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Tears of strength

· Women facing poverty ·

“There will always be poor people in your midst”, Jesus said, not of course so that we may be resigned to their destiny but rather to warn us that whatever the place and whatever the period in human history, there will always be weaker, more vulnerable and needier people who will ask us to live out preferential love for the poor.

Edward Hopper, “Young Women in a Studio” (c. 1901-1902)

No social state, not even the most advanced, can do without interdependence and solidarity among human beings. The fact that the face of poverty is female in many of the world’s cities is due not only to the economic crisis, but also to the crisis of the family. How many women today find themselves obliged to bear the burden of bringing up the children alone?

Our society’s individualism increases the number of poor people. Ageing – a phenomenon characteristic of the 20th century on a world scale, a phenomenon that largely affects women – which in a biblical vision of life might be conceived of as a grace and a gift of God, is all too often perceived as a problem that weighs on budgets whereas a saving should be made. No longer productive the elderly are easily driven out of families, out of neighbourhoods and out of human networks to be condemned to an anonymous life in an institution, as if old age were a disease. How many lonely old people are there behind the walls of rest homes in the West? In our materialistic society the loneliness and despair of many elderly people become a new form of poverty.

At the same time this poverty reveals the deficit of closeness and of spirituality in the mentalities of a culture. The secularization of hearts has alienated our contemporaries not only from God but also from their families and from their weakest fellow-humans: people don’t learn to live with the latter and if not actually afraid of them, seek to avoid them. Finally, people are afraid of their own weaknesses and become lacking and weakened in the human sphere. It is not by chance that in the Gospel those who were the first to accept the path of weakness were women. Seeing Jesus’ suffering, they understood that they had no ability for decision making but they were there and watched at the foot of the Cross. What power do they represent in the eyes of society? Women have a special charism for the acceptance of their own weakness and frailty. In the Gospel in the first community born around Jesus there are women: they stand at the foot of the Cross. While all the disciples have fled, they muster the courage to stay beside Jesus: “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when she was in Galilee followed him and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem” (Mk 15:40-42).

At the foot of the Cross a new family came into being that we may consider as the first Christian community. Wherever suffering is not avoided, wherever personal weakness is accepted with trust, wherever frailty and powerlessness are transformed into prayer to the Lord, unsuspected energy is born.

Paul Evdokimov, a great Russian Orthodox philosopher and theologian, said in his book Woman and the Salvation of the World: “more interiorized, more closely bound to their roots, women feel immediately at ease in the limitations of their being and strive to use their gifts to create a crystal clear symphony of themselves. They fill the world with their presence from within. [...] Men go beyond their being with their charism of expansion. They aspire to attain the maximum of their power with which they fill the world [...]. The male instinct of destruction, “father of war”, may be “granted” by the female and sublimated in an instinct of life, of building culture and of worship. [...] Men today dehumanize the world in all the forms of objectivization; well, through a motherly instinct, any objectivization is organically impossible. [...] Women humanize and personalize the world [...]. They never cease to defend the primacy of being over the theoretical”.

The rich must learn anew how to live with their own weaknesses which exist despite all they do to conceal them. The encounter with an elderly or sick person helps us to accept our weakness. These realities force us to question ourselves about what we are, about what we hope, about where we seek and find our joy. The encounter with the poor is a mystery that opens us to God.

“War is the mother of every form of poverty”, said Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Peace, this precious good of humanity, is threatened on all sides. Today a large part of the world is in flames. How many hearts are inhabited by a capital of hatred and revenge waiting to explode, thereby sowing death and destruction? Today we are seeing the deficit of a world that has not invested much in coexistence and is accustomed to the diseases of violence and war. Even Christians who received from Jesus the mission to be peacemakers often feel condemned to being spectators of in an unjust and ungovernable world, and in the end resign themselves to pessimism.

In her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich explains that war is one of humanity’s most openly sexist activities because of the close bond that exists between war and virility. Women, mothers, wives, and daughters see the sorrow of war: the loss of the people they love, the destruction. During a war women mourn; they even weep for the sons of others. The Church also mourns in wars. In the hard times of war, while men are killing each other, the Church shows quintessentially her motherhood. In war, the Church shows her maternal features. She loves peace because she is mother.

Mary is the maternal figure who weeps during war. Mary weeps in times of war and is resplendent in times of peace. She rejoices at the Saviour’s birth and is sorrowful at the foot of the Cross. Her tears express the despair but at the same time the strength of this frail woman who is the Mother of God. Her tears show that humanity does not accept war. Mary is venerated as the Queen of Peace who represents the hope of our world.

Tears and cries of despair become requests and prayers. Sobbing is a supplication to which God does not turn a deaf ear. In prayer we entrust our frailty to God who strengthens us in faith and in love at the service of others. Prayer is the weapon of both the weak and the poor. Here we find ourselves facing a great paradox of Christian life: the strength of the weak and the weakness of the strong. As St Paul said: “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor 12:10).

Prayer and listening are being present among those who are suffering. As Jesus said, it is Mary who has chosen the good part that shall not be taken away from her: being present beside Jesus, listening to his words (cf. Lk 10:38-42). Our world that is ill with violence, war and loneliness is thirsting for love, comfort and peace; it needs strong women, women of faith: Evdokimov wrote: “women will save the world only if they tremble before the Gospel parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins if, gratia plena, they truly become, after the Virgin’s example, the gate of the Kingdom”.

The wise virgins found the strength to keep their lamps alight: their provision was great trust in the Lord and they had gone to draw from the fountain of hope. These women show the way, they testify that the God of tenderness did not abandon the world. The women at the tomb became the first witnesses of the Risen Jesus, the first witnesses of the Good News. Those women who stayed at the foot of the Suffering One, who watched, remaining present, who did not flee from their weakness were strong. They saw a path of hope and resurrection and communicated it to others. In the school of suffering we learn no longer to have any fear of tears and supplications and are comforted by glimpsing the path of resurrection, hope and peace.

Hilde Kieboom

Ministry and spirituality

Mary where does this headline go? And I suppose you should put the bio under the article by Hilde Kieboom which is “Tears of strength”. Hilde Kieboom was born on 7 May 1965 at Wilrijk, Antwerp. She studied Greek and Latin, then German language and literature at the University of Antwerp and at the Catholic University of Louvain. She is married with two children. In 1985 she founded in her home town the Community of Sant’Egidio which she had come across 10 years earlier in Rome. On 21 July 2003 King Albert ii granted her the title of baroness for her hard work, and two years later the University of Utrecht awarded her a doctorate honoris causa for the way in which she has put ministry and spirituality into practice in modern society. In 2007 she received from the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church the decoration of the Order of St Olga for her merits in the Church and in society. In 2014 she became Vice-President of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

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