Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

‘Laudent eam in portis’: a Sermon on Proverbs 31

Under the wasting effects of sin, evident and basic realities become obscure and novel. The dignity of woman is one such reality—a matter which ought to be obvious, but which today is controverted and (thus) distorted utterly. Fortunately, the light of revelation shines over the matter.

Proverbs ch 31 makes its appearance in the sacred liturgy.[1] For the moment, we turn our attention to vv 10-31 in particular. It is worth noting that this passage is an acrostic, which Msgr Knox’ translation preserves with no small amount of charm:

A man who has found a vigorous wife has found a rare treasure, brought from distant shores.

Bound to her in loving confidence, he will have no need of spoil.

Content, not sorrow, she will bring him as long as life lasts.

Does she not busy herself with wool and thread, plying her hands with ready skill?

And so forth, all the way to the Hebrew letter tav.

When we study all twenty-one verses of the text, a portrait of flourishing womanhood emerges. Three features—each of them related to one another—stand out.

First, the virtuous woman serves: ‘Kindly is her welcome to the poor, her purse ever open to those in need . . . no servant of hers but is warmly clad’ (vv 20, 21). It is good she does, not evil.

Second, she is one who is confident. The sacred writer describes a woman who knows what she is about. She navigates her life in the world with a fearlessness that is at once unmistakable but modest: ‘Protected by her industry and good repute, she greets the morrow with a smile’ (v 25). Because she is not self-preoccupied, she is also more free.

Third, the mulier fortis, most especially, is one who attends. Her service is simply the outward manifestation of her attentiveness and sensitivity to the things and people around her. She is docile to conditions, receives the impressions of the moment with clarity, and therefore can act with measure and fittingness.

However, it is the latter point which marks feminine sanctity in a particular way. Men and women alike must be open to receiving all from God; each and every human being ought to be keenly aware of his contingency, and then act accordingly. But woman’s attentiveness, docility, and receptivity make her apt to receive grace, in a certain sense, more readily. Or at very least, to put it like this, the affective knowledge of her contingency comes more spontaneously; she more easily intuits how she relates to God. It is a great mystery, hardly exhaustible here. But what hints—if rather strongly—at the truth of what we are saying is that it seems that most of the Church’s mystics have been women.

The spiritual genius of man lies elsewhere; but Proverbs 31 offers a mirror to the soul of each and every woman.

But why are we taking the time to say what, at the outset, we said ought to be obvious? Because there are two pernicious lies which the world tells that are directly related to the truth of virtuous femininity. The first lie pertains to the Church—the Church which, is it essential to understand, is always referred to in the feminine. This lie says that the Church denigrates and otherwise keeps women down. However, given the hundred upon hundreds of women who the Church venerates as saints, the lie is a completely untenable one.

As an aside, we celebrate one such woman this week—Saint Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1302), the Benedictine abbess and mystic of the liturgy and the Sacred Heart. To boot, the Church bestows on her the title The Great, setting her alongside the saints like Gregory, Leo, Albert, and Basil.

St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) is also commemorated this week.

Neither men nor women have a monopoly on their ability to sin. Thus, it is not a fiction that men within the Church have done badly to women. This fact, however, is in a category apart from the Catholic truth of the matter.

But there is another lie in our midst, a lie not only pernicious but also, in our times, apocalyptically lethal: infanticide. Indeed, abortion is an act of murder, a fact which ought to be obvious to every Catholic. But it is also an act that violates the dignity of womanhood so profoundly, that we ought to reel considering it.

I make bold to say that it is the men in our midst who ought to be the most outraged—first, about the lie regarding the Church; and second, regarding the deadly lie of abortion. These lies are nothing more than the first of Satan’s lies, by which he pitted Adam against Eve. From that day to this, the world can only understand the relationship between men and women as something tawdry and adversarial.—The Catholic man ought to view this with perfect contempt. Because on the contrary, if women forget their own vocation and dignity, we have a duty to remind them. Or have we forgotten that primordial insight of our father Adam?—’Here, at last, is bone that comes from mine, flesh that comes from mine; it shall be called Woman.'[2]

For all women, Proverbs 31 contains an eschatological vision: ‘None so honored at the city gates as that husband of hers, when he sits in council with the elders of the land’ (v 23). The whole Communion of Saints—which is to say, the whole Church—is honored by the high dignity of holy womanhood. ‘Work such as hers claims its reward; let her life be spoken of with praise at the city gates’ (v 31). Et laudent eam in portis opera ejus. These are not vain words; nor is it a promise held out to the elite few. The reward of praise is waiting for all saintly women at the gates of paradise; and it is by the fully-embraced Catholic faith that they shall win it.


[1] In the modern liturgy, it is the first lesson for the 33rd Sunday per annum. The traditional Roman liturgy witnesses its use, among other places, in the instruction for the marriage rite as well as the epistle for the Mass Cognovi, i.e., the Common of Holy Women Non-Virgins.

[2] Genesis 2, 23.

{Art Credit: Charles Allston Collins (1828-1873), The Devout Childhood of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (c 1852), Detroit Institute of Arts}

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