When I was exactly three weeks old, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a truth of the Catholic faith. The year I turned 12, Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl. I have to admit that for most of our lives, women my age—Catholic or not, for good or for ill—have been more influenced by the latter event than by the former. Today, on the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption, as the mainstream media fill with tributes to the late Gurley Brown’s contributions to the sexual revolution and the fulfillment of women, I’m reflecting yet again on what it means to be embodied as a woman.
It’s not a subject, or an experience, with which I’ve ever been entirely comfortable. Chronically underweight as a girl and a teen, chronically overweight in the nearly 40 years since the birth of my son, I have never resembled the Cosmo Girl. Inept at even the most solitary, noncompetitive sports—I never learned to swim or ride a bicycle—I don’t have the athlete’s confident sense of being at home in the flesh. I’ve lived in my head most of my life, and the people who have been attracted to me have been drawn, without exception, to what’s in that head. Oh, I have had my share and more of the bodily pleasure Helen Gurley Brown announced was my birthright, but I’m more likely to experience sensory than sensual gratification.
So in a way neither Pius XII nor Helen Gurley Brown held out a model with which I could identify. It’s no surprise, feeling as untethered from the physical (while, ironically, “grossly closed in” by more than a few extra pounds of what Shakespeare called “this muddy vesture of decay”) as I have for so long, that I found refuge in Gnosticism for a time. When you’re a large, clumsy woman in a hot climate, the notion that the body is a trap and an illusion is mightily alluring.
The blessing in this is that I never had to unlearn the lessons of Sex and the Single Girl, the way the overgrown, overblown Sex and the City girls never could. I have not had to wake up one morning to the horrifying revelation that I cannot Have It All. Pleasure as Gurley Brown defined it—whether my own or the pleasure of a man, to which Cosmo promised 10 new secrets every month—is nowhere near the top of my agenda, if it’s even on there at all. And I can’t begin to imagine the kind of vanity—or despair—that led Gurley Brown, according to Kathleen Parker in today’s Seattle Times, to get breast implants at 73 and lament her “fat tummy” at 85.
But I take no pride. The curse in my clinging to this Gnostic strain of body-rejection is that it keeps me from anticipating fully the “complete beatitude” of which Mary’s Assumption is the pledge and promise. In the light of the Assumption—the joyous reunion of body and soul destined for all humanity from the beginning of creation—my living in my head is as sinful a denial of a woman’s call to holiness as living for bodily pleasure alone. When describing Mary’s glorified presence in heaven, St Bonaventure (one of a long line of Franciscan champions of the necessity of the Assumption, long before it was codified as dogma) argued:
She is there [in heaven] bodily. . . . Her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude.
In Munificentissimus Deus (“The most bountiful God”), his apostolic constitution defining the doctrine of the Assumption, Pius XII struck as startling a blow for the equality of women as Gurley Brown would ever imagine. “It is reasonable and fitting,” he wrote, “that not only the soul and body of a man, but also the soul and body of a woman should have already attained heavenly glory.” Mary—not the single girl, but the singular woman—is who we are, and how we have it all.
If it’s as difficult as it is for a woman like me to embrace that heavenly glory of equality, the complete beatitude of body and soul joined in personhood, how can the truth of the Assumption be spoken to those raised on Helen Gurley Brown? What value can virginity—which, in Mary, is never the rejection of sex or the body, but the total dedication of self to God, the freest will of all to say Yes—have for women (and men) who are told that selfish sexual gratification is all there is, and they can have it? What value is there in the flesh totally transfigured and irradiated with spirit in a world where flesh and its accoutrements are merely soulless commodities? What value is there in holding out the promise of unending joy in a time when we suffer from the shortest of happiness attention spans?
In the stilted language of the day, Pius XII proposed these same questions:
And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.
To say there are no answers, or that it’s too late for the message of the Assumption to reach our jaded senses, our calloused souls, would be to deny the very miracle by which Mary was raised up, “when the course of her earthly life had ended” (Catholic teaching leaves open both the tradition that Mary died, and the belief that she was preserved from bodily death by her sinlessness—making Mary, in some odd way, like Schrodinger’s cat). The Assumption says, No matter what this world or Cosmopolitan magazine tells you about bodies and souls, women and men, time and eternity, you’re in for a big surprise. Which is why they say, Never assume.
In the time I have left (uninterrupted by breast implants or tummy tucks), I want to work on getting the message of that glorious surprise across. I will start by befriending this body a little, climbing out of my head, spending more time in that place of complete beatitude, body and soul as one, I only approach when I let myself dance. I’ll let Edna St Vincent Millay’s words from Sonnet XXIX of Fatal Interview (itself on one level a call to unthinking pleasure, on another a perfect call to the dance of body and soul that is the Assumption) be my “bedside companion,” as Cosmo used to call itself:
Heart, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy . . .