CHRISTIAN EDUCATION FOR WOMEN A Address Delivered at Saint Mary's School Mount Saint Gabriel
on June 10, 1913
by Charles Winfred Douglas
Canon of Fond du Lac
np: nd, 11 pp
It is a commonplace of every-day speech to say that change is the characteristic feature of our modern age: but probably none of us recognizes the full romantic wonder enshrined in every commonplace thought or thing. As one grows older, one feels this wonder more frequently. For instance, you children of the School live familiarly in a world to which your few years are abundantly accustomed; and cannot easily realize how enormously that world has changed in material things since the first youth of us who are so very little older. Then, there were no towering commercial buildings, no telephones, no wireless telegraphy, no phonographs, no motion pictures, no trolleys, no motor cars, no flying machines. Most of these things are as familiar to you as were the telegraph and the steam railway to us: but in those days, the telegraph and the steam railway were only beginning to wear off their wonder to our parents.
Equally great has been the change in immaterial things. We can all see how literally true is Saint Paul's saying, "Knowledge shall vanish away": we need only to look into the text-books in any natural science that were used by our parents to find them quite useless for the altered learning of today. And not only Knowledge, but also what men esteem as Wisdom, or Philosophy, which comes from the effort to classify and inter-relate all knowledge, and then to apply it to life, changes just as ceaselessly. Thirty years ago, Herbert Spencer was completing his great Synthetic Philosophy, which was to comprise the sum of all wisdom. It was dead before it was done; and whole systems of philosophic thought have since followed it into forgetfulness: so that, as someone has said, when men ask to have the Christian Faith stated in the terms of modern Philosophy, one may well ask, 'of what Philosophy?'
Ideals have changed too; the things for which men and women care enough to labour, to endure, to suffer, and to die. We are met here on this last day of the Scholastic year as a School for Girls, dedicated under the patronage of Saint Mary and Saint Gabriel. We may well think, for a little while, of some changing ideals of Woman's education; and still more, of some changeless ones, suggested by the title of our School. Now educational ideals simply represent what educators would have men and women be, so that we must judge them both by their aims and by their results.
A century ago, girls were taught in Female Seminaries. Their aim was to produce a woman mentally trained within strict and narrow limits imposed by man. Many of them were filled with high endeavour for noble things: but in general, the stiff crabbed title instantly calls to mind the warping of over-restrained and unplayful bodies; the prisoning of minds within a scant genteel curriculum; the cramping of souls by a hard unloving religion, and by a forced and senseless ignorance of the world in which they had presently to live. To the man of that day, ignorant innocence and unreasoning obedience to himself, rather than the strength of wise holiness, seemed the best defence of his women-folk in the midst of this naughty world. Milton's Eve well expresses the Puritan attitude toward women when she says to Adam,
"My author and disposer, what thou bid'st
Unargued I obey: so God ordains.
God Is thy law, thou mine."
A distinguished author of our day says: "Of all the changes of the mind of mankind in regard to the duty and the mind of women, none can be greater than the change from mediaeval thought to the puritan; from the Gospel according to Saint Luke to Genesis according to Milton. The education of women sank quickly from the date of the beginning of Puritanism."
Another educational process for girls which must be condemned by the character of its product is that of the so-called fashionable finishing school for 'young ladies,' with its smattering of things learned for show, and not for growth or use; with its endless reading about books, instead of reading and knowing the books themselves; with its shallow showy pianoforte pieces learned like the tricks of trained animals in a circus, instead of the humble and lovely art of music; and worst of all, with its continual dwelling on current conventional modes of thought, speech, dress, and deportment as constituting the essence of gentility, instead of the grace of God. Its admirable aim is to make ladies: but it forgets that the most perfect finished Lady that ever lived, she whom we delight to call our Lady, heard, in her greeting from the Archangel of God, the very reason of her excellent Ladyhood: "Hail, thou that art full of grace!" She who was full of grace could say or do no ungracious or un-grace-ful thing.
But there is today a conflict everywhere in America between two ideals of education, to one of which we adhere with all our hearts; and the other of which we believe to be imperfect, essentially shallow, and fundamentally wrong. I refer to what is sometimes called "practical education; " the extreme aim of which is to enable the learner to do better than others whatever things the world will pay for with money or fame or social prestige or any other sort of external prosperity. This ability to keep abreast of the times, to meet the popular demand, at whatever cost of the old deliberate courtesies, at whatever sacrifice of the hidden serene treasures of mind and soul; this power to out-do others, to disregard the feeble, the poor, and the ignorant, save only as one may profit materially by their weakness, or knowingly shun annoying responsibility for them, is known as Efficiency: and its result in life is called Success. Self is the god of that success, and those who win it are well described by the Psalmist. "They make boast of their own hearts' desire; they speak good of the covetous, whom God abhorreth; they say, I shall never be cast down; they are so proud, that they care not for God; yet they humble themselves, that the congregation of the poor may fall into the hands of their captains."
Against a training in this false efficiency for this unreal success, we set the ideal of Christian education for women. It is an ancient ideal, however changed the actual material of knowledge which it shapes into service, or the outward surroundings which it animates with lovely life; an ideal antedating by many centuries the Puritan decline in the position of woman: down through the ages it has prepared girls for the noble and unselfish mission which al! maidenhood and all motherhood were sent into the world to perform. It has produced the efficiency of the sage maid Catherine of Siena, trusted counsellor of Kings and Popes before she was thirty years of age; of Jeanne d'Arc, the saviour of her sovereign and country; and of innumerable hidden saints and heroines, like them ready to do greatly what needed to be done. It has fostered the success of countless thousands of good mothers whose sons and daughters have by them been made faithful to the image of God in which they were created. It has equipped for loving and wise ministration to the poor, the suffering, the sorrowful, the ignorant, and the sinful, that great army of kind women who have achieved more for mankind than all the hosts of all the conquerors.
This ideal of education lays stress on life itself, rather than on the mere accessories of life. It believes that the intellectual and spiritual treasures of the world are worth more to a woman than its material or so-called social rewards. It eagerly heeds these words of him who was and is the Wisdom of God, even Jesus Christ our Lord. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." "Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than food, and the body than clothing?" "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." Efficiency it seeks, and success: but the strong efficiency of service, the high success of fulfilling woman's own God-spoken vocation, whether in maidenhood or in motherhood. What that vocation is, we are told by the very mouth of the Creator in the allegory of Eden, when God said to the tempter who had brought sin into the world, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman." Thus every woman, each one of you, my children, is God's appointed champion against moral evil; and your education is to fit you for that championship. To educate only means to 'draw out' what is really in one: and God himself implanted this in your very nature, instinctively to fight against wrong.
It is the glory of womanhood that by the common acknowledgement of all Christian men, the most efficient and successful life ever lived by any human person was lived by a woman. When the great year came in which she was to use the highest prudence, show the firmest courage, feel the deepest joy, face the darkest shame, sing the noblest song, that this world had ever known, she was but a young girl, probably no older than you who are today going out from this school of womanhood which boasts her glorious name of Saint Mary. To her alone came the double vocation of being both a Virgin dedicated to God and a Mother dedicated to man. She was of royal descent, and yet very poor. Therefore, whatever your calling may be, (and I would to God that each one of you might be called of God to one or the other of her vocations,) or whatever the outward circumstances of your life, you will find in her the supreme example of a right education for such an one as yourself.
Out of the holy silence which surrounds most of her life, many thoughts about her youthful training whisper themselves in the meditating heart. And as education ought to deal with body, mind, and soul, let us listen before we part to a thought or two about each.
God chose her to give perfect Humanity to his divine Son; therefore she must have had a strong and splendid body to bear and to nourish the Son of Man. She was very poor, and the poor must work with their hands. Then remember the long journey undertaken with little or no preparation across the desert to Egypt, with the infant Child and the aged Joseph. I know the desert, and I know that such a flight under such conditions required unusual bodily strength. Whatever the physical training of her childhood was, it is plain that it made her able to labour and to endure. Now the body is not for self, but for God: and it is the duty of every one of us to try to make and keep it strong and well and pure and perfect for his service.
Her mind was certainly trained to be very alert and acute against possible temptation. You remember that when Eve's supernatural visitant spoke to her, the Bible tells us that she, being deceived, fell into transgression. But Mary, under the like circumstances, "was troubled" at the Angel's saying, "and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be." She tested the rightness of the message with wise and discreet questioning before she gave the humble but momentous consent that was to redeem the world, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word."
Then again, her mind was schooled in the great national art of the past, and in the right use of her own language. Many people hold false opinions about art: as, for instance, that it is a mere ornament of life, bearing no relation to the truth; or that it ought chiefly to be the product of one's emotions, uncontrolled by reason; or that in every age it ought to discard the forms in which the skill and patience of earlier times has enshrined it for something wholly new and experimental. Whereas in truth, art consists not in meaningless decoration, but in the right expression of man's joy in his own necessary labour; and it ought to be the product of his whole nature, emotions, reason, and will; and to be almost always a fresh flowering from the ancient stock of earlier forms. So, just as Shakspere worked over old forgotten tales and plays into the chief masterpieces of dramatic literature, Mary modeled her Magnificat, the perfect song which sums up all Hebrew poetry in one triumphant ode, upon the Canticle of Hannah, recorded in the second chapter of the first Book of Samuel: and it gloriously voices her joy over the work of God which was wrought within her, in which she co-operated with every force of her being. The spirit of the Magnificat filled her whole life, and her mind was technically trained to express it in the purest poetry of her race.
Only a strong and well-trained soul avoids being turned from its true course by the dazzling light of sudden honour and praise, or by the suffering of sudden unjust blame. Yet it was the wonderful message of the Archangel Gabriel that caused Mary to be troubled, not the inevitable and terrible suspicion which she knew must follow: in the certainty of right, no fear could affect the wisdom of her choice, although she must have foreseen the sword of many sorrows that was to pierce through her own soul.
There are so many evidences of the perfect training of Mary's soul that most of them must today be passed over. Yet think for a moment of the Spotless Mother faithfully performing the ceremonial rite of Purification after the birth of the Holy Child. The commemoration of that fact is our great Festival here, and the anniversary of the founding of this Community by Mother Harriet of blessed memory. How ought your souls, each year remembering Mary's Purification, to grow stronger for the diligent, (which means the loving) performance of every religious duty for the glory of God, even more than for your own need.
Let us consider one further aspect of the training of Mary's soul. In Saint Matthew's genealogy of her divine Son appear, contrary to Jewish custom, not only the names of the great Kings and founders of the royal race, but also those of four women; and they are such as openly show that the Christ took humanity of his blessed Mother, not to bring the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. Two of them were aliens, the children of imperfect or false religions. Three of them were sinners against the very shrine of their God-given championship of right, their womanly purity. When we see the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba alone among women included in the record of the divine descent, we are not startled to find beneath the Cross of the dying Redeemer not only her who gave him birth, but also her faithful friend and
dearly loved intimate, Saint Mary Magdalen, whose sins, though many, had all been forgiven, alike by the Friend of sinners and by the most pure heart of the woman, his Mother. New, and very great responsibilities probably await your life as women, besides the old and enduring ones. There is little doubt that many of you will be called upon to share in the ruling of your native land, both in the making and enforcing of her laws. In another country, some of your sex have fallen into grave crimes, against the rights of their fellow-men and against God, to obtain this power. Can you imagine Saint Mary destroying the property of others, burning homes and churches, or threatening the very lives of men for any cause whatsoever? And when this responsibility is laid upon you, remember that you will have the power to keep or to kill God's best gift to man, the home; which rests upon the permanence and the purity of the marriage relation. Remember, then, that by man's law as it was and still is, Mary's husband had the right of divorce from her; but that he is dear to us as Saint Joseph, as holy Joseph, because he listened not to the law of man, but to the higher law of God. You must also exercise this responsibility in another direction, in which you will be helped by what no man possesses: your woman's gift of understanding the temptations, the trials, and the weaknesses of your own sex. The solution of some of the gravest problems confronting our national life depends upon your brave and wise use of these powers. How shall you use them for the benefit of your sisters, the ignorant aliens; of your sisters fallen from the high estate of marriage, such as the poor sinner whom Christ could forgive and love and teach; of your pitiable sisters the sold women, caught in a terrible trap of man's lust and greed, from which there is practically no escape save through your effort, your love, your patience, and your forgiveness?
Our ideal of Christian education for girls, therefore, is not to prepare them artificially for a place in an artificial society; but rather to fit them for the great realities and responsibilities of life placed by God in woman's body, mind, and soul: for the relations she ought to sustain toward those who will be her chosen life-companions, toward her children, toward all poor suffering sinful women and men, toward her country, toward her God. For women's place in this world will not be rightly filled until she accepts and shares with man, for whom she was created a meet helper, complete and equal responsibility for all the work and the problems and the suffering of human life.
Remember this, you who are going out from us today; and if now or in time to come you should recall the imperfections of our effort to attain this ideal in teaching you, forgive them for the ideal's sake. Keep the simplicity, the homely beauty, the innocence, the piety, that characterize this place as the precious fruits of your life here. And be not unmindful that today is but a milestone on your way. Your education is not complete, nor is mine, nor that of anyone here. It will not be complete when we come to that most wonderful Commencement Day which men call Death. For then we shall but be leaving the Preparatory School for the true College, wherein we shall read with the Son of God and be perfectly taught of the Holy Spirit. And though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death to attain it, we shall fear no evil, for God will be with us, and comfort us, and bring us forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name's sake.
After all, that 'bringing forth in the paths of righteousness' for God's sake is the true education, for which the testimonials given you today, and this School, and this dear house of God wherein we have worshipped together, stand.