St. Isabel of France and Authentic Catholic Femininity
By Stacie Hiserman
Last month, we wrote about true masculinity. In reality, all that was discussed is impossible…
It is impossible without true femininity to support it. As the saying goes, behind every good man is a good woman. Every man needs a virtuous woman that he can look up to, whether that be a wife, mother, sister, or friend.
We are still inhaling the toxic smoke of the feminist movement, which is plagued with false ideas about femininity. It has not only further divided women, but denigrated many women to the point that their feminine qualities no longer shine; instead, their defective sides are being fostered.
Alice Von Hildebrand, philosopher and author of The Privilege of Being a Woman speaks about the common misunderstanding of God’s beautiful plan for the complementariness of the sexes:
“They [women] let themselves become convinced that femininity meant weakness. They started to look down upon virtues -- such as patience, selflessness, self-giving, tenderness -- and aimed at becoming like men in all things… Each sex has its strengths; each sex has its weaknesses. According to God's admirable plan, the husband is to help his wife overcome these weaknesses so that all the treasures of her femininity will come to full bloom, and vice versa. How many men truly become "themselves" thanks to the love of their wives. How may wives are transformed by their husband's strength and courage.”
Secular feminism is so concerned with what women do not have, that it fails to give value to the immeasurable gifts that are embodied by women.
What is the antidote?
True femininity, in the likeness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is woman’s hope. Mary crushed the head of the serpent and at the same time was perfectly true to her feminine nature. She was not dominated by woman’s inheritance from Eve. Instead, she was miraculously conceived without sin.
Eve’s weaknesses come from a perversion of her gifts. This is best portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Soon after her creation, Eve happens to see her reflection in a body of water and immediately falls in love with her own image. Her gift of beauty produced her weakness of vanity. Further, her strength in the realm of relationships was perverted when she deceived her husband Adam. Thus, her punishment from God includes, “…your longing will be for your husband, and he will dominate you” (Gen 3:16). Other repercussions of this sin include women’s tendency to gossip and envy.
However, when Eve’s strengths of femininity come out, she is able to complement Adam’s strengths and help him remedy his weaknesses.
What is true femininity?
Some qualities most unique to women are receptivity, generosity, and the ability to nurture. Men can have these characteristics too, but women are best able to embody them.
In her Essays on Woman, St. Edith Stein says a woman naturally seeks that which is living, personal, and whole. In her treatment of the soul, she says, “[Women] share one common characteristic: a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into the realm of a higher being.” This higher Being is God. When women fail to genuinely give and receive this love, they inevitably fall into the weaknesses to which they are most prone.
Who is an authentically feminine role model?
At this point in history, we can learn most from a woman who was a leader and at the same time embraced her femininity. This month of February, we are celebrating the feast of a 13th century princess, St. Isabel of France (right), daughter of King Louis VIII of France and sister to St. Louis IX of France.
Guided by her astounding and holy life, we have established 7 practical points for cultivating true femininity.
For Young Women
1) Choose your role models wisely.
St. Isabel’s most influential role model was her mother, Queen Blanche of Castille (below). Though she is not a canonized saint, she is a worthy woman, for she raised two saints—her daughter Isabel and her son King Louis IX (also portrayed below). More concerned about their immortal souls than their mortal bodies, she once told her children that she would rather see them die than commit a mortal sin.
While many choose celebrities and fashion models as their role models, a young woman striving for true femininity should instead turn to and imitate women of strength and moral character, such as the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, and “The Virtuous Woman” of Proverbs 31, who gives us an idea of the merit and desirability of a virtuous woman as “Far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10). This is significant, for in the Old Testament jewels decorated the sanctuary and were a sign of God’s wisdom and magnificence.
When you read the passage, you will find that the Virtuous Woman is a fountain of life and stability. As you can see, a virtuous woman is not a passive woman (which is different from receptivity)—she is active in the life of virtue, which involves her soul, mind, and body.
On the note of receptivity—key to a woman’s femininity is her receptive nature, which is a gift of self. She gives of herself in order to receive new life. Her body is created to receive new life, but to be fully feminine, a woman’s heart and spirit must be receptive. In contrast, men are called to give their lives.
2) Be generous to combat materialism.
Born into luxury as a princess, surely it was a great temptation for Isabel to give into the vice of materialism. Instead, she persisted in her desire to remain holy and not let materialism invade her heart and home. St. Isabel founded the Convent of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin, closely related to the Franciscan Order, because she counted the crowning glory of Our Lady to be her virtue of humility.
Though she never entered the cloister she founded, as it was not her vocation, Isabel closely followed their Rules. She did not take a vow of poverty, but generously poured out her money for the good of the Order from her own nearby home. For herself, she retained a life of fasting and seated the poor at her own dinner table, choosing to serve them meals before herself.
If our desire for material items overwhelms (or even comes close to) our other intrinsic values, something has gone amiss. Though we may think, “How will I ever be in the right circumstances to act as St. Isabel did?” we can be creative and think of our own ways to forego an excess of material items or a materialistic mindset. For example, we can sift through our unused closet items for donations or give generously of our time at a local crisis pregnancy center or food pantry.
3) Know the purpose of your beauty
St. Isabel was gifted with astounding beauty. Though many men wished to court her, she refused to marry and took a vow of virginity, as she knew that marriage was not her vocation. However, because her soul was uncontaminated, her body was found incorrupt after her death.
Our culture is plagued with false ideas about beauty, the first being that it stems from appearance, and from an unachievable or immodest ideal of appearance at that (think airbrushed women on magazine covers or an undue revelation of flesh). Rather, true beauty issues forth from virtue and character—in other words, true femininity.
Women are naturally lovers of beauty. It is not a bad thing to enjoy beauty. In fact, beauty is a gift from God and is intended to be appreciated. It is for His own glory! The biblical Rebecca was described as beautiful: “The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known” (Gen 24:16). But beauty is powerful and we must take care, because its misuse has ugly consequences, such as vanity, which leads to pride, or causing others to fall into temptation. It is important to be always mindful of what we use our beauty for and to remember that modesty flows first from the heart and is reflected on the body.
A good habit to form is to buy a full length mirror, for the purpose of double checking an outfit’s modesty and appropriateness before heading out the door.
4) Cultivate compassion.
Compassion comes from the Latin com (“together”) and pati (“to suffer”), so literally means “to suffer together.” This is connected to empathy, but compassion requires more of an action than a feeling. Who could show compassion for others better than a woman? By her physical and psychological nature, woman is built for nurturing and has maternal characteristics.
“Because a woman by her very nature is maternal -- for every woman, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual mother -- she knows intuitively that to give, to nurture, to care for others, to suffer with and for them -- for maternity implies suffering -- is infinitely more valuable in God's sight than to conquer nations and fly to the moon” (Alice Von Hildebrand).
St. Isabel was no stranger to suffering, having lost her mother at a young age and endured a long and grave sickness (thought to be sent by God as a test of her devotion). Yet, in an authentically feminine manner, she looked toward those who were suffering and needed her compassion. This included her brother Louis’s defeat in the Seventh Crusade and imprisonment thereafter. Her prayers for her brother and the Church at this time were invaluable. Isabel also helped the sick and poor by building charities, and thus is known as the patron saint of the sick and the needy. Like her, we can suffer with someone who is hurting physically or emotionally. We can run errands for them or simply be present to them if they need to talk.
In his Letter to Women, Pope St. John Paul II examines the compassionate nature of women: “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty – not merely physical, but above all spiritual – which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women.”
For Parents and Educators
1) Remind them of their value and dignity.
“A woman’s dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity; it is likewise connected with the love which she gives in return” (Mulieris Dignitatem).
Amazingly, the essence of womanhood imitates the Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ. What does the Church do? She embraces new members, cleanses them through Baptism, feeds them in the Eucharist, reconciles them in the confessional, heals them with anointment. She consoles, sustains, and teaches her members that they might find dignity and meaning. St. Isabel is a wonderful example of this.
Female saints have been honored as Doctors of the Church and a special veneration called hyperdulia (higher than dulia, which is given to other saints) is reserved for Our Lady alone.
Michelangelo’s women frescoed in the Sistine Chapel also give us an idea of the Church’s respect and estimation of women. Dr. Elizabeth Lev, renowned professor of art history, found an “astonishing variety of women” in the Sistine Chapel, including 22 mothers in pictures portraying Christ’s ancestry, and commented on “the attention Michelangelo gave to these woman…Regarding Michelangelo’s muscular women in ‘The Last Judgment’”, she noted that, “[they] represent saints who were morally strong and courageous.”
Eve is the central figure of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and she is painted as the bridge between Adam (representing man) and God.
In the “Creation of Man,” Eve is painted as curled under God’s shoulder with great intimacy, because while God creates man, He has a plan for woman, and with woman, the New Eve (the Blessed Mother), comes God’s plan for salvation.
2) Encourage them to develop their skills.
Because of her deep emotional life, which can be used for good or ill, it is all too easy for a woman to sink into herself emotionally. To battle these tendencies, St. Isabel worked to develop her intellect and skills to keep her from idleness. She loved learning and studied Latin, becoming an expert in this language, so that she could pray the Liturgy of the Hours and read the Church Fathers. Her sewing skills were devoted to providing clothing for the poor and Mass vestments for priests.
These sets of skills will look different for every woman, but common experience and modern psychology both tell us that a daughter is inclined to imitate her mother. A Sage Publications study determined the connection between mothers and daughters remains stronger than any other inter-generational family relationship throughout all the changes of life. A mother’s relationship with her daughter carries a crucial role in the life of their daughters’ self-esteem. With this knowledge, mothers and all female guardians must take care to make their example a virtuous one.
3) Frequent the Sacraments with them.
Last but certainly not least (hint: this is the most important step), frequent the Sacraments with your daughter(s) and young women under your care. Not only through devotion to the Holy Eucharist will a woman learn to cultivate interior silence in likeness to the Blessed Mother, but she will also discover her dignity as a child of God.
St. Isabel, though she never entered the cloister, kept a discipline of silence for most of the day. She had profound spiritual and mystical experiences with Christ and longed to be in Heaven, like a bride awaiting her groom.
In all of these ways, St. Isabel of France was able to live out the virtuous characteristics of authentic femininity. She is a beautiful example for women of all ages and in all states of life.
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