Finding God in beauty and the feminine genius

Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “Women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not failing” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 1). When we unpack this powerful statement, we see that when women collectively and individually are happy and fulfilled, the world is a better place. We will briefly look at the importance of feminity, then the theological foundations of beauty and, finally, some practical applications of how beauty heals the world.

Feminine genius

John Paul II tells us there is something unique that woman offers the world. This is known as “feminine genius.” It is this feminine genius that connects us to the beauty of woman. John Paul II told us one of the unique aspects of woman is that “‘woman’ is the representative and the archetype of the whole human race” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 4). Since she is the archetype of the human race, we need her to understand humanity. In this, we will not only see that woman is the blueprint for mankind but also that beauty is a unique gift she offers.

God’s ultimate gift

So let us begin to look at woman, beauty and her theological foundation. Beauty points us to its ultimate source: God. God is all-beautiful. The beauty of God is attributed to the Holy Spirit, the love of God, as he (the Spirit) points us to the Father (see Gal 4:6). Love is the very essence and beauty of God (see 1 Jn 4:8). God shares this beauty with us through the gift of his very self. We take that information and build upon it, realizing that mankind is made in the “image and likeness of God” (Gn 1:26). This holds significance if we look at our beginnings. In the Genesis creation account, we realize two important truths and can draw a crucial conclusion from these truths. The first truth is there is a hierarchy in creation: What God made on the first day was for the second, second for third, etc. The second truth is what God made in the first three days, he beautified in the second three days. Thus, woman is the most beautiful thing in the created order.

Now, what was the last thing that God gave to mankind? It was grace, his very self, on the seventh day. Thus, grace is what makes us beautiful. The word for grace in Greek, charis, literally means “beauty.” This is why we can’t separate beauty from God; you can’t separate God from himself or his grace. We also can’t separate ourselves from God. When we try, we become like the beast, stuck in the sixth day but made for the seventh. Thus, we view ourselves as beasts, ugly and unfulfilled.

Active receptivity

Now we can look at the New Testament theology about woman and beauty. Pope John Paul II asks us to reflect on the words of Elizabeth to our Blessed Mother. He writes: “A particular key for understanding this can be found in the words which the Evangelist puts on Mary’s lips after the Annunciation, during her visit to Elizabeth: ‘He who is mighty has done great things for me’ (Lk 1:49)” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 11). These words refer to the conception of her Son, but they can also signify the discovery of her own feminine humanity. He “has done great things for me”: This is the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of femininity, all the eternal originality of the “woman,” just as God wanted her to be (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 11).

Femininity is receptivity to love, to God, but not a passive receptivity that leads to domination. It was active receptivity by Mary to receive God’s love and bear the fruit of that love inside of her and ultimately to the world. Even more, love makes us beautiful even among sin. God gives us the ultimate gift of himself by sending us his Son (see Jn 3:16-17). Thus, we come to see that sin is the rejection of femininity, the rejection of receptivity to God’s love!

St. Peter builds on the theme that beauty is something to be received/encountered. Thus, God offers us salvation, freedom from sin, but also shares in his divine nature (see 2 Pt 1:3-4). We are made beautiful by being clothed with grace and we are transformed by grace into children of God! Therefore, we are most beautiful theologically when we live out our baptismal vows, keep God as our helpmate and are receptive toward his love.

Practical applications

Now, we have to look at the practical applications of the feminine genius of beauty. Counseling scholar Abby Kowitzgives us three points to examine:

1. The importance of experiencing beauty.

2. Explaining what beauty is and what it isn’t.

3. And living out the apostolate of beauty.

Kowitz writes, “The more we can encounter beauty, the more psychologically well we become.” Thus, frequenting the sacraments, prayer — especially adoration ­— service of neighbor and embracing our cross help us become beautiful and change the world (see Lk 9:23). This is because when one woman becomes well, she helps those around her become better, because they share her joy. This is why Jesus told us, “You are the light of the world ... so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:14, 16). Thus, the realization of inner beauty leads to an apostolate of beauty, sharing beauty with others to make the world a better place.

“The Annunciation” is a fresco by Joseph Erns Tunner (1830) in Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti in Rome. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock
Pope Francis on Women
“When women have the possibility of fully conveying their gifts to the whole community, the way in which society understands and organizes itself will be positively transformed, arriving at the point of reflecting better on the substantial unity of the human family. Here resides the most valid premise for the consolidation of authentic fraternity. The growing presence of women in social, economic and political life at local, national and international levels, and in the ecclesial context, is therefore a beneficial process. Women have the full right to be actively involved in all areas, and their right must be affirmed and protected also by legal means where necessary.”

Molding our beauty

In order to share that beauty, we have to explain what beauty is and what it is not. Beauty not defined properly can transform into lust. Kowitz tells us there are two false mental traps that do this: reducing beauty to just the body and reducing beauty to something simply to be used.

When we reduce beauty to focus solely on the body, we fall into lust. This is diabolical, because lust and hell are defined with the same five words: the absence of God’s love. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of focusing on the body simply to derive temporary, sexual pleasure or to hate the body, even one’s own.

Beauty also is something to be contemplated; thus, we should not simply use beauty. Contemplating beauty helps us, but beauty cannot be defined in terms of its benefits (pleasure/desire) alone because it is not meant to be a means for our own self-fulfillment. We are clay, the work of the Father’s hands, not our own (see Is 64:7). We don’t define a beautiful life, because we don’t define God’s plan. We must receive beauty. Beauty is living and seeing ourselves as God sees us and letting God mold us into his image and likeness, not trying to use beauty to mold ourselves into our own image and likeness.

Love through beauty

This brings us to our final point: Beauty transforms relationships. It allows us to transcend the most base wants and focus on higher desires, achieving the joy for which we were made. This is the difference between Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle/hedonism versus Pope John Paul II’s push toward joy/love. The individualism that Freud placed on pleasure rejects charity or goodwill for the other. Thus, hedonism inverts beauty in two ways. First, it is a mockery of the cross, the ultimate act of love. Freud said: “This is my body, give up yours for me”; Pope John Paul would quote Jesus, who said, “This is my body, given up for you.”

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Second, it inverts the meaning of life. Freud and the hedonists say mankind exists for pleasure, especially the pleasure of sex, and this in their minds is what leads to happiness. John Paul II and the Church say sex exists as an expression of love, and love is really the meaning of life. It is what brings mankind ultimate happiness. Thus, in a proper sense, Pope Benedict XVI explains that eros (“desire”) is not necessarily bad, but it is not an end in and of itself. Eros is meant to be taken up into agape (self-giving love), liberating us to find fulfillment (see Deus Caritas Est, Nos. 3, 5).

We see that woman’s feminine genius teaches us many things, but it can be summarized from this verse from Sirach: “A woman’s beauty lights up a man’s face, and there is nothing he desires more (Sir 36:27). If we as mankind can desire to learn from woman’s feminine genius of beauty, we would find the joy we are made for and help heal the world!

Deacon Gerald-Marie Anthony writes from Virginia.