On Virginia Woolf and Maria Goretti

Combining a [not so] Quick Lit post with a Seven [not so] Quick Takes post . . .

Virginia Woolf image via Wikipedia

1. I just finished Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own, and it gave me so much to think about; I could go on and on.  Primarily, though I was struck by Woolf’s emphasis on writing for its own sake, with no specific telos*.  Toward the end of the essay, Woolf emphasizes “reality” and that women should focus on reality and not people and relationships.  The implied premise is that women before had been confined to the world of relationships–the drawing room and the nursery and their duties therein–and they hadn’t been encouraged to explore the world as it is.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.

It is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.

See human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality . . . . Our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women.

In other words . . . Ladies, shake off your concerns for other people and any responsibility you have to help other people through your writing.  Focus on being yourself and writing what you want to write and describing the world as you see it.  In other words . . . prioritize work over relationships . . . like men do.

2. And just after reading Ms. Woolf’s essay, I turned to a shorter one by John Cuddeback, in which he proposes that men should prioritize relationships over their work [like women do?].

We need to do more to reimagine and then reinstate a different model of family life. At the center of this model will be a husband and father whose very success in life is fundamentally, though not solely, seen and judged in terms of what he does in the home. Indeed, a central measure of his manhood will be the quality of his presence in the home.

I tend to agree with Dr. Cuddeback.

3. At the same time,when I start mentally criticizing Virginia Woolf, I catch myself and remember that

My life is better than pretty much any woman’s from any other time period or any other part of the globe. 

If I were a man, I might prefer to live in other times or other parts of the world (a [male] taxi driver once extolled North Africa to me as the best place in the world to live), but as a woman, nope.  I think I have it as good as it gets, and possibly as good as it ever will get.

I don’t know how much credit Virginia Woolf deserves for my enviable position, but . . . .  I can take so much for granted that perhaps it skews my understanding?

4.  Virginia Woolf also makes statements like,

“Chastity … has, even now, a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest.”

After reading Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist and (a few months ago) Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, and of the horrific sexual assaults both women experienced I think . . . maybe we’ve unwrapped those nerves and instincts too much and thrown out the baby with the bath water?  Nerves and instincts are not virtues, but they can be preemptive self-defense measures.

5. Still it bugs me that the Catholic Church hasn’t done enough to unravel “nerves and instincts” from what is actually the virtue of chastity.  (Consent!  Consent is implicit in the definition’s use of the word “gift.”)  I mean . . . if you’d humor for a moment, please picture a Venn diagram: physical virginity and chastity are two separate circles that overlap a great deal, but are not concentric.

So that brings me to Simcha Fisher’s post on Saint Maria Goretti.  (She also uses the baby-with-the-bathwater-cliche but that’s coincidental.)  I’ve mulled over a post on this saint for almost a year, planning to write something around her feast day.  But July 6 came and went.  Probably I was sleeping/eating/gestating and not much else.

As it turns out, my essay was written for me, in various comments to the post.  (Reading the comments to Simcha’s posts is usually a waste of time, but occasionally I slip back into old habits.)

The objection to how St Maria Goretti’s cult is often presented is the notion that she was canonized because she managed to die before her attacker was able to succeed in raping her. Usually in words to the effect of “die rather than lose her chastity.” Which leads to the horrific implication that she would indeed have lost her chastity if he had succeeded in overpowering her against her will before killing her, and that his action carried out against her will would have been a sin on her part, and that anyone who does NOT fight to the death against a rapist is somehow “accepting” and therefore complicit in the attack and committing a mortal sin themselves.

. . . .

Did he say, “Let me rape you, or I’ll kill you,” and she said, “I’d rather you kill me”? That would give the impression that being raped is sinful, which seems confused. Or did he say, “Let’s have sex,” and she said no, and then he got angry and killed her? If the latter, then she was trying to avoid sexual sin (perhaps indeed for his sake as much as for her own), but there’s no reason, in this version of the story, to think there’s any worrisome implication that she was trying to avoid the pseudo-sin of being raped.

. . . .

She was 11. He had a knife and already heard the word “no” many times without impact. If anyone sees the potential for HER to sin in this situation, get thee to a therapist. Consent was not an option.

. . . .

I am sorry but this is trying to paper over an ugly truth in the Catholic Church.. the Church cared more about little Maria Goretti’s purity than it did her life. Maria Goretti was definitely not canonized for her forgiveness but for her purity. Pius XII mentioned as much in his homily at her canonization. It was all about her purity; she was a symbol used to condemn Italian girls who were sleeping with the American GIs.

These ^ are all other people’s words, not mine, but I’ve had the same back and forth in my head.

6. And I ponder why so many (all?) cultures place more weight on women’s physical purity than on consent, or on actual virtue, or on men’s chastity.  Like Dr. Iannis says in Corelli’s Mandolin,

It’s a fact of life that the honour of a family derives from the conduct of its women.  I don’t know why this is, and possibly matters are different elsewhere.

I do, sort of, understand why this is.  In the grand, sordid, scheme of life men generally have to have some assurance that children are their own before they’ll support them.

Simcha’s description of why Saint Maria G. was canonized is a nice idea but it certainly isn’t the story I’ve been told.  In fact, in his homily during her canonization homily, Pope Pius XII stated,  “With splendid courage she surrendered herself to God and his grace and so gave her life to protect her virginity.”  The Church’s teaching is a lot more nuanced than the crude-if-necessary emphasis on physical purity that so many cultures have.  But you wouldn’t get that impression from Saint Maria Goretti’s story as it’s traditionally been told.

I have no neat, insightful conclusions for you.  Just my thoughts.

7.  Oh phew! I have more links to share, but that’s enough for tonight.

Have a great weekend!

* Telos = secret code word used by conservative-Catholic-liberal-arts majors to identify themselves to one another.


13 thoughts on “On Virginia Woolf and Maria Goretti

  1. Your Maria Goretti points are fascinating ! I feel after a childhood of Maria being standard Catholic girl-saint fare, this way of looking at her is rocking my world! In a good way. 🙂

  2. A couple of thoughts. The Church has also beatified/canonized young women who died for their purity but were overpowered by their assailants and raped (Bl. Pierina Morosini comes to mind, who attended and was inspired by the canonization of St. Maria Goretti). The fact that Maria died to preserve her virginity does not mean if Alessandro had overpowered her first she would not be a saint. I also think it is good to keep in mind that St. Maria Goretti is not primarily a saint for girls. She is held up by the Church as a saint for our times, for young men, as well as young women. Alessandro had many problems young men of our time face, in particular an addiction to porn. This little girl is an intercessor for them, one they can pray to in their struggle for purity.

    • Hi Jennie, Thanks for commenting. It’s a good point that young girls shouldn’t be the target audience for St. Maria G.’s story. . . . I just did a little Google search on Bl. Pierina and it’s not clear she was actually raped, or if she successfully stopped the rape attempt but died from her injuries. . . . though, like you said, that doesn’t really affect whether she or Maria G. is a saint in heaven (and I have no doubt that they are). One source mentions JPII’s statements about her and says that JPII considered it “better to be a dead virgin than a living rape survivor.” Oh yikes. I really hope JPII did not say that. So far I can’t find his actual remarks, just some person’s commentary. http://www.marypages.com/PierinaMorosiniEng.htm

  3. Yeah, I tend to get annoyed when modern American women criticize feminists in other ages and cultures, for the reason you bring up. How easy it is for a stay at home mom who truly chose that path to blithely mock others for not being focused on the home! There’s always a danger when judging people from other times and/or cultures through the eyes of our own culture, without taking their differences into account.

    The whole Maria Goretti story wigs me out for two reasons. One, it emphasizes physical virginity – sorry, but it does. Two, even if it is about her forgiveness, that’s still a terrible story to hold up to rape survivors. Forgiving a rapist has got to be one of the hardest things in this world, something that no man should ever tell a woman is her duty. Until you can walk in her shoes, just stop talking. (OK rant over! 🙂 None of this is to disparage Maria’s courage of course, just the way that her story has been told.

    • yeah, I don’t mean to criticize Maria G. or the fact that she’s been canonized. Just the way her story has been told–what parts are emphasized. . . . As for the forgiveness aspect, I don’t think anyone should “tell” anyone they have to forgive their attacker. At the same time, Jesus said “Father forgive them” about the ppl who tortured and killed him. So clearly, Maria was following His example. . . . I guess it’s one thing to tell someone, “Forgive! Now!” but another to honor someone who does what most of us would find impossible. . . .
      I think I’m uncomfortable w/ a lot of saint stories b/c they’re made to seem so perfect. But then Jesus was perfect, so. Maybe I need to get more comfortable with the idea of perfection? 😉

      • Right. She herself is amazing! I didn’t grow up hearing about her, since I’m not Catholic, but the first time I read her story it was from someone talking about how important it is for GIRLS especially to be pure, and how Maria was willing to die to protect her purity, so that probably influences my take-away.

  4. Intersting post…especially about the saints. I think it’s important to remember that ALL history is biased, and that includes saint’s stories. The saints are saints, but the people who tell or write their stories, aren’t perfect. Those writers may choose to emphasize different things which can put a very different spin on their stories.

    I totally understand where you are coming from with the Maria G. story. I also get a bit uncomfortable with St. Catherine of Siena. I mean, she was basically anorexic..only subsisting on the Eucharist. I would not want my children to think that it is heroic or virtuous to not eat.

    I think it’s important to take Saint Stories in context of the whole saint’s life…not just the dramatic or exciting parts. Saints are saints because they love and follow God and put God and other’s before themselves. ` Not necessarily because of the super dramatic things they did (like not eating or resisting rape) but because of their love for God and others, their unselfishness, their prayer life, etc.

  5. This makes me think a little bit of St. Therese of Lisieux, too, in that one way of looking at her is to see her as this very simple, very humble, loving, prayerful, faithful person. She’s often portrayed that way, and she was that, indeed.

    But she also was a hurricane of misbehavior when she was a little girl! And selfish! And whiny! It’s nice to be able to focus on her virtues when we need a kick in the pants, but it’s also helpful to think of her utter humanity when we are faced with our own (or our three-year-old’s, not that I have anyone in my family in mind) tendencies toward being more holy terror than holy. We are called to orient ourselves towards God in spite of our failings, and then to rely on Him.

    I think this is what St. Maria Goretti did, too. Maybe this is one way to look at her story: it sounds to me as though she did her best to protect herself, both body and soul, while also exercising heroic virtue and saintly love towards the soul of her attacker. Sometimes these are portrayed in her story as mutually exclusive (we ignore that she almost certainly wanted to escape the whole situation), but the truth is more that she was saintly within her humanity.

    St. Maria’s story and how it is perceived also reflects our difficulty with understanding that there is more than one way to be good and holy. Dying to protect your virginity can be an admirable act. Smashing an attacker across the face with a frying pan in order to protect your virginity can also be. Cooperating with an attacker in order to protect your life can also be. These things can all be right (although the situation in each case is tragic). Even in the case of a hierarchy of goods — if one response was somehow better than the other — they are all good. I think you’re right, Laura; we ought to handle narratives of lives like St. Maria’s with great care as we seek to teach about them, or our missteps could create stumbling blocks for those who have survived abuse.

  6. I don’t know much about Maria’s story, other than the basic “He proposed sin, she said no; he flipped out, she forgave him” stuff, so I don’t really have anything to add in regards to that specifically. What really bothered me was the story of a saint who threw herself off of a roof to prevent rape, and how that was lauded as an admirable way of protecting one’s chastity. I don’t remember who or when, other than it was in the ancient days, or even if it was more than a myth, but my first thought was “Isn’t suicide a sin? How can this person be a saint?” It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Personally, I’m in the fight tooth and nail even to the death to avoid rape camp, because I’m pretty sure I would never be able recover psychologically. But that doesn’t mean I’d find fault with someone who would “allow” it to happen in order to save her life. Even such an instance, though, would be a far cry from actually consenting to the sex, and most certainly not be a sin, in my opinion.

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