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Feminism: Road to Success?


The post-abortion syndrome, “the empty nursery,” contraceptive-induced breast cancer, chronic depression, spiritual emptiness — these were only the most prominent items on the bill that she had to pay for her feminism.

Lorraine V. Murray defended her doctoral thesis in philosophy at the University of Florida. Titled “The Feminist Theory of Authenticity,” the thesis argued that differences between the sexes resulted from conditioning and that inequality between men and women could be eradicated through androgynism. Lorraine leaned heavily on the feminist writings of Sartre’s disciple, Simone de Beauvoir, who advocated the liberation of women through, among other things, the jettisoning of ballast — children, that is; for, in her view, motherhood and the running of a household were of far less value than professional work. For a woman’s life to have meaning, a career was necessary.

Lorraine began her academic career in the late 1960s at the University of Florida, near Gainesville. As she observes in her book, The Confessions of an Ex-Feminist, “Many professors and students believed there could be nothing larger than their own intellects.” Although she had been raised in a Catholic family, she abandoned her faith while in college. She considered religion a peculiar kind of addiction that every grown-up person ought eventually to kick. This rejection of God gave her the green light to living the sort of life that seemed to her so enlightened and seductive.

Free love

It was just then that the hippy generation was coming into its own with its new credo of life without constraints. Free love was the passport to unlimited freedom. Feminist propaganda urged women to take the “first step.” Substituting love beads and the peace sign for the rosary and the sign of the cross. Lorraine joined the throngs of rebels.

The upshot of all this was an intense social life full of booze, illicit marihuana, and free sexual unions, which inevitably ended in disillusionment. Here is how she recalls those times: “It would take me quite a few years to realize that the notion of “free love” was a huge lie. Not surprisingly, guys seemed to be the ones reaping the main benefits of bed hopping….Over the next few years, I repeated the same sad pattern time and time again. I would fall for a handsome, bright man and expect the relationship to develop into something serious. Many men were not seeking long-term relationships at all, however, and were merely enjoying spontaneous flings. I wanted to find a man to love and cherish me and to marry me, but I couldn’t seem to realize that sex wouldn’t get me there….All I knew was that I had finally grown up, and even if I was often miserable because of the way men were treating me, I figured that my agonizing over their behavior was just part of adulthood….Reflecting on my life in Gainesville and all the broken relationships, I have to wonder. Was I looking for a man to replace God in my life? I wanted someone to save me from myself, to love me unconditionally, to cherish me, and to be faithful to me forever. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Many traditional-minded women in college had found husbands, but the freethinkers like me, who had gleefully abandoned the old rules and expectations, kept falling on their faces.”

Before long disenchantment with these and other feminist slogans began to set in. Neither travel, nor the luxury of sleeping in on weekends without being disturbed by the cries of children, nor money in the bank account, nor a college and writer’s career — none of these things gave meaning to her life. Tormented by depression and a sense of futility, she began to discover within her a desire for an interior life, a desire for prayer. But a long journey lay ahead before she would understand that the source of the external signs she was receiving and the inner desires she was experiencing was in fact God, who was seeking her out like the Hound of Heaven that he was.

It was not easy for her to overcome the image of God which had rooted itself in her heart — that of a harsh, unyielding God, who could not be bothered with someone who had left Him and mocked Him publicly as she had; an unresponsive God, who did not notice her sufferings, either when she had been a little girl or later when, as a college student, she lost her beloved mother (to cancer), and then soon afterwards her father as well. Such an image of God was undoubtedly colored by her image of her earthly father, whom she tended to see as a “doler out” of punishments — distant, cold, and unfeeling. Addicted to the racecourse and often absent from home, he seemed to show little interest in his daughter. But God very gently uncovered His own true image in her heart and allowed this image to blossom forth.

He spoke to her in seemingly ordinary things. The beauties of nature never ceased to pose questions about their Creator. She became intrigued by the writings of Thomas Merton, a man of great intellect, who like her had been raised a Christian, but then, having strayed far from his roots, led the life of a decadent until he finally converted to Catholicism and entered a monastery. What also “twitched upon her thread” was her childhood belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In her own words, “I began to suspect why my search was taking me to the Catholic Church: It was the divine presence on earth that I was seeking, and God’s true presence in the Eucharist.”

The search

Her return to the Church was not a particularly enthusiastic one; nor was it without reservation. She did not immediately bring her thoughts in line with the teachings of the “Church Fathers” on issues such as abortion, women’s ordination, and priestly celibacy. But on reading the Gospels, she began to discover the good and wise Christ. One Gospel incident in particular struck a chord with her: namely, Christ’s encounter with the harlot in the Pharisee’s house. “I thought about all the years,” she writes, “when I had sought comfort in the arms of the wrong men, all the sins I had committed, and all the times I had wept. Surely I had produced enough tears to wash Jesus’ feet as well, I had to wonder. How had I managed to miss the love and mercy that Jesus expressed over and over, in the Gospels? Why had I made fun of people who went to church? Why had I mocked Christians, in the days when a good Jesus joke would bring a hearty laugh from my friends? A passage from Thomas Merton, written about his life when he was eighteen, seemed to describe the old me: ‘I was stamping the last remains of spiritual vitality out of my own soul, and trying with all my might to crush and obliterate the image of the divine liberty that had been implanted in me by God.’ Merton added that he had, unknowingly, been participating in Christ’s agony: ‘this is the crucifixion of Christ; in which he dies again and again in the individuals who were made to share the joy and freedom of His grace, and who deny Him.’ Somehow, when I looked back on my life, I could see myself standing at the foot of the Cross, helping to pound in the nails.”

Reconciliation

At this stage of her search, Lorraine began to consider the anger she had nursed toward God since her mother’s death. This led her to understand that for those who believed in Christ death was only a transition to another world, where one would meet one’s loved ones again. Finally came that deep experience of God’s love in the sacrament of reconciliation when she confessed her sins to Jesus present in the person of the priest. She returned to the Catholic Church and received the grace of profound peace. Christ’s forgiveness now set in motion the process of healing herself from self-recrimination over her past abortion. The healing of her emotions took a long time. She found support in a pro bono group called PATH (Post-Abortion Treatment and Healing). There she was able to confide in trusted individuals and unburden herself of memories that had tormented her for so many years. But above all this deep wound was healed by divine grace — by Jesus present in the Eucharist.

Meaning in the mundane

The Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta also played a significant role in Lorraine’s conversion and healing. The Congregation had recently opened a hospice for AIDS patients in their area. Lorraine and her husband Jef began to work there as volunteers. They came to know the sisters’ simple life — seemingly monotonous, but filled nonetheless with prayer, with Christ’s presence, His love and peace. There Lorraine experienced Him present in the Blessed Sacrament. Finally He was able to give her that peace and joy which she had sought in vain in Buddhist meditation. She also discovered that scrubbing floors, peeling carrots, bathing patients, hanging out the wash, and the scores of other ordinary little tasks that the sisters carried out again and again on a daily basis, were expressions of love — Christ’s love for those whom the world saw as society’s refuse. She discovered that these very activities, which she as a feminist had rejected, were an expression of care and concern for immortal souls, and it was precisely this that gave meaning to life and all its banal activities. “No work could be more important,” she concludes. “As Alice von Hildebrand put it in The Privilege of Being a Woman, ‘One day, all human accomplishments will be reduced to a pile of ashes. But every single child to whom a woman has given birth will last forever for he has been given an immortal soul made to God’s image and likeness.’ (…) Up till now, Jef and I had done no real community service. (…) Now we found ourselves coming home with aching muscles after long hours spent working side by side with the volunteers and the sisters. We felt tired but also oddly happy, because for the first time in our married life together, we were part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Punishment?

Lorraine soon learned that walking with Christ was by no means an idyllic undertaking. In the words of her favorite Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor, faith was no “warm electric blanket.” Nor was love “an insurance policy against suffering, and even the most sincere and dedicated Christians can experience terrible hardships,” for to walk with Jesus was to walk the way of the cross. First, she experienced her husband’s illness. Then came her own struggle with breast cancer. Once again she had to wrestle with her old image of God as “an old man in the sky who sought vengeance on people for their sins.” But with the help of her spiritual director she discovered a new image of God — a God who is love; who weeps over the wrong paths taken by His children. She learned that it was not God who made her ill; that it was probably the consequence of her own choices (she had used birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy at various times in her life). She also discovered the truth that for God nothing was impossible; that divine grace could change every situation; that she could cooperate with this grace by offering Jesus her sufferings and struggles with her illness, by throwing herself time and time again into God’s arms. She also learned that others could benefit from sufferings borne in this way.

Two years after the diagnosis of her disease, Lorraine embarked on a new writing adventure. She addressed herself to writing a book about her spiritual journey through this disease — this for women wrestling with the same problem. In seeking out verses from Holy Scripture to bring solace to others, she brought healing to herself. She also discovered that, “Everything is grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love, difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs, everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness. (…) Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.”

Love explains all

Gradually, by coming to know Jesus and studying His moral teachings as preserved in the doctrines of the Church, Lorraine was able to come to the conclusion that Catholicism presented a reasonable and coherent worldview. Church teaching also solved the problem that had bothered her since youth. While it was true that the Church held that “God created men and women with different natures,” this did not at all “sanction women’s subjugation by men.” On the contrary, it was precisely the Catholic Church that recognized an “inherent dignity in women, especially in light of the great respect paid to the Virgin Mary.” No doubt Lorraine had sought to fight for this dignity as a feminist, but the postulates of that ideology were incapable of guaranteeing it. Indeed, the very opposite was true: they led to a loss of respect for the dignity of women and children. Lorraine came to understand the many errors of feminism. She saw that the ideology failed “to take into account the ordinary lives of everyday women for whom motherhood was not seen as a burden but as a gift” (see Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese) — as in the case of her own mother, who had suffered for not being able to raise Lorraine and her sister because of being forced to go to work (a rare thing in her day) in order to provide for the family — which her gambling-addicted husband was unable to do.

Despite her own study of the feminist movement in graduate school, Lorraine had managed to miss a crucial piece of history: namely, that “the suffragettes themselves had not advocated legalizing abortion. Instead, they had seen abortion as a tragic example of the way society failed to help women in need.” Citing E. Fox-Genovese, she remarked that, “many proponents of women’s rights fail to realize that rights include responsibilities and duties, especially to children. The unrestricted freedom that feminists want for women ‘disconcertingly resembles equal membership in what [Pope John Paul II] called the culture of death.’”

Saint Edith Stein’s writings showed Lorraine a way of making amends and practicing “spiritual motherhood.” This she has been realizing ever since through her journalistic work and financial assistance to children’s foundations on other continents.

Invitation

A deeper understanding of Christ’s teachings as propagated by His Church persuaded Lorraine that she could no longer remain a “cafeteria Catholic.” “Since God is love,” she writes, “it seems to follow that life on earth is a gigantic love affair and an adventure played out between God and his children. And whatever future adventures come my way, I pray that God will help me to love him more deeply and more fully realize the depth of his love for me.”

May this also be our desire: “To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, that we may be happy with Him forever in the next!”

Małgorzata Radomska 

Based on L.V. Murray’s book, The Confessions of an Ex-Feminist, Ignatius Press, 2008.

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in August 2016.




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