I am just going to say it: it is not always easy being a woman in the Church. In the past I have been able to ignore the off-handed comments, look past the male-dominated leadership, and brush off the ambiguity surrounding women’s role. But as I have come to embrace my feminine identity more fully, I have become more and more dissatisfied. Rather than sit idly by or abandon the Church completely, I chose to lean into the discomfort, and it was this exploration that led me to the Holy Spirit. As I sought answers to the many questions I had, I was reminded that women are vital members of the Church who serve a greater purpose than just assisting men or bearing children — even if everyone in the Church does not share that same sentiment.
The idea that women do not embody the image of God as fully as men has surfaced many times throughout the Church’s long history. A prolific writer and doctor of the Church, St. Augustine argued that “woman does not possess the image of God in herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head … But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God” (On the Trinity, Book XII). Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas presented and expanded upon Aristotle’s idea that woman is a misbegotten man (Summa Theologica, 92).
When I came across these sentiments, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I was shocked, offended, hurt even. I was left wrestling with the fact that the men who are lifted up by our Church are the very same men who presented the idea that women are somehow less than men. For a moment, I began to question God: Do you also view women this way? Do you believe women are not as worthy as men? Do you love the men you created more than the women you also happened to create? Were women simply a mistake?
I wrestled with these questions, but always with an openness and desire to remain faithful to God and the Church. Sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, in the true presence of Jesus, I brought my questions — and, admittedly, a bit of anger — before the Lord. And it was in this safe space that I was reminded of my dignity as a woman in the Church.
Sexism is rampant in our Church. Its roots run so deep that we oftentimes do not even recognize it — but it is there. Take, for example, the way we speak about God. While God is genderless, we have assigned God a gender: male. We refer to God as He. We speak of God as father, lord, and king. We mistake Jesus’ maleness for God. Yes, Jesus was male but we often — mistakenly — attribute this quality to God. The reality is that God is genderless, neither male nor female. Yet, we only think of God in terms of the male identity. Think about it: how often have you heard God referred to as She? How often have you spoken of God as mother, lady, or queen? Chances are never because this is not how we have come to understand God. Rather, we have limited our understanding of God to an identity that is not fully representative of who God is.
In Scripture we hear that both man and woman were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Man and woman, each in their entirety, reflect the image and likeness of God. Woman is a reflection of God’s image as fully as man is — she is not less than. And it seems that our Church needs to be reminded of this. We have forgotten this fundamental element of women’s identity. We have forgotten that Jesus valued women and invited them into His mission. We have forgotten the influential role women played in the founding and spread of our Church. We have forgotten that women matter — but they do matter.
The Holy Spirit, Wisdom, and Sophia
This is where the Holy Spirit comes into play. Throughout history, the Holy Spirit has been identified as Wisdom — Sophia in Greek — and this view is supported in Scripture. The Book of Proverbs says, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice… ‘Behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words know to you… he who listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without the dread of the devil’” (Proverbs 1). Later we hear, “I, wisdom, dwell in prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion… The Lord created me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the Earth” (Proverbs 8). The Book of Wisdom refers to Wisdom as “the fashioner of all things,” going on to say, “she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the almighty … a spotless mirror of the working God, and an image of His goodness” (Wisdom 7).
It is in passages like these that I find comfort, that I find solace in a time of great distress. It is in these words of God that I am affirmed in my identity as a woman, that I am reminded that I am enough, that I am not a mistake. It is in this divine revelation that I am empowered to embrace my female identity even more fully. It is here that I am a woman, lovingly created in the image and likeness of God.
Expanding my understanding of the Holy Spirit to incorporate this ancient view of Wisdom — Sophia — has transformed my faith and experience in a Church that seems to be dominated by men, that gives privilege to men simply because they are men. When I feel that I do not have a place in the Church, I turn to Sophia for reassurance. When I am struggling to find my purpose, I turn to Sophia for direction. When I am worn down by injustice, I turn to Sophia for strength. When I am doubting if I — as a woman — am enough, I turn to Sophia for inspiration. With Sophia as my guide, I am able to navigate life and lean into my identity and purpose as a woman.
As we approach Pentecost, I challenge you to expand your view of God and embrace a, perhaps, different understanding of the Holy Spirit, as well. In my experience, it will only heighten your prayer life and strengthen your relationship with God, who created both man and woman out of love and gifted us the Holy Spirit, Sophia, to guide us as we journey toward everlasting life.