Jenna left a comment on my post “Podwig” that really caught my attention. I’ve been meaning to come back to it.
Love the podvig and the podwig. As to the whole submission thing, I have been studying about the Hebrew language/letters. (If you've not studied even the alphabet – well, aleph-beit in Hebrew – you're so missing out!) One word for man/husband is ish – aleph, yod, shin – which imply the strong leader of God's power. Isha, for woman or wife, is aleph, shin, heh – the strong leader's power revealed. So I'm picturing the CEO who is the face and responsibility of the organization and the COO who makes it all happen.
I have never studied Hebrew, but I do love to understand the linguistic roots of any word or idea, so I found that really fascinating.
I was also particularly interested because of the relationship of this model – CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and COO (Chief Operating Officer) – to my own understanding of gender roles.
Jenna describes the CEO/man/husband as “the face and responsibility of the organisation, and sees the COO/woman/wife as the director of operations, the one responsible for the daily running of operations. There’s a good article about these two roles (CEO/COO) on Wikipedia.
When my children were little, I read as much as I could get my hands on of A.S. Neill’s writing – he who founded and ran the free school Summerhill in 1960s England.
In his school, children were free to be just whoever they were, and gender stereotypes were not imposed upon them – see something of the ethos of Summerhill in this excellent article.
In John Walmsley’s pictorial study Neill & Summerhill, A Man And His Work, he includes the following observation from Leila Berg:
What strikes you immediately, coming from the world outside and talking to the kids at Summerhill, is that you can’t tell the boys from the girls. This is important. It’s not just hair styles and jeans. The girls are so self-reliant and the boys so concerned, the girls so calmly tough and the boys so gentle. No boy’s voice has that conditioned flick of off-handedness that says, ‘I am male.’ They are interested voices, friendly and lightly generous, and their bodies are not tautly aggressive but trusting. You are startled when you hear their names. You begin to wonder how early children are warped in the world outside, dumped straight from the cradle on to one side of the line they must never step over, separated from one another and from their complete selves, permanently angered. Neill once said, at a progressive school conference, listening to them talk about how to keep the boys from the girls and pressed for his opinion, ‘Why don’t you put up barbed wire?’
On one occasion when Neill was speaking about his pioneering work, he was asked what differences he noted between boys and girls (I think it is in his book Summerhill School that he describes this). I no longer have the book in front of me to quote exactly, but I certainly remember what he said. He referred to the summer camps on which all the children were taken each year – a chance to live out in the open under canvas – and he said that the girls tended to stay near the tents whereas the boys were inclined to roam further afield.
This coincides exactly with my own personal experience of life. In our family – my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws – there is a tradition of strong and capable women, working alongside their menfolk as equal partners. Take for example my great-grandmother who was up at 4.30 to make the baked goods for the village shop she and her husband started and ran together. She was its book-keeper, as was my grandmother for her husband’s farm (a successful enterprise started from one rented field of peas). Those women were a force to be reckoned with. You could not call them the weaker partner. This was also true of my mother and father. She stayed at home buying and selling property through the long boom, creating the wealth of the family, growing fruit and vegetable and keeping hens and sheep, while he travelled abroad and later within the UK on his own business affairs.
The difference between the men and women was neither of strength nor ability, but of what you might call public and private face: the man was the Foreign Secretary and the woman the Home Secretary, to use UK parliamentary terms. In my own marriage, the Badger and I see ourselves as adult equals. There is no such thing between us as a ‘casting vote’ or ‘final say’. Where we are in disagreement over any issue, we talk and wait, wait and talk, until we come to a common mind. Neither of us is happy with something unless the other is happy with it too. But he is definitely the public face of us as a couple. He goes first into the room, he is the one you are more likely to know, he is the one who will make or take the phone call.
As to matters of submission, it’s all laid out in Ephesians 5, and my book The Breath of Peace that I have been trying for so long to get published is an in-depth study in fiction of this whole question.
Here’s an excerpt from The Breath of Peace, ©Penelope Wilcock, all rights reserved. In this passage, the abbot is in conversation with his sister.
“I’m thinking about the fifth chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians. The bridge from our life here in community to your life at home with William is in the verse that tells us to humbly give way to one another – submit to one another – in the fear of Christ. Subiecti invicem in timore Christi. Sister, I’m sure you must realise, that doesn’t mean anything like ‘knuckle under because you’re frightened of Christ.’ It means that because we aspire to holiness and want to make our whole lives into a reverential space, cultivate a reverential mind, practicing recollection, we maintain an attitude of humility. Are you with me?”
Madeleine understood him perfectly, but she wondered where in the passing of time the teasing urchin she had played with by the streams and on the moors had grown up into this. “Yes,” she said. “Go on.”
He looked at her, his lips parted in uncertainty. “I’m listening, Adam,” she reassured him: “you don’t need to keep checking.”
He nodded, with a smile at the unintentional asperity. “All right. Then, this is where the apostle comes to teach about husbands and wives. He takes as the model for marriage the relationship between our Lord and the church – because we think of the church as the Bride of Christ. Gazing on that relationship, he sees that our Lord has suffered and died for the church, stopped at nothing in the self-giving of his love. And he sees that the church is the community of people who call him Lord, who give their lives in his service. So the model is of a relationship in which neither party has held back anything; each has surrendered all they have to the other. Each gives their whole life in order that they might be made one. This is a picture of absolute trust and vulnerability; Christ pinned helpless to the cross in love of his Bride, and the church kneeling in submission to his lordship. Do marriage like that, the apostle says. Wives, love your husbands like the church loves Christ, offering your very lives in submission to your menfolk. Husbands, love your wives like Christ loves the Church, holding back nothing, suffering everything, laying down all you have because you love her so much.
“Now then, this is a beautiful picture, we can all see that. As a picture it works wonderfully. Where it all comes unstuck is when real people really try to do it. Then, without fail, the same old problem crops up: who’s going first? Human beings are scared of being trampled. When it comes to actual flesh-and-blood mortal beings, not one of us wants to put up our hand to take the risk of doing our part of the bargain until we’ve satisfied ourselves that the other half is on the table first. So we never begin. Do you see?
“Actually . . . in your marriage to William – dear sister, don’t be hurt or take offence, bear with me – I can see him struggling to do his part, but I can’t see you doing yours as well as you might. He’s a proud man, and used not only to absolute governance but also to admirable competence. To set that aside and let himself look foolish and inept will be completely crucifying to a man like William de Bulmer; but he thinks you’re worth it.
“What he needs from you is what the brothers here in their charity and humility give me; obedience. Not to him, I mean, but to Christ; just as in their vow of obedience to the abbot, the way the brothers here are taking is not obedience to me, John Hazell, but to Christ. Sister, William needs you to trust him enough to submit to him, even when he isn’t doing all that well. Even – indeed especially – when he’s said or done something stupid, he needs you to submit to him for the sake of divine order, out of reverence for Christ.”
John looked anxiously at his sister. He could not imagine this going down well. Madeleine could not have been described as meek in any imaginable circumstance.
“So… what does that mean in practical terms, in daily life?” She frowned. Her tone of voice expressed the suspicious end of caution. “It hasn’t got to be all ‘Yes, William’ and ‘No, William,’ ‘Of course, William’ and waiting on him hand and foot, has it? Give me a few instances.”
John thought about that.
“Well…” he said slowly, “let’s say you were out at the market all day and when you got home it turned out he forgot to shut the hens in and as a result a fox had caused mayhem and you’d lost half the flock. Might that happen?”
Astonished, his sister searched his face. “Has he spoken to you about that?”
John grinned. “Oh. I see. It did happen. No, he never told me so. Still, it makes a good example, then! Well, ‘in the flesh’ as the apostle would say, if a man did such a thing his wife would go beserk and think she had every good reason to do so. She’d call him every name she could think of and pour indignation on his head until boiling pitch began to look like a merciful alternative. She’d scold him until he felt completely humiliated, and he’d go to bed scowled at and unkissed and lie awake in the moonlight trying in vain to think of some way of making amends.
“But the apostle is saying, that’s not how we do it under Christ. That’s because Christ really sees us, with the insight of love. Christ is quick to compassion, and knows full well the man is more ashamed of himself than he can bear already. In marriage as the apostle imagines it, the wife offers not a word or look of reproach. She accepts that accidents happen. Her love is magnanimous and generous. She hooks up the dead birds quietly, out of sight. As she spins at the fireside that night, maybe she seems a wee bit quieter than usual – that would be because through gritted teeth she is silently praying: ‘O Fountain of Wisdom, Thou hast saddled me with this dolt, this nincompoop, this addle-brain: right then, give me the grace not to kill him!’ But she takes it to God and she leaves it with God. She offers her husband no reproach, because she is submitted to him.
“But then, let’s suppose this is all too much for the wife. She comes home, she finds the hens dead and dying, and she lets rips like thunder and lightning. What’s her husband to do? Well, ‘in the flesh’ as St Paul has it, he might go on the defensive. Where was she all day anyway? What did she mean by coming home so late? Aren’t they her dratted poultry in the first place? How much is it going to cost to replace them? This will be the last time she goes to market if that’s where it’s all going to end up. He might even hit her, if her scolding winds him up past what he can bear.
“But the scripture teaching says no, don’t do it like that. Submit to one another. Love her like Christ loves the church. If she wants to hammer nails in, lie there and take it. If she’s minded to jam a cap of thorns on your head, bite your lip and wipe the blood out of your eyes. Keep your eyes fixed on one thing and one thing only: letting nothing – but nothing – sour the sweetness of love. Let it hurt you, let it shame you, let it lacerate you; but don’t let it stop you loving her.
“Have I exhausted your patience? Have I said enough for now?”
Madeleine was sitting very still, her face brooding. “Go on,” she answered him.
“Well, then: this thing has to be mutual, it has to be reciprocal to work properly, to get the result it’s meant to achieve. If in our community here, the brothers are humble and submissive and the abbot is arrogant and self-serving and demanding, it all starts to unravel. If the abbot is gentle and humble but the monks are proud and lazy and insubordinate, the whole thing collapses in an instant. Same in a marriage. If the woman serves her husband humbly and he thinks ‘Oh, good!’ and sits back self-satisfied, ‘Wife, get me this, get me that!’ then it isn’t what the apostle envisaged. If the man is forbearing and gentle and the woman takes it as her opportunity to get away with being a nag and a shrew, then it’s just hell on earth. It takes two.
“How do you keep your hens from roaming too far afield and roosting in the trees, Madeleine?”
“What?” surprised by the sudden question, she turned her face to him. “You know what I do. I clip their wings.”
“Oh. And how do you do that?”
“What are you talking about? You know perfectly well how to clip a hen’s wings.”
“Pretend I don’t. What do I have to do?”
“You just trim the tips of the flight feathers on one wing. It unbalances them, so they can’t fly.”
“Exactly so. That’s why the apostle urges that in marriage a man and a woman be not unequally yoked, but be both submitted to Christ; because it takes two to make this work. Unbalanced, it can’t take off, it can’t fly. One of you can start the ball rolling maybe, but in the end the thing takes two. The man must be as humble and vulnerable as Christ stripped naked with his arms opened wide on the cross. The woman must be as gentle and submissive as the faithful people of God kneeling in simple humility before their Lord. Madeleine, am I describing your marriage?”
No sound followed this question but the settling of slow-burning logs on the hearth as the smoke drifted peacefully up the chimney above their red glow.
“What do you think?” she asked at last, her voice low.
“I think it’s a hard lesson to learn and it asks a lot of anyone. I think even when we’ve practiced for years it takes more than most of us have, to get it right. And again and again I have to ask my brothers’ forgiveness when I forget myself and say something cutting or contemptuous or intolerant. And I imagine it must be exactly the same in a marriage. Except, in the silence of the night you are blessed with one extra way to put things right.”
She said nothing. Then she moved uneasily, her face contorted in puzzlement. “This sounds all very attractive, but… well, in real life I can’t always be stopping to think about William. There’s work to be done, and only the two of us to get through it all. That’s mainly where we fall out – there’s so much to do, and I get exasperated with him when he forgets things and he’s clumsy and slow. It’s all very well for you, there’s a veritable army of men here to work together; at home it’s only me and William.”
John nodded. “I know what you mean. Not all our men are equally skilled of course – if you’d ever stood and watched Brother Thomas trying to work alongside Brother Germanus you might think twice about saying it’s all very well for us; but I do know what you mean.
“I understand that the work has to be accomplished – the beasts fed and the place maintained and the crops sown – of course it does, but… shaping a life as God meant it to be involves paying attention to the way we do things. The thing is, the journey determines the destination, if you see what I mean. The way we take is what settles the place we will arrive at. If you spend the next ten years bickering with your man and belittling him, you will be sowing the seeds for a harvest of misery in your old age. He won’t leave you. William would never leave you, of that I am sure. He’s no slouch – he has the most phenomenal application and tenacity. But you could lose him in other ways. He could become very bitter and withdrawn, and he is capable of great coldness. He was a ruthless man, once.
“I think, if you are willing to let things go sometimes, not have to have everything done right, that will help. So what if the fox steals a hen or two? Is that more serious than letting the devil steal your marriage? Do you really want William dancing like a puppet while you pull the strings, afraid to offend you, frightened of what you’ll say if he makes a mistake?”
He observed her quietly. “Is that… am I being too harsh?” he asked her gently.
She shook her head. “I think you’ve put your finger on it,” she replied, her voice dull and defeated. “I’m not a very good wife at all.”
John’s hand moved in a gesture of protest. “You’re the right wife for William. It’s hard, in middle life, to make adjustments, is the only thing. It’s the same here when older men who have been widowed feel a vocation to monastic life. But never mind that. Could you do it, do you think? Might you be able to make the choice to be kind a higher priority than being right? Could you keep your mind’s eye on the way you’ve chosen and trust it will arrive at somewhere worthwhile?”
If, on reading this, you think you would enjoy to have the opportunity to read the whole book, please do leave a comment here, as it will be under consideration at a publishers' meeting tomorrow.
Also in the comments please continue and develop this conversation about the roles of men and women, on which Jenna shed a wonderful ray of light.