August is the month in which the Catholic Church honors a powerhouse of a contemporary woman: Edith Stein, a German philosophy professor who would become known as Sister Benedicta of the Cross, and a canonized saint who was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Stein is one of the saints Danielle Bean calls up in her “Manual for Women” (TAN Books, $29.95), a treasure of guideposts, prayers, and other wisdom and aids for living the Christian life (the publisher, Saint Benedict’s Press, has one for men, too). Bean, a wife, mother, and popular author and speaker on Catholic life, spoke about Stein and principles for living as authentically Catholic women in the world today.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You begin your manual with a quote from Edith Stein: “The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.” What does that look like?
Danielle Bean: Women play many different roles in our families and in the world at large, but one of our greatest gifts is in being a “place” for others, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Of course, our bodies are designed to receive, nurture, and bring forth new life. That physical reality mirrors a related spiritual truth about us as well. Spiritually, we are uniquely capable of receiving others, seeing them for who they are, embracing them, and creating a space, in our homes, in our communities, and in our workplaces, where they can thrive.
What a privilege to be that “soft place to land” for the people we love and work with! We are particularly gifted at nurturing our relationships with others and fostering human bonds. That is an art each of us practices a little differently, but it’s inside of that work as “mothers,” physically or spiritually speaking, that we find real joy and satisfaction. We were made for others.
Lopez: In mapping out the gifts of women, why do you begin with receptivity?
Bean: Well, receptivity is where it all begins! It’s where we receive new life, physically through pregnancy, or spiritually through the beginning of a relationship with another person, and we open ourselves up to accept God’s will to give us ourselves to love and nurture others, and to foster connections with our fellow human beings, our friends, our parents, our co-workers, our husbands, and our children. Receptivity is where relationship begins, and it’s inside of relationship with God and with others, that we do our most meaningful work.
Lopez: Are all women sensitive, compassionate, beautiful, and generous?
Bean: Yes! And no! Each of us has a unique capacity for these gifts and strengths — it’s built in. But these gifts are expressed differently in each of us, and for sure we have the capacity to squash them, hide them, and deny them. Often, our modern culture encourages women to squash these gifts for the sake of achieving a more masculine definition of meaningful work or “success.” But I can’t think of anything more sexist than telling a woman she needs to be something other than the person God made her to be in order to be happy.
Lopez: Some years ago, Pope Benedict handed me a message about women you know well, from the end of the Second Vatican Council. In part it talks about how women make “truth sweet, tender, and accessible.” What if you are a woman who doesn’t feel that way at all, and who doesn’t feel full of grace, either, for that matter?
Bean: A phrase like women make truth “sweet, tender, and accessible” is tricky because some women are actually vicious, jealous, and deceitful. But it is absolutely true that God made women to play a unique role in our relationships and in the world at large. We might not all be coy and alluring, but we all do have a capacity for good in our relationships with others. We have a gift of sensitivity to others, when we choose to use it, that enables us to be a voice for the weak and vulnerable, and allows us to move the powerful toward compassion and care for others.
No one feels “full of grace” all the time. But we women, if we are tuned in to the people God made us to be, and if we open ourselves up to hear the message of what is written on our hearts, can be a great source of grace and goodness in the world at large.
Lopez: Is there a Scripture you find directed toward women that has been especially powerful in your life?
Bean: I have recently come to love the woman described in Proverbs 31 in a new way. I had previously thought of her as some kind of impossible example of the “perfect woman” that I could never live up to. I came to understand, however, that this whole passage is a poem, an ode to all women and the gift that we are to our friends and families.
The Proverbs 31 woman is not one real woman, but she is every woman and we are being called upon to praise all women for the gifts they are to the world. This is a great passage of praise and giving glory to God for the gift of womanhood, not some prescription for how all women “ought” to be. This was a revelation for me and I found it very encouraging and inspiring.
Lopez: Are there saints who have made your life better or more holy?
Bean: I love St. Anne! I mean, she is Jesus’ grandma. What is not to love about that? But truly, she is the mother of Mary and a woman who suffered infertility for most of her life before being blessed to become the mother to the mother of God. She is such a great example of God’s generous love and the fact that things do not always happen on our timeline, but God is always good and he wants the very best for us.
Lopez: Are there prayers and other insights in this book that could be most challenging in the best of ways?
Bean: The book is filled with new and old prayers. There is such a rich tradition of various prayers and devotions in the Church, and the book offers a sampling of many of them. I like to just flip the book open to a random page near the back and be prompted to pray an old familiar favorite prayer or possibly begin a new devotion. I keep my copy in my car for on-the-go prayer moments in line at school pick up or while waiting in parking lots for baseball practice to let out.
Lopez: We talk a lot about mothers. What about women who are not raising children in the traditional way? How would you hope they take up the mantle of feminine genius in a renewed and refreshed way with your manual?
Bean: It is my great hope that every woman can overcome our sometimes ambivalent feelings about the idea of “spiritual motherhood.” I know for some women, it feels like we are talking about a consolation prize. Like “real” motherhood is physically bearing and raising children, but women who can’t or don’t do that can be “spiritual mothers” instead. A far second place.
But nothing could be further from the truth! God did create the heart of every woman for motherhood, and that is the calling to life-giving, self-giving love. If people feel funny about calling every woman a mother, I remind them that “mother” is not just a noun. It’s a verb. We are mothers because we mother. We are called to love and care for the people God places in our lives in ways we are uniquely equipped to do because we are female.
We are called to be teachers in the school of love, teachers in the art of human relationship, in our homes, our families, our churches, and our workplaces. We are called to love, nurture, and bring forth new life in the hearts, minds, and lives of others. We do that as wives, moms, and grandmas, but also as religious sisters, aunts, teachers, doctors, cashiers, CEOs, neighbors, and members of the choir. It looks different for each of us, but every woman is called to be a mother, to mother, and we are uniquely good at it.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite Marian prayer? Why?
Bean: I have always loved the Memorare because it has that sneaky way, right in the beginning, of reminding Mary that she has never let us down before and for sure she will not want to start now:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession,
was left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence,
I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother;
to you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy hear and answer me.
When I am in need, I like to be reminded of Our Lady’s generous and faithful love for each of us. I like to be “inspired by confidence.”
Lopez: Catholics can get some grief for supposedly worshipping Mary. Would you like your manual to in some way reintroduce the concept of Mary to the world today, so all will be unafraid and receptive to she who was most receptive to God?
Bean: I hope that the “Manual for Women” can be a reminder to all of us that our relationship to Mary is a gift. Jesus gave us his mother, the most precious gift he had on earth, as he hung dying on the cross.
Look at nature — every creature needs a mother for survival. We need a mother, too, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need the kind of generous love only a mother can give. Jesus wants us to turn to Mary as we do to our human mothers: for support and sustenance.
Mary has much greater power and greater perfection than our earthly mothers, though. Imagine that! The Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Angels, the Mother of God knows you and loves you in a unique and personal way, as only a mother can. More than anything, she wants to draw you closer to God and help you on your way toward heaven. Why do we hold back and deny ourselves the graces God wants to give us through Mary? Turn to Mary in your every struggle and in your every need. She will not fail to support you and draw you closer to Christ.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of National Review Online.
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