christian philosopher, cannot be mentioned without speaking of her pagan counterpart, Hypatia, also of Alexandria, who died about 400. She too was a woman of great intelligence and religious insight, one of the last great philosophical teachers of the ancient world whose students included at least one Christian bishop, Synesius of Cyrene. It seems undeniable that Hypatia’s cruel murder came about through the envy and resentment of an ignorant Christian mob.
Gertrude the Great, already mentioned, stands at the centre of a group of remarkable women scholars and mystics of the high middle ages. She was taught by Mechtild of Hackeborn (d.1298) and they were later joined by Mechtild of Magdeburg (died about 1290), to name only the most famous of them. Although these women did not pass through the normal school system that was not always a disadvantage. They gave an independent slant to what they were learning, for example in being free not to follow Augustine in all he had to say about hell. For these women the love of God in Christ is stronger than any resistance it encounters and so it is Christian to hope for the salvation of all.
But back to November, and to today, November 21st, the day on which the Church celebrates the Presentation in the Temple of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her dedication to God from her earliest years. It is fitting that this remembrance of great women should end with reference to the Mother of the Lord, she who is ‘blessed among all women’. Certain kinds of piety and devotion sweeten her image and make her seem unreal, ethereal, idealised, a woman, yes, but hardly a woman of flesh and blood and so of less use to us than she ought to be.
The gospel texts about Mary paint a different picture. Her trust in the ways of God, her love and fidelity towards her Son, her prophetic praise of God in the Magnificat — all of this places her among the heroines of Israel: people like Esther and Judith, the mothers of the kings, Hannah and many other women, under the old and the new covenants, who have been courageous in faith, reliable in wisdom, and tender in love. We pray that we may be like her, like them.