A place for everything
One aspect of the isolation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has satisfied me greatly has been the opportunity to restore order to cupboards, drawers and shelves that had, over time, gone awry. I know I’m not the only one. A friend and I have exchanged photos of newly restored linen cupboards. Don’t tell anyone!
I believe the desire to restore order is a particularly, but not exclusively, female trait. No doubt you’ve heard the expression, ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’ It makes me think of that enchanting scene in the 1964 film, Mary Poppins, in which Mary demonstrates how easily order can be restored to Jane and Michael Banks’ nursery, with toy soldiers marching into the toy box on cue.
Perhaps part of the attraction is that in a world of complexity, unpredictability (who would have thought we’d be giving up Mass for Lent and beyond?) and – let’s be honest – elements of fear – restoring order brings instant gratification. You feel that you have wrought control over an aspect of your world. At least for now.
I believe women-of-a-certain-age are all too familiar with the expression, “A woman’s place is in the home.” Yes, it is but not only, or primarily, in the home, and not to the exclusion of men.
Another expression familiar to a certain generation is ‘Know your place.’
Thanks to the efforts of many prophetic voices – in government, business, the arts, education, some churches – Western society has taken great leaps forward in my lifetime in terms of opening doors to women. There’s a l-o-n-g way to go, and in some societies opportunities for women remain absurdly limited, but no one seriously says, “A woman’s place is in the home.”
The gospels report Jesus’ encounters with a number of women, some of which scandalised his contemporaries, particularly religious authorities. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery (not alone), the woman who anointed Jesus. Each of these was acknowledged, honoured and affirmed. And over two thousand years later, we tell their stories and we remember them.
Central to the Resurrection story is Mary Magdalene. She’s a fine example of a woman who knows her place – with the apostles and the disciples, at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, and beyond. Joan Chittister writes, “She is…named fourteen times – more than any other woman in the New Testament except Mary of Nazareth … she understood who Jesus was long before anyone else did and she supported him in his wild, free-ranging, revolutionary approach to life and state and temple.” (The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible BlueBridge, Katonah, New York, 2006).
Mary is called the ‘the apostle to the apostles’ and the first witness to the resurrection. This latter designation has an extra layer of meaning for Jewish women, since traditionally, women were not permitted to be witnesses in court. This was not a form of discrimination, but a recognition that the woman’s role as queen of the home – ensuring that the strict laws around food preparation and consumption were upheld – could not be compromised by a requirement to be present in court.
It seems unimaginable to me that both Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene, and other women, were not participants at Jesus’ final Passover celebration with his community.
I’m writing just before the feast of Catherine of Siena – a Dominican, a Doctor of the Church and a woman who knew her place. Timothy Radcliffe OP captures her audacity:
“Think of St Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century Dominican laywoman who had no formal education; she could not even write. Yet she challenged the Pope to fulfil his ministry of making peace in the Church. She went to the papal court, exiled in Avignon, and there confronted the pope and cardinals with their failures. She said, ‘The honour of Almighty God compels me to speak bluntly. The truth is that even before I left my native city, I was more conscious of the evil odour of the sins committed by the Roman Curia than were the persons themselves who committed them: yes, and who continue to commit them daily.
‘Be silent no longer. Cry out with a hundred thousand voices. I see that the world is destroyed through silence.’ (Alive in God: A Christian Imagination Bloomsbury, London, 2019)
The limitations that persist for women in the Catholic Church fly in the face of Jesus’ openness to the gifts of all his disciples. While women occupy many significant roles, they cannot help but know their place – despite St Paul’s insistence that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
We who claim the gospel must continue to cry out with a hundred thousand voices.