By Bronwen McShea - Mainz, Germany - 27 May 2012
During a recent excursion to Reims in France, while touring a museum housed at the old bishop's residence there, called the Palais du Thau, I encountered a monumental medieval sculpture of Eve which was once on display at the city's cathedral.
I am unsure of the statue’s exact height, but it is larger than life. In stature, it reminded me of a classical Roman sculpture, although in its naturalism it surpassed in beauty many classical pieces I know, with their more polished, refined appearance.
Unlike other images of Eve I have seen, this stone sculpture, dated circa 1235, presented the mother of humankind fully clothed and holding the "serpent of sin" in her hands. The little dragon-like creature's off-puttingly hissing face enhances, by the contrast, the calm but questioning expression of the woman's.
Also unlike other images of Eve I know, this one greatly affected me. Looking at her face, I felt she had something to say to me. Something about her humanity, and something more particular about her womanhood, beyond her sorrow for the first sin. Something beyond her grief following the expulsion from Paradise. Something, perhaps, to do with her waiting, as patiently as she could, for her salvation. Even while cradling the demon, and her own fallenness -- what she knew better than she knew God at that moment -- close to her girdled womb.
I was touched by the image, by the idea, of Eve's waiting with a newfound if also troubled patience -- patience learned the hard way, shot through with the sorrow and confusion of her fallen condition.
In the Genesis story, waiting patiently is the very thing Eve did not succeed in doing for God. She was told by the serpent that if she ate the forbidden fruit, she would be like God. The desire to be like God was not her sin: her sin was to believe the serpent's lie, that anything, anyone, but God, could bring her to glory, and more quickly than God Himself had planned for humanity's glorification. The serpent pounced on Eve's impatience, and her capacity for self-deception. And the serpent goaded Eve to grab the fruit of a created tree of life rather than to wait for the Lord of Life Himself. And Eve in turn gave the fruit to her husband to eat -- Adam, whose sin was a bit different than the woman's, because in the moment of his temptation, he was called to assert himself in favor of what he knew was God's will, over and above what his partner had decided on her own for the couple in accord with the serpent's lie. Adam, instead, remained silent and did not intervene when he had the chance.
It struck me, reflecting on what I saw in the statue's posture, that one of Eve's special tasks while exiled from Paradise, is to direct her inner resources to resisting further self-assertion and grabbing based on lies about what will fulfill her own and others' deepest desires. Rather, she is to exert her spiritual forces in renewed waiting for God -- and in readying herself, and to the degree she can helping prepare those around her and their surroundings, for the unexpected hour when God will come and ask His creatures to receive Him and to follow Him back from death to Paradise.
Patience, and receptivity to God's light, truth, and very Being: Eve is called to give herself in a special way to these virtues, through her prayer, her everyday and more extraordinary labors, and in caring for others.
And she is called to model them, too, to Adam, who followed her spiritual lead at Eden, and does so again in his exile, even while he is called, in his special way as a man, to help lead others back to God, by arising from his more natural lassitude and by asserting himself dutifully and faithfully in prayer, in marriage, in fatherhood, in the priesthood and in other forms of male religious life, and in his working and creative life.
My reflections on the medieval statue have been prompted, in part, by a striking and often difficult book I encountered this past year called The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine, published most recently by Ignatius Press. The author of the book, which originally appeared in German as Die Ewige Frau in 1934, is the German novelist, poet, and spiritual writer Gertrud von le Fort (1876-1971). Von le Fort attended the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin, and Marburg when this was very rare for women; she did not marry, and she was a convert to Catholicism later in life, entering the Church in 1926. Her writings were admired by Hermann Hesse, among others.
Von le Fort talks about Eve's sin, the particular "defection of woman," which is not "that of a creature falling earthward; it is rather a descent away from earth, insofar as the earth itself signifies...something that awaits in humble readiness." She goes on:
The fall in the Paradise story is not contingent upon the temptation through the sweetness of the fruit, not does it hinge upon the temptation to the knowledge of good and evil; but it is the result of the deceiving promise: 'You shall be like unto God', which is the contradiction to the fiat of the Virgin. The actual fall into sin, therefore, occurs in the religious sphere and, consequently, in its most profound sense signifies the fall of the woman. This is not because Eve was the first to take the apple, but because she took it as woman. Creation fell in its womanly substance, for it fell in its religious sense. The greater guilt, therefore, can in a sense be ascribed not to Adam but to Eve.
On the other hand it is entirely false to say that Eve fell because she was the weaker. The Bible story shows clearly that she was the stronger and had the acsendancy over man. Man, regarded in his cosmic aspect, stands in the foreground of strength, while woman dwells in its deeper reaches. Whenever woman has been suppressed, it was never because she was weak, but because she was recognized and feared as having power, and with reason; for at the moment when the stronger power no longer desires surrender but seeks self-glorification, a catastrophe is bound to ensue.... The most profound surrender has as its opposite the possibility of utter refusal, and this is the negative side of the metaphysical mystery of woman. It is because, according to her very being, and her innermost meaning, she...constitutes the very power of surrender that is in the cosmos.... [W]oman's refusal denotes something demoniacal and is felt as such. She is never the power of evil in itself: the fallen angel exceeds her in revolt, and the devil is masculine; but she shares in his power of seduction. Seduction is self-will, the opposite to surrender....
If the sign of the woman is "Be it done unto me", which means the readiness to conceive or, when expressed religiously, the will to be blessed, then there is always misery when the woman no longer wills to conceive, no longer desires to be blessed.... (13-15).
Von le Fort offers a great deal more in this vein, but she also has much to say, too, about Mary the Mother of God -- the New Eve or the Advocate of Eve. Mary is, of course, the woman who, full of the grace of her special relationship with God, succeeds in reversing the course set by Eve, and fulfills in her person "the co-operation of a creature in the work of redemption" (16). According to Von le Fort:
[T]he Immaculata is God's inviolate image of humanity, the Virgin of the Annunciation its representative. In the humble fiat of her answer to the angel lies the mystery of redemption insofar as it depends on the creature.... The passive acceptance inherent in woman, which ancient philosophy regarded as purely negative, appears in the Christian order of grace as the positively decisive factor....
The fiat of the Virgin is...the revelation of the religious quality in its essence. Since, as an act of surrender, it is at the same time an expression of essential womanliness, the latter becomes the manifestation of the religious concept fundamental to the human being. Mary is therefore not only the object of religious veneration, but she herself is the religious quality by which honor is given to God; she is the power of surrender that is in the cosmos.... It is this that the Litany of Loreto means when, with the power of great poetry as well as great dogma, it invokes Mary as the Morning Star. The Morning Star rises in advance of the Sun in order to lose itself therein, and the divine Son at Mary's breast signifies, with regard to her, that within the radiance of the Child she herself is submerged. Only in this sense is she the Mother of Divine Grace. In this capacity...she is also the Mother of the Cross of Sorrows. As the glory of her Son outshines her, so his death struggle overshadows her. In her sorrow she is not only herself, but the surrendering one, the one who is suffering with her Son. But the compassionate one is also the co-redeeming one. This word, so frequently misunderstood, basically means...Mother of the Redeemer, Mother of the Redemption (9-10).
Von le Fort also offers many other kinds of reflections on the spiritual callings of women in different capacities -- as daughters, brides, mothers, consecrated virgins, active members of society and as artists and intellectual laborers -- that are quite powerful, and not rarely challenging intellectually and spiritually. In my view, the very challenging nature of the book only adds to its usefulness for contemporary women who, in many different states of life, may be yearning for something more nourishing than the often trite material we find in much popular writing on women and Christianity.
I recommend The Eternal Woman to other women as food for thought and prayer, especially those who have questions about the relationship of their femininity to Christianity, or about the particular temptations they and other women face as women, and who wish to further identify and cultivate the special gifts women can offer to the Church and to society. (I also recommend it to men, including priests, seeking more understanding about women, or who may find themselves in the position of counseling women, and who, of course, have things to learn from women!)
Anticipating the Feast of the Assumption 2012, and thinking, too, about Von le Fort's passages about both Eve and Mary, I should add that the medieval statue at Reims also struck me because, unlike other images of Eve I have seen, it seems very easily to translate, visually, into a transformed image of the Blessed Virgin.
While waiting and listening -- for the angel of the Lord before the Annunciation, perhaps -- this New Eve would be holding near her womb the texts of the Psalms in place of the serpent of sin. She would be bearing on her person the prayers of Israel, the kinds of words that came readily to her when she prayed her Magnificat:
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
In the person of Mary, Eve's special tasks, following the fall in Eden, are accomplished in their human and particularly feminine perfection: in the Virgin's Fiat mihi at the Annunciation; in the God-Bearer's modeling virtues and the faith of Israel to her son, the Son of God, the New Adam; in the Lady of Sorrow's abiding by her son to the hour of His death, and experiencing His Passion intensely in her heart; in the Mother of Mercy's bearing patiently with the missteps of the sinful men her son chose as the foundation stones for His Church, and modeling patience and fidelity to all people who come to the Church and need maternal care.
Unlike many Catholics, I have not up to this point in my life shared very much in a great spiritual devotion to the Blessed Mother. Why, I am not sure. But I am grateful that an unexpected encounter with a statue of Eve, and -- perhaps even more unexpectedly -- with the reflections of a German intellectual of the early twentieth century, have encouraged me to reflect on Mary's perfect patience and faithfulness. With Eve, I need Mary's special help to remain on the path of life, and to allow such forbearance and faith -- pouring forth from the very heart of God -- to become my own.