The Intellectual Life: A Feminine Pursuit

Two years ago, I stood before a group of nineteen young women garbed in thick, black uniforms and SAS shoes.  We were postulants — women learning how to live in a tight-knit religious community of Catholic sisters.  In spite of our thick polyester skirts and foundation-less faces, we were all, quite possibly, the most joyful people on earth.

I smiled as I began my presentation on prayer.  In the novitiate, a sister grows used to smiling faces just as she grows used to veiled hair and Matins.  The presentation was short — a project for my Dominican Spirituality class.  I was in the middle of my closing sentence when I paused suddenly.  Something had occurred to me: the act of prayer is deeply feminine in character.  Prayer is a spiritual posture of receptivity, a stance before God that declares: I am vulnerable, and I have nothing to give but an openness toward Your Truth.

Though I left the novitiate a little over a month after my entrance, the memory of sharing the above realization with my fellow postulants has remained with me.  All Goodness, Truth, and Beauty originate in God and transcend all reality.  When the human heart opens itself to the transcendent, it opens itself to the Superlative and Source of all transcendentals: God.  I’m reminded now of Plato’s Form of the Good — that primordial being that wills to make everything as good as it can possibly be.  Creation has only to receive this goodness in order to become itself fully.  

Women embody the call to receptivity of the good marvelously.  Our bodies, as dwelling places for new lives, certainly illustrate our power of receptivity clearly and practically.  Yet I speak of a different, often misunderstood, power of feminine receptivity: her intellect.  Whenever my progressive friends speak of the intellectual woman, they often automatically — and sometimes unwittingly — liken this woman to a man.  She can write powerful essays and hold an authoritative conversation, just like a man.  She can earn first honors and receive dazzling acceptance letters, just like a man.  She can go on to earn her doctorate, wear pantsuits, and even look good doing it, just like a man.  

Many of my stalwartly conservative friends veer toward the opposite extreme.  Why on earth, they wonder, would any woman want to hold a position of political authority?  According to the gospel of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is not within a woman’s nature to have any career aspirations whatsoever.  And if a man finds himself in a serious relationship with a woman who does commit the sin of going to law school, he would benefit only from an instantaneous breakup.

Of course, I exaggerate.  I believe the habitually intellectual life is far more markedly feminine than many of us realize, regardless of where we fall on the ideological spectrum.  As an Aristotelian — and fear not, I do really love St. Thomas Aquinas — I cannot help but believe that a prerequisite to the act of knowing lies in receptivity.

Before a person comes to know anything, he must assume a stance of humility.  He must accept the truth that he does not know before opening his mind to the truth he soon will know.  As a Catholic, I cannot help but make a comparison to Mary, the perfect role model of true femininity.  Mary bore Truth, Himself within her womb and remained in contemplation of Truth’s very physical presence for years.  How very like Mary is the woman who seeks Truth in pursuing the intellectual life, for every truth we come to know originates in Truth, Himself.

I do not know whether I’ll ever return to convent life.  However, I do know that the prayer-filled life of a religious sister is profoundly similar to the life of a lay woman who encounters Truth through intellection.  If authentic femininity hinges on a principle of receptivity and the capacity to bear life, then I, for one, will chose to receive the truth through intellection and cherish it. I will choose, as St. Dominic taught his monks and nuns, “to contemplate, and to give to others the fruits of that contemplation”.


Photo, The School of Athens from

Madeleine Post

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