I started on this post more than a year ago and have come back to it from time to time. While I am up at Mount St. Francis, hiding in my cave and working on my paper for our Coredemption conference in July, I thought I would finally knock it out. I shot a video on the same topic a while back.
As one interested in helping to bring about a revival of Christian Chivalry, I have thought fondly of the image of the “damsel in distress” as being both iconic and inspiring of the chivalric ideals. I was horrified, then, to see such an honorable term being disparaged by those otherwise promoting the ideals of chivalry. Call me naive or nostalgic (or worse), but I cannot for the life of me see anything wrong with it.
I will admit, if we understand “damsel in distress” as it is caricatured, for example, by the film image of the pretty woman being tied screaming to the train tracks by Dastardly Dan and then being rescued by Agent Jim West, then there is much to be disparaged. The poor helpless thing is abused by one womanizer only to be rescued by another, and all the while is oblivious to everything but the attention she is getting. The ideals of chivalry have always been partially obscured by the cult of “courtly love.” There is nothing new under the sun.
Television and film have that curious ability of turning unalloyed gold into lead, and contrariwise, of cultivating a fondness for the most obvious absurdities. We have learned to despise feminine vulnerability and celebrate the wonders of the Bionic Woman.
So what is the “damsel in distress,” and why should her place in the venerable history of womanhood be preserved and honored? To answer this question we must first examine the contemporary feminist trend to idolize the Amazon.
TV and movies are rife with tough, violent women nowadays. And it’s a scary thing. The movie tough girl look likes a starlet but fights like Rambo.
I am reminded of the Greeks who invented the Amazon myth as a kind of horror story. No men resided in Amazon territory. Once a year the Amazons would travel to a neighboring tribe where they would allow themselves to be impregnated. All the male children were either put to death, sent back to their fathers or left in the wilderness. Nice.
The modern version is not just a horror story; it is feminist vicarious revenge, although, as usual, women are the losers in this gender horseplay. Misandry just ends in the frustration that women aren’t really men.
Not only are feminists in the mood to caricature men as jerks and buffoons, now they are literally kicking men’s rear ends–but only in Hollywood. No, in reality the Amazon myth is just a myth. The day all-women teams compete on a par with men in the NFL is the day I will believe otherwise. I am well aware that there are individual exceptions to this, but that just proves the rule, doesn’t it?
The Ms. Rambo fantasy is a sub-created world where women have their complete independence and men get payback from way back. I suppose it expresses the modern mood of male guilt over the past, when men and women believed that they were really different from each other. Women get their revenge all right, but at the expense of their femininity.
Women have, in fact, achieved a great deal of independence, some of it particularly critical in the light of divorce, abandonment and fatherlessness. Both single and married women have asserted their prowess in the public square and shown themselves formidable competition for men. In particular, many single moms have managed to create functioning families without a father.
But radical feminists have asserted women’s prowess most of all through divorce, abortion and birth control. After all, traditional childbearing has to go if women are to really be free of the dominance of men. Radical feminists have not yet figured out how to create a “woman only” utopia, so until they do, men are not quite as expendable as they would like to think.
In fact, in this charade men still win, don’t they? Now men have sex with women without consequences, and even when the woman keeps the baby, men feel more entitled than ever to opt out. It’s still a man’s world.
The Weaker Sex
Yes, women, like it are not, are the weaker sex, and while to say this is anathema in the public square, in my experience most women do not deny it, or are even inclined to deny it. Many will assume that by saying “weaker sex,” I mean “inferior sex,” which is not at all the case, nor does it even logically follow.
It is a women’s capacity to bear a child more than anything else that makes her the weaker sex. Physique and hormonal instability are secondary when compared to the immense vulnerability of female fertility. Men don’t get pregnant and have no fear of being abandoned by the mother of their child. The potential for motherhood is a woman’s greatest gift, but by its very nature it is something she is not capable of safeguarding by herself. She needs to be protected.
If anything, the ability to bear a child makes a woman superior to men, not inferior, but it certainly does not make her stronger. Alice Von Hildebrand, in her little book, The Privilege of Being a Woman, points out very clearly that the “weakness” of a woman does not mean that she is “less intelligent, less talented, less reliable, less moral, etc.” (35). She says that a woman’s weakness has both its cons and pros. (I paraphrase.) On the con side there is emotional vulnerability, greater sensitivity and openness to being wounded, emotional impressionability and sentimentality and emotional vulnerability to less than sincere men. On the pro side there is the fineness of womanhood in which her fragility and beauty are inherently connected; a woman’s weakness is one of the main motives for the promotion of chivalrous and courteous behavior; it is the fineness and beauty of vulnerability which tends to humanize men and promote the primacy of charity (cf. 36-47).
Now, I know I will get arguments from women, that point to certain facets of human life, where women generally manifest themselves as stronger than men, for example, in the ability to suffer and in the ability to persevere in the rigors of parenthood. However, full-fledged feminists would not count these examples as strength; quite the opposite.
All this being said, it is the vulnerability of feminine fertility, more than in any other way, that leaves the feminists ambivalent over the woman’s capacity for motherhood. They know motherhood is a great good, but it is also one that puts them at a very real disadvantage.
Babies as Parasites
According to pro-life feminist Mary Krane Derr, feminists have alternately defended a woman’s distinctive capacity to bear children and then capitulated to the tendency to self-devaluation resulting from the changes that take place in a woman’s body during pregnancy. Most feminists, however, whether defending or attacking motherhood, have advocated for abortion. This ambivalence concerning motherhood, together with the gut reaction support of abortion, quite naturally has manifested itself in the regard of pregnancy as a disease and the fetus as an aggressor or parasite.
Derr quotes from a 1969 play by Myrna Lamb, “But What Have You Done for Me Lately?” It is another version of the Ms. Rambo myth in which the endgame always finds women still inferior and still the looser. The only consolation here is in sharing the misery:
. . . The drama depicts the reactions of a man in whom a pregnant uterus was forcibly implanted, clarifying for him the anger, desperation, and anguish of a woman when she faces the same dilemma:
“Why should I give this . . . this thing representation?” he cries. “It is nothing to me. I am not responsible for it or where it is nor do I wish to be. I have a life, an important life. I have work, important work . . . and this mushroom which you have visited upon me in your madness has no rights, no life, no importance to anyone, certainly not to the world. It has nothing. It has no existence . . . A tumor. A parasite. This has been foisted upon me? and then I am told that I owe it primary rights to life? My rights are subsidiary! This insanity! I do not want this thing in my body! It does not belong there. I want it removed. Immediately. Safely.”
The pregnant uterus he finds in him was implanted by a woman he once impregnated and abandoned. She remembers what it was like to have that unwanted disease and speaks for all women like her who are deprived of the surgery that would cure the unwanted pregnancy:
“Our work suffered. Our futures hung from a gallows. Guilt and humiliation and ridicule and shame assailed us. Our bodies. Our individual unique familiar bodies, suddenly invaded by strange unwelcome parasites, and we were denied the right to rid our own bodies of these invaders by a society dominated by righteous male chauvinists of both sexes who identified with the little clumps of cells and gave them precedence over the former owners of the host bodies.”
Wouldn’t that be the ultimate revenge, to force men, against their will to bear children? Do these women really hate themselves that much? It seems so.
Derr also points to the same self-devaluating root when considering the cause of anorexia. Studies have shown that the cult of thinness (which now seems even vogue in fashion and has resulted in the death of high profile models) is connected to many women’s discomfort with their own bodies, which they consider inferior, and that drives them to shed their feminine curves and appear more like a man.
No, women are not inferior and pregnancy is not a disease. Women need to rediscover their own dignity in that which is at the same time their vulnerability. Derr concludes her article:
Such a transformed understanding of gestation can give women the confidence to demand proper recognition of pregnancy as a truly indispensable contribution that they, and only they, can make to human life. Indeed, women must make this demand if they wish to achieve full liberation. If feminists are to heal women’s estrangement from their bodies, they must not think of pregnancy as disease, even when it occurs in tremendously unsupportive contexts. When they accept this construction of pregnancy, they only perpetuate the female tendency to lash out at the self rather than challenge societal conditions that deny the worthiness of the self.
The “societal conditions” to which Derr refers are many, but clearly one of those conditions is the devaluating of femininity by men, and the consequent acceptance and assimilation of that devaluation by women themselves. For some feminists, achieving “full liberation” means to reject all gender differences beyond biology as oppressive social constructs. It means gaining the strength not to be dependent on men at all. If this is what full liberation means, it is hard to imagine its achievement apart from birth control, abortion and divorce. The only other avenue, it seems would be lesbianism, a path, which logic based on false premises, has led some feminists to take. As Charlotte Bunch explains in Lesbians in Revolt:
Lesbianism is a threat to the ideological, political, personal, and economic basis of male supremacy. The Lesbian threatens the ideology of male supremacy by destroying the lie about female inferiority, weakness, passivity, and by denying women’s ‘innate’ need for men (even for pro-creation if the science of cloning is developed).
It’s a brave new world.
The Emancipation of Domesticity
It seems that modern feminists are more afraid and jealous of men than they care to admit. The feminist cry for emancipation from men is a misfiring femininity, a woman’s natural grace, an exhortation to men to be fair and humane, turned shrill and ugly. Emancipation has come to mean “free” to become like a man, which is to say, something not at all like a woman.
The absurdity of this strikes me in the gut (pun intended), as when popular culture play acts and allows Ms. Rambo to stand on the top of her heap of conquered and broken boys. As much as I pity the poor deluded girl, I pity the rest of us as well. The Amazon myth has trampled us all.
Feminists admonish men to give them quarter, but not to respect them. And men don’t. Abortion and birth control have not raised the status of women one iota. Abandonment and fatherlessness are a plague upon family and civil life. No one is better for it, certainly not women, but neither are men nor children. Feminists are manlier and less feminine, and for that reason they are less humane, and therefore, so is everyone else.
Just as men in film and television pretend to be beat up by women, so real-world men comply with the demands of the feminists and meanwhile snicker privately at the foolish girls who have guaranteed a man’s right to be a perpetually irresponsible, puerile, post-pubescent, and juvenile. Ladies, I hope you are happy.
Unfortunately, I think many women are quite happy. Gone are the days when they were regarded as the guardians of chastity and domestic life. One may no longer assume that the bimbo is dumb. The real feminine prowess has been cultivated and refined into a college educated, hyper-sexualized form of manipulation. The women’s clothing section of the local Walmart now looks like some out of the way, sleazy sex shop. It’s the new, smart, emancipated look. The war of the sexes goes on, and everyone is losing.
Women are, in fact, inherently the weaker sex; however, the whole world is at the mercy of this weakness. Unless women once again become the guardians of chastity and domestic life, we are all doomed. The dignity and power of a woman lies in her prerogative to say yes or no. She becomes a queen or a plaything with the well-placed whisper of one little word.
The whole world turns on this power, and it must be defended unto the death. It is both the stuff of adventure and a primordial, domestic thing. But isn’t domestic life the real adventure, the place where every day is perilous and uncertain, where the whole world hangs in the balance? Yes, the power of a woman’s consent is a domestic reality, one pertaining to marriage and procreation before anything else, but it extends to the whole of civilized life. G.K. Chesterton, perhaps the most chivalrous man of the twentieth century, had this to say about the “emancipation of domesticity”:
But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean.
To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene: I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness (What’s Wrong with the World).
I can hear the groans. No, I am not saying that a woman’s place is only in the home, but I am saying that it is primarily there. A woman is not accidentally maternal; she is essentially so. Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, put it succinctly: a woman’s vocation is “empathy.”
But empathy is a weakness. It is openness to experience and participate in what others experience, especially pain. It makes a woman vulnerable. But without it we all die.
Damsels in Distress
That brings me more directly to the question of the “damsel in distress.” It is a chivalric image of vulnerability and innocence. Of course, such an image is not complete without the “knight in shining armor,” who conveys the sense of courage and heroism. The image, completed with the damsel in distress being saved by the knight in shining armor, is the picture of courtesy and contains as happy an ending as anyone could hope for. Perhaps the word that best describes it is one coined by Tolkien: eucatastrophe, meaning the complete reversal of catastrophe, idealized as the triumph of the Cross made available to all of us in the Eucharist.
Historically one of the earliest and most important examples of the image as it entered the West is the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The story is by no means an exclusively Western treasure (I think of Russia and Lebanon, for example), but it is particularly important for an understanding of Western chivalry (especially in England).
As the legend goes, or at least one version of it, a dragon took up its abode at the spring from which the locals drew their water. The dragon thus took custody of the spring and demanded a price for its use. The only way the townsfolk could draw their water was by the offering of someone to the dragon as a human sacrifice. Each day a new victim was selected by common agreement through the drawing of lots. One fateful day, the lot fell to the princess of the kingdom, and even the intervention of her father, the king, was not enough to save her from the dragon; the people insisted that the arrangement be respected. At this point, St. George providentially ride up on his steed and volunteered his services to face the dragon, which he did to great effect, the dragon being slain and the damsel rescued. The awestruck townspeople as a result abandoned the ways of paganism and became Christians.
Crusaders, it is said, brought the story back from the East, and retold it as a courtly romance. In a way typical of the Middle Ages, Christian tradition and hagiography was transformed into quasi-secular romance. Certainly, for courtiers who heard this story the “art of courtly love,” could easily serve as the hermeneutic for the understanding of the story, in which case, it would not be any different from the story of the rescue of a damsel in the Arthurian cycle. However, the Christian symbolism, even in the most embellished version of the legend, is unmistakable: the Christ figure enters into combat with the Demon and rescues the Virgin Church from his clutches. This is paradise regained. In some versions of the legend, there is even a tree (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) to which the maiden is tied and from which she is rescued.
The damsel in distress is the bride of Ephesians 5. This passage of St. Paul on marriage is a holy incantation and exorcism that scatters the feminist demons to their dark and gloomy pits. St. Paul, the “misogynist,” is actually the guardian of feminine weakness and the promoter of chivalry. He admonishes the coward Adam and kneels at the feet of the hero Christ. Both men and women are better for it, if by casting off the modern prejudice they can just for a moment wave away the wafting mist of the Ms. Rambo deception and see the Bridegroom and Bride for who they truly are.
Damsels Not So in Distress
We live in an unreal age, when we have “pregnant men,” surgically enhanced beauty queens and the Hollywood myth of the female soldier. I don’t say this lightly, or in any way to disparage the brave women who serve in our armed forces, but take the example of PFC Jessica Lynch, who was lionized by the Pentagon as the Rambo-like heroine of the Iraq war, but as it turns out, had never fired her weapon. This story is not only symptomatic of Pentagon propaganda, but of the general acceptance of the Ms. Rambo myth. That myth is putting women in harms way in a manner that goes far beyond the ordinary dangers of military life. Sexual abuse of military women by military men is of “jaw-dropping proportions.
But what about the valiant women of history and literature: Judith, Esther, Jael, St. Joan of Arc, Luthien, Eowyn, ect.? Examine each of their stories and you will find a woman driven by love and a prophetic spirit, not someone preoccupied with the worldly ways of domination and prowess. In each case, more importantly you will find a woman who picks up the sword that a man, derelict of his duty, has dropped and from which he has walked away. In each case you will find a victress who conquers not so much by force of arms, but by her beauty, virtue and charm.
Judith, that type of Our Lady, for example, is the ultimate femme fatale, beautiful and virtuous, who lulls her enemy by her charms and then decapitates him in his lustful sleep. Being the proper lady that she is, she is accompanied to and from her encounter by one of her maids who carries back to the city the head of the enemy in her purse. The men of Judith’s city who were too afraid and desperate to solve the problem themselves are left with no other resource than to sing her praises:
Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, thou art the joy of Israel, thou art the honor of our people: For thou hast done manfully, and thy heart has been strengthened, because thou hast loved chastity, and after thy husband hast not known any other: therefore also the hand of the Lord hath strengthened thee, and therefore thou shalt be blessed for ever (Judith 15:10, 11).
In regard to the dangerous character of virtuous femininity, which character is perfectly harmonious with a woman’s character as damsel in distress, Chesterton said it best:
I have little doubt that when St. George had killed the dragon he was heartily afraid of the princess (The Victorian Age in Literature).
The Valiant Woman
Who shall find a valiant woman? far, and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.
St. Bonaventure writes that this verse from the Book of Proverbs (31:10) is prophetic of the Blessed Virgin’s fortitude, especially at the foot of the Cross. The “price of her,” that is, her worth, is the fruit of Her womb, which fruit she bore, offered and possesses. Thus she bore the price in joy at Bethlehem; She paid the price in sorrow on Calvary; and now She possesses the price as Mediatrix in heaven.
Far off and from the last ends is her price; and who is she? This woman, the Blessed Virgin, is the price, through which we prevail to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven; or it is Hers, that is, taken from Her, paid by Her and possessed by Her: taken from Her in the Incarnation of the Word; paid by Her in the redemption of the human race; and possessed by Her in the gaining of the glory of paradise. She brought forth, paid and possessed that price; therefore it is Hers as the one originating, as the one paying and as the one possessing. That woman brought forth that price as one strong and holy; paid it as one strong and pious; possessed it as one strong and vigorous (Conferences on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Conference 6).
Mary is the ideal woman and the iconic Damsel in Distress. St. Bonventure chooses to speak in reference to Her when discussing thd Gift of Fortitude. He makes a distinction between the courage of action, which he attributes properly to man, and that of suffering, which he attributes to the woman: “Men are they that do; women are they that suffer” (pati). The root here of the word suffer is passio (literally, “that which is undergone”), so in the first place it indicates receptivity, an openness to what it is real; secondarily, but most importantly, it is openness to suffering willed out of love. Mary is the Queen of Martyrs and the Sorrowful Mother. She is the Queen of the Seven Swords.
In the friars chapel in Griswold, Connecticut, the rood beam spans the width of the Church and separates the sanctuary from the nave. On it a summary of St. Bonaventure’s doctrine are carved and gilded:
Pretium Redemptionis Nostrae Maria Protulit, Persolvit Possidet,
that is, “Mary bore, offered (paid) and possesses the price of our redemption.”
Taken out of the context of Christian revelation the idea of men acting and women suffering could and has been interpreted to mean: “Men are those who do unto; women are those who are done unto.” But one must recognize that the context for this relationship in the mind of saints like Bonaventure is John 19 and Ephesians 5. The Ms. Rambo myth and the accoutrements that go along with it, like contraception and abortion, are the paraphernalia of a world that has rejected the cross, where mutual manipulation is the rule, where persons are used, not loved.
Historical chivalry from the point of view of Christian ethics was about channeling the courage of action in such a way that it respected the high dignity of the courage of suffering. Women were venerated precisely for the fine delicacy of their beauty, which is exemplary of everything that is worth dying for, namely, the true, good and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the ethical ideal in historical chivalry was all too often just that, an ideal. The courtiers and troubadours too often idealized woman in a pagan sense, that is, they made her a goddess, who was to be served and flattered in the hope that she might shed the dew of her grace upon the poor suitor. So reads one of the rules of courtly love: “Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies, thou shalt ever strive to ally thyself to the service of Love.”
I can never take this kind of thing seriously. Dan Brown tried to resurrect this nonsense in his unbearable Da Vinci Code. Poor little Sophie, so the backstory goes, misinterpreted the sex-rite in which she had discovered her grandfather engaged and refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. Only after his death, when she is fully enlightened by the much smarter men around her, is she able to realize that what had horrified her in reality it is the most respectable form of goddess worship. And guess what? Sophie also eventually learns that, descending as she does from the bloodline of Christ, she has a special title to the cult of the goddess. The culminating passage where this tripe is fully revealed to Sophie reads like a pious exposition of the most holy mysteries, when in fact it is the diabolic mutterings of the demon of lust. And of course, Sophie takes it all in as the enlightened little sex object she was meant to be.
This is also a reason why I fear what I think has rightly been termed the pansexualism of Christopher West. I do not wish to connect him with the paganism of Dan Brown, but I am always suspicious of pious male veneration of the female body. I am not talking about an ordinary red-blooded attraction. I am talking about the refined, studied and sophisticated trappings of sexual obsession cloaked in euphemisms. Do I think this is what West is engaged in? No, but the penchant for unveiling the mystery in explicit language is dangerous.
Chesterton points to the contrast of worldly and other-worldly regard for femininity in his poem “The Ballad of King Arthur.” The historical information we have regarding Arthur is very slim. All we know are the bits and pieces salvaged by monks from the Dark Ages, mostly about what battles he fought in, especially, the Battle of Mount Badon and concerning the fact that he “carried the image of Mary, Ever-virgin, on his shoulder, through whose virtue and that of Jesus Christ,” he was victorious. Chesterton writes:
King Arthur on Mount Badon
Bore Our Lady on his shield
High on that human altar held
Above the howling field,
High on that living altar heaved
As a giant heaves a tower
She saw all heathenry appalled
And the turning of the hour.
But the woman that the world remembers, when the story of Arthur is retold and embellished, is not the Queen of Virgin’s but the queen that betrayed the king:
The Queen that wronged King Arthur’s house
Had lovers in all lands
And many a poet praised her pride
At many a queen’s commands:
And the King shrank to a shadow
Watching behind a screen
And the Queen walked with Lancelot
And the world walked with the Queen.
But, as we might expect, Chesterton does not walk with the world or with the Queen “that wronged King Arthur’s house, but with the Queen of the Seven Swords:
Stillness like lightning strike the street
And doubt and deep amaze
And many a courtly bard be dumb
Beside his butt and bays
And many a patron prince turned pale—
If one such flash made plain
The Queen that stands at his right hand
If Arthur comes again.
Guinevere was not so much a damsel in distress, even as she was rescued from the flames by Lancelot, because she was a manipulator just like Lancelot. On the other hand, Our Lady is the true Damsel in Distress and Christ, the true Knight in Shining Armor, because they are one in the mutual freedom of self-giving. Arthur, the “once and future king” will find the honor of his kingdom regained, when the lesson of the Quest of the Holy Grail is learned by the mass of men. Chivalry cannot be a sham and we cannot live without the real thing.
Yes, women need to be protected. They are damsels in distress. The man should stand guard in front of the veil. The courage of action should be put into the service of the courage of suffering. Christ on the Cross did what the first Adam was afraid to do: He protected his Bride. He entered into battle with the dragon and freed the Virgin tied to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was slain in the process, but in the power of His paschal mystery has presented her to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5: 27).
Hail Victress, standing fast,
The banner is lifted.
Unfurl the sign of salvation,
And storm with Thy Lord
the lair of the Dragon.
Holy Lily of our knighthood,
Draw us to Thy side
To die with Thee,
con-crucified in Him.
The Chivalrous Woman
The idea of damsels in distress implies that women need men. But men also need women. And this is not only a matter of marriage and family, or of matrimonial complementarity. It is also a matter of chivalry. Men need women to be chivalrous.
There is a grain of truth in the chivalrous ideal of the service of women. But it has nothing to do with the mutual manipulation that has continued through the ages, even after the presumed death of chivalry. Even among those who hate chivalry, the mutual manipulation of the sexes is a sacred doctrine. Ms. Rambo is tolerated by her brothers in arms because now she is one of the boys. She can use her sexuality on her own terms, but the game is on. Let us see whether she succeeds. She no longer has any claim to protection.
Mutual manipulation can never end unless men are protective and women want to be protected. Motherhood is worthy of the highest veneration. Vulnerability is the delicacy of a flower. If men do not love this, they are not worthy to be loved.
Women need to hold men to the highest standards. They need to be choosy in regard to the men to whom they say yes. This is the real power of a woman: her fiat. On it the whole of history depends. What John Paul II reminds us, and Christopher West stresses, is that the “freedom of the gift” with respect to man and woman in the mystery of marriage is absolutely inviolable, and that the preservation of that gift belongs to the man (the male) in a special way (TOB 15; 33.1-2). A woman’s yes is sacred and it needs to be protected. But if woman does not value her fiat properly, if she sells it off cheaply, she has no real escape. It is either subjugation in the classical sense or the Ms. Rambo myth.
Geoffroi de Charny was a fourteenth century French knight and bearer of the Oriflamme, who wrote a well known manual for knights called The Book of Chivalry. In that work he writes of the duty of courtly women to hold their men to the highest standards. For the most part that meant that they were only to give their love to knights who had won worldly honor, and who could safely be named a lover of some man without their own loss of worldly honor:
And if one of the other ladies loves the miserable wretch who, for no good reason, is unwilling to bear arms, she will see him come into that very hall and perceive and understand that no one pays him any attention or shows him honor or notices him, and few know who he is, and those who do think nothing of him, and he remains hidden behind everyone else, for no one brings him forward. Indeed, if there is such a lady, she must feel very uneasy and disconsolate when she sees that she has devoted time and thought to loving and admiring a man who no one admires or honors, and that they never hear a word said of any great deed that he ever achieved. Ah, God! What small comfort and solace is there for those ladies who see their lovers held in such little honor, with no excuse except lack of will! (20.14-25).
The worldly standard of pride was somewhat necessary in the training of men of arms, and still is. The warrior must be ferocious, in some measure, and so the warrior culture encourages bold, decisive behavior that is bent upon domination and victory. That women would hold out for the bravest and most honored men was understandable and promoted the warrior culture, even so, while this may have also promoted the ideals courtly love, it did not necessarily safeguard the true dignity of women or the good of marriage and family life.
Too many women sell their fiat too cheaply to knaves who are not worthy of them, and sometimes those knaves are knights in the making, whose honor, a woman’s cheap yes does not serve. Men need to be both warriors and true gentlemen and only women can help them find that balance. Women need to humanize men, without stifling their urge to take risks and to fight. Men need to protect and defend the honor of women.
I pointed out in some comments on a blog that was discussing Theology of the Body—to which I will not link because of some of the filthy comments found there—that the Playboy philosophy of Hugh Hefner is not only puerile, but effeminate. The playboy is a prurient Peter Pan, who has never learned how to be a man, perhaps because he has never sufficiently identified with a father figure. His preference is to play indoors where he can’t get hurt and where he will never by deprived of the soft touch of a woman.
There are also the men who are just plainly brutal, how have natural bravado, aggression and a libido to match. A woman’s cheap yes, in this regard, and other men’s silence in the face of it, are the stuff out of which tragedies are made. The damsel in distress has one weapon only: her judicious consent over which she is the sole mistress.
Chesterton was inspired by the nursery rhyme “Pears or Pairs” to write a poem on the subject of true courtly love, which he entitled “An Old Riddle.” I will conclude with it, since it so aptly summarizes the battle of the sexes and the formula for mutual victory. That formula does not provide for the possibility of the damsel in distress being rescued from Dastardly Dan only to be wooed by a more suave womanizer, nor does it provide for the baptism of the Ms. Rambo myth. The real solution is more difficult and more complex, but as with everything else that is worth living for, it is worth dying for:
Seven Knights of the Court of Love
Each has her for a star above
Seven smite in a single name
Seven hearts are hearts of flame
Round where she doth sit
But a maid’s choice is as God’s choice
And who shall challenge it. . .
Seven titans, huge and starred
Seven giants of God’s own guard
These may merit all years’ renown,
Fit for these be the robe and crown,
Heaven’s fields befit
But a maid’s grace is as God’s grace
And who shall merit it.
It’s funny how you post this. I was just talking with my friend the other day about Social Issues of today, particularly in regards to men and women not fulfilling their roles.
Great Post Father! Rather long. 😉
Magnificent work, Father! I will be reading this several times.
I have one question, though. In Scripture, Our Lady is foretold as the one who will crush the head of the serpant (Gn. 3:15), and this warlike passage in the Song of Song(6:10) is traditionally thought to refer to Mary:
“Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set forth in battle array.”
That is not the end of Mary being portrayed as doing battle. Our Lady of Czestochowa, in the 16th century, I believe, appeared on the ramparts of the Jasna Gora fort during the siege of Poland by the Swedes in the midst of battle.
Swedish soldiers testified that they saw a lady in white appear walking on the walls of the fort and deflecting their projectiles with her hand back into their ranks, wounding many.
She is invoked by the Poles in the Novena to Our Lady of Czestochowa as “Mary, Warrior of the Living God,” and “O victorious Queen, triumphant over all your enemies.”
Lastly, Chesterton himself has this passage in Book VII (195-204) in The Ballad of the White Horse:
“One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly—
But she was a queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.”
The depiction of Mary with a sword in hand should not be incongruous to what you were speaking of so beautifully.
I believe Mary does appear with “sword in hand,” as any good mother or Queen of Christendom would, if it is the last resort, the last line of defense, and good strong men are no longer available for one reason or another to defend her children and her homeland.
Sorry for the long comment, but you’ve given me much to ponder, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this point.
Oops! Actually, the post above was from me. My husband’s name was on the form when I sent it.
Wow! That is a great deal to meditate on Jules. Thanks for the additional images!
I wrote a paper a few years back called “Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand,” in which I compared “The Ballad of the White Horse” and Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” in the context of Marian coredemption. You’ll get no argument from me.
In any case, the use of arms by Our Lady is comparable, it seems to me, to her types in the old testament, but more spiritual. The words of St. Joan of Arc come to mind, which I will paraphrase: “The men will fight, and God will give them the victory, through His Mother, our Queen.”
Do you still have that paper lying around somewhere? Sounds really fascinating. It’s good to find someone else who loves poetry. : )
I will find it and post it as a pdf.
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Unfortunately, I think for a while in reparation you’re going to have a lot of Don Quixotes and Dulcinaes (or should I say, Aldonzas?)
But any man that’s worth his weight in gold will respect and treat a woman’s heart as gold.
Does Cervantes poke fun at chivalry itself or its exaggerations? This is a long standing debate. I think the latter.
But you have to love the valiant, ingenious and crazy gentleman.
And if I can say one more thing.
Women who are pregnant are physically more vulnerable, as is stated by Father above, but clinically proven by the likes of the Elliot Institute (which studied the homicidal rates and rates of domestic violence of pregnant women who refused abortions) and the studies of Chicago Feminists Movement which studied the rates of forced sterilizations upon women in the area. Pregnant women are culturally vulnerable and take their lives in their hands by portraying the unborn child within them. And yet, many women that follow this religious order are pregnant a lot with a lot of children. It takes great courage to be pregnant not just once but as many times as God intends. And that’s not to pat anyone of my fellow moms on the back, but to give a nod to our vocation. Courage is a strength, and this witness takes a lot of courage. But if our Lord and Master can come to us in the form of unleavened bread, bread that will not rise up, and that humility and condescension takes courage to be vulnerable. Then we too should have the courage to be vulnerable in our lay vocation to be formed as the Lord wills, and to not rise up amidst the strifes placed on us here too. Not to make us more like God, but more like who God intends.
Dear Father, this is such an excellent article. May God reward you. With your permission I would like to link to it on my Tea at Trianon blog next week since I have many young readers who would find your words to be inspiring.
I would be honored.
Thank you, Father.
Yes, a nod to the moms and a warning to both potential moms and their suitors. Girls, insist on being protected and start before you say “yes.” Don’t give it away cheaply. Suitors: Earn it and don’t whine. And earn it by showing yourself a defender of a woman’s chastity.
Rock on Father!
I think Don Quixote exaggerated to a zealous degree, out of his great love of chivalry. No, I don’t believe he mocked it, but I believe the world mocked him for it.
I hope you don’t mind but I linked this post on CatholicVote as well under a discussion about the “common-ground” of feminism in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. You stated so clearly here what I wanted to get across, why rewrite a masterpiece:)
The post is titled Pro-Life/Pro-Choice under the General heading in the Forum section:
This was a wonderful post. I’m not in anyway Catholic (being raised Protestant) but I was always fascinated with the “Knights and Fair Maidens” history. I always wanted to be a part of a new movement of Christian men that bring back chivalry. It’s not dead it’s just sleeping. It’s a long and deep post but parts of it I feel are a call to arms to men in general. I hope you expand on this to challenge us men.
There is undoubtedly much wisdom in what you wrote here. However, it does appear that you take for granted that while the dignity of women can be violated by men, there is never a violation of the dignity of men by women. In other words, you seem to say that men are not adversely affected by the way women view or treat them, or that if there is such adversity against men, it is negligible. You seem to say that the only question that really matters is how do men view and treat women. As though it is a sure thing that women will always do what is right when given the chance, except that men often stand in their way. As though there is no such thing as an evil woman, only evil men.
Please help me if you are able, to see the whole picture if I am shortsighted on this.
I appreciate your observation. You make a valid point which I have not developed much but will need to in the future. I did mention mutual manipulation, and in particular the way the new feminism uses female sexuality.
My theme dictated a certain focus and one which is a major point contention. I also do believe that the weaker sex needs to be protected, so that puts a particular burden on men.
Again, your point is well taken, and should be particularly considered in the light of the fact that many women have chosen to be like men and so should be expected to hold to the same standard.
Thank you very much, Eli. I will keep proclaiming the praises of chivalry. I promise!
I have been looking forward to the chance to finally read this and that chance came today! It is excellent.
I will admit that when I hear the phrase of women being the weaker sex, my hair starts to curl and my teeth begin to clench together. I’m sure it’s because this phrase no longer means today what it meant originally … how you are defining it. It would be like me calling a jovial, happy-go-lucky fellow ‘gay’. It means something totally different today than it did just a few short decades ago.
The weaker animal in the forest gets devoured. The weaker man in the wrestling match gets squashed. And, the weak woman in a home can get abused and left sticking it out because she cannot support herself without him. Women became accustomed to feeling grateful that at least their husband didn’t drink or beat them … even if he was a total schmuck. Hey … it could be worse. He could be a schmuck that beats her, too.
I have a feeling that this is how most women will feel when presented with the idea of being the weaker sex. I’m not sure how you’re going to get past this.
I think the pendulum has swung the other way … it went from one extreme to the other and it really needs to settle in the middle (if that ideal is even possible). What I mean by the middle is that women don’t want to be thought of as dumb and incapable … which, btw, men probably made them feel. (I have read old books discussing how girls cannot do well in math and science and boys don’t do well with reading and writing. It’s nonsense so we cannot swing back that far.) Yet, they have now decided to BE men and have sacrificed all that made them who they really are. And, in contrast, it seems as though men are taking on traits of women. I am blown away by how many very effeminate men (and boys) I meet on a regular basis!! What gives?
I do feel that the tides are slowly turning. I’ve met many highly educated women who were earning lofty salaries in corporate America decide to give it all up to raise their children. When they do this, their husbands are terrified and insecure that they won’t be able to support their families … but many rise to the occasion because they MUST. Granted, many of these women have their 2 children so they can return soon enough but some never do. Those that do I think yearn for the accolades that the world gives which the home does not give. We grow up in school looking for that good report card and the awards and honors received. It feeds the ego and assures us that we’re on the right path. Then in the work world, if we are doing as we should, we get a promotion and a pay-raise. When we get home, we have nothing by which to gauge ourselves and this is all new terrain. We begin to compare ourselves to other women … not good … but it’s our meter. My house is messier than her house … my kids are better behaved than her kids (that’s because I don’t spend as much time cleaning as she does) … yadda yadda yadda. It’s all so petty but it comes down to not knowing if we’re doing it right! What if I sacrifice for the next 20 yrs and my kids all turn out to be losers and my husband leaves me? It’s safer in the work world … I feel like I’m doing SOMETHING right because I got a good review!
Granted, I have been home for nearly 20 yrs now … I will admit to grieving some of my former abilities that seem to have gotten buried in the cobwebs of my brain as I’ve raised children. But, I have had to grow by NOT receiving the kudos from others and that’s been very hard (yet, very fruitful I feel). So, I understand why these women are afraid to become that *weaker* sex … it requires humility and vulnerability and we know so many people who have been burned. But, if the pendulum is to swing more towards the middle, someone will have to make that first move … someone will have to be vulnerable. I think that the *someone* will have to be the woman. She will need to choose her man wisely and then put all of her trust in him that he will take care of his family … he will then, hopefully, rise to that occasion and we will see healthier families that others will want to emulate.
That would be a happy fairy-tale ending, don’t you think?
Of course, this is how God designed it all … this mutual respect and love and vulnerability and sacrifice. This is it in a nutshell … our real problem today has come from leaving God out of the picture altogether.
Since, as we say say, there’s nothing new under the sun … I wonder if the pendulum ever swung this far before and what the eventual outcome was. I do see the homosexuality in the past with dire results … I wonder if there was ever a time when women took on the roles of men and shunned their fertility in the quest … were there civilizations such as these? (Not fictional ones like the Amazon women.)
I happened across your website by accident and was delighted at what I discovered. The idea of a Catholic organization that embraces the code of chivalry and celebrates virtues as a way of life is wonderful, and I commend your efforts. Nothing is needed more in our media infatuated society then for a restoration of ethics, especially with younger generations, and to do so through devotion to faith is a noble solution.
However, I found the article above and the use of the “Ms. Rambo” Hollywood stereotype to define women warriors, to be nothing short of offensive. My apologies if I’m misinterpreting your work, but you seem to entirely reject any notion of an honorable woman warrior. Frankly, I find this claim staggering.
Regrettably, in our current society, true knights among men are not commonplace but certainly exist (again, why I admire and appreciate the efforts of your order). However, true women warriors, a far cry from the plastic gun-toting Barbie dolls of the tarnished silver screen, exist as well. Why you chose such a warped femme fatale image, which is actually intended less as a female role model and more as fulfilling alleged male fantasies, is beyond me, since it is such a perverted and sensationalized, distortion of truth.
Real women warriors are raised with the same virtues as male warriors. Faith, Honor, Courage, Benevolence, Loyalty, Rectitude, Respect, Truth, and Wisdom are not restricted to gender by any means. Whether in verbal or physical defense, women warriors come to the aid of those who have no voice or cannot defend themselves. They exist in an inner harmony that blends their ability to nurture with their ability to protect that which they care for, be it a child or a moral principal. They wear a sundress and armor with equal ease and can cook a complex meal as easily as they can perform complex techniques in sparring matches. They are both gentle and strong, depending on what is needed to address an obstacle or situation.
Neither a helpless damsel in distress nor a “Ms. Rambo” who glorifies violence, sexuality, and hatred of men, women warriors do not rely singularly on men to “save” them at any moments notice, but this does not mean they reject men or view them as unnecessary by any means. Quite the opposite. Male warriors are embraced and deeply respected as most noble brothers who have also answered God’s “call to arms” to defend the weak, bring compassion to the poor, restore integrity to society, and praise the infinite glory of the Lord. Their relationship is that of camaraderie and cooperation, working together to counteract the immorality in our world. Men are valued and celebrated as fellow warriors, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and friends.
Just as not all men are knights (both in our society and in history), not all women are warriors. Women warriors do not by any means “look down” on damsels in distress either. They can come to the aid of their sisters if needed, but also respect and love their sisters, as God calls every individual to serve Him in a different way.
So please, do not dismiss the truth of real women warriors, and do not paint them as Hollywood’s bikini-clad barbarians (women warriors are repulsed by this image and the harm that it causes both genders). Women warriors are all around us, just like male warriors. They are combat medics, diplomats, fire fighters, lawyers, nuns, journalists, caretakers, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and most of all, servants of the Lord. They are real and they are active in their families, church, communities, and the world. They fight injustice, protect the innocent, bring hope to the despairing, comfort the neglected, and celebrate the glory of God, just as their noble brothers do.
Should I be blessed with a son in my life, I would love for my son and his father to join your society, growing together in faith and courage. Should I be blessed with a daughter, and should she be drawn to the chivalric code, I would never discourage her from such an honorable calling, or limit her to being a damsel in distress, if she showed the calling of being a woman warrior.
God bless you and your wonderful organization, and while I certainly respect your freedom to be a Brotherhood, I sincerely hope that you will reconsider the idea that women can only be damsels in distress, when some are in fact dutiful and honorable women warriors.
My remarks are based on the existence of real differences between men and women that include biological and physiological factors but go well beyond them. In some respects I make generalizations, but that is because in general they are true. In general women are vulnerable and need to be protected by men. My example of Ms. Rambo is a real phenomenon in popular media and it is a myth, because while there are always exceptions to the rule, pound for pound female warriors will be trounced by male warriors.
This is not to say there are not strong women who come to the help of the needy and afflicted. The examples I give in history and literature testify to this. But there is something inherently maternal and feminine in their behavior, whereas a warrior culture, IMHO, is certainly not maternal or feminine, but decidedly masculine.
The warrior is taught to reject feminine softness and delicacy and to become fierce, dangerous and destructive. Masculinity has always had this quality, and that is both a blessing and a curse. The warrior needs to have his aggression mollified by a code of ethics, but the spirit of the warrior itself leads to bloodshed and domination. A soldier who hesitates to shed blood and climb to the top of the hill over the corpses of his enemies is a poor soldier. At once masculinity needs to be promoted and controlled, and in the interests of this, society is often at cross purposes.
I think we would also be at far more destructive cross purposes if we encouraged mothers to shed blood as well. There will be exceptions, but they are exceptions.
There will always be the mystique of the woman warrior who cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array (Canticles 6:9). But I submit that it is something exceptional or at least distinct from the warrior culture that arises from masculinity.
Thanks everyone for the comments. I will try to respond in the next day or so.
BTW, Kathryn. You might want to take a look at the comments where my post was cross-posted at Dawn Patrol, you might find the discussion apropos to the issues you raise.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment, I greatly appreciate it.
Based on your response, we seem to have a disagreement on the definition of what it truly means to be a “warrior.”
The concept of being a warrior is not at all limited to physical prowess. For example, any athlete or solider (of either gender) could have a “warrior’s physique” but not possess a warrior’s heart. On the other hand, someone who does not possess a warrior’s physique may possess a formidable warrior’s spirit. Indeed, the essence of a true warrior is rooted in their spirituality, faith, philosophy, commitment, and skill. It is not mere physical stature, it’s in their adherence to the code of the warrior (Honor, Courage, Integrity, Truth, Justice, Compassion, Loyalty, etc.)
Just as someone who carries a sword is not necessarily a warrior, anyone who takes delight in violence or bloodshed is not a true warrior. Being a true warrior is not demonstrated by how many corpses someone can pile up or how many pounds he or she can bench press, it is shown through their understanding and active application of warrior virtues. The honor of being a true warrior comes not from an act of destruction, but from adherence to a Way of life. Our society and our world thankfully are filled with devoted warriors of both genders who dutifully uphold the true warrior’s code.
Where are true warriors? Everywhere: humanitarian workers who bring relief to the neglected, surgeons who bring hope to the desperate, social workers who rescue children from abusive homes, journalists who seek truth for the wronged, lawyers who serve justice to the deserving, counselors who bring comfort to victims, researchers who race for life-saving medical breakthroughs, and Religious who fight for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Such people are warriors in the truest sense because they are passionate, devoted, and have committed their lives to actively living the true warrior’s code. They protect the defenseless, bring compassion to the distraught, give food to the hungry, help the helpless, seek truth and justice. They are true warriors, servants of the Lord and vassals of Good who combat injustice, lies, disease, poverty, ignorance, and many other problems that plague our world. They selflessly and sincerely defend those that they do not know, who can not defend themselves.
Given this definition of a true warrior, I think it evident that the prevalence of true warriors of either gender is high and far from “exceptional.” Any organization that is committed to increasing the number of true warriors in our world is genuinely serving the Lord and The Church, and is a powerful force for Good.
Thank you very much for taking the time to consider these points.
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Thanks for your cultural commentary. Although I am a “protestant”, there is little to protest here, and much in common between us.
As someone who is attempting to recapture the legends of King Arthur in a truly Christian 5th century context and package them as fiction, this is excellent fodder for my moral imagination.
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I ran across this while looking for a damsel for a friend. WOW! Very Well put.
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What I was trying to relay in the related thread actually had less to do with changing tires than it did with overcoming obstacles. I agree, Mary was the perfect model of strength and courage for women. I can’t imagine anyone would have been able to stop her from being at the foot of the cross, whether that meant standing alone or with the few people who were present, but that is one example of an entire life fearlessly and flawlessly conformed to the Will of God. Nobody would have stopped her from being with Jesus at the foot of the cross. We should have that same desire, of course, but each of us has a unique calling and path to Jesus. In Christ, Marian