“It is theologically and anthropologically important for a woman to be at the center of Christianity. Through Mary, and the other holy women, the feminine element stands at the heart of the Christian religion.” Benedict XVI said to Peter Seewald in “Faith, Hope and Love”.
So what, exactly, is the ‘feminine element that stands at the heart’ of Christianity? When John Paul II made his last pilgrimage to Lourdes in August 2004, he said that “Women are the sentinels of the invisible.” Sentinel comes from the old Italian ‘sentina’ which meant vigilance or watch over and was itself a feminine form of the noun. The sense here is that by nature women tend to keep watch carefully over the affairs of the heart, the whispers that are often missed by the roar of a rushing world. As a sentinel of the invisible, a woman draws attention to the realities of life that are often missed because they are unseen, unheard and unmeasured.
Since Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”, she is the model Sentinel of the Invisible. While she was still a teenager, she understood that her existence was dependent on the good God and, as such, she was his ‘handmaiden.’ This culture hears the word ‘handmaiden’ as masochistic or surely the product of a poor self-image. But the contrary is true. Accepting the reality of our total dependency on God at once reminds us that we exist only at his behest and, at the same time, reminds of our dignity. We are thought of, created and provided for everyday by a God who is in love with us. He gives us our dignity, no one else.
As women, we are created to receive. Not grab. Not dictate. Not worry. Just receive and give what we’ve received. Far from being a passive role, receiving requires attention to the giver and attention to what is passed on to others. This attention, this ‘sentina’ , is manifested in countless ways by women throughout centuries and cultures. But the purity of heart required to pay enough attention to the Giver in order to receive gifts each day and to pay enough attention to others in order to pass on the gift never changes.
Mother Angelica used to tell the PCPA nuns of her order to “Do it and drop it.” In other words, not to clutch or hold on to what they’ve done. Just do or give what needs to be done without ruminating or rehashing it within ourselves or with others. That way of living, that way of receiving and giving, requires purity of heart. That is, the simple desire to be what we are, God’s handmaidens. Not more and not less.
As women who have been given the great grace to live this Year of Faith, let’s resolve not to allow the invisible realities of this Year go unsentinelled in our homes, our work places and in our country. Let us ask Blessed Mother to obtain for us the grace to grow more into our vocation of Sentinel Saints!