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The Symbol of Woman | The Introduction to The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine | Gertrude von le Fort | Ignatius Insight

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This book is an attempt to interpret the significance of woman, not according to her psychological or biological, her historical or social position, but under her symbolic aspect. This will imply a certain difficulty for the reader. The language of symbols, once universally understood as an expression of living thought, has largely given place today to the language of abstract thinking; in consequence this book must assume the obligation of clarifying for the reader the character of the symbol.

Symbols are signs or images through which ultimate metaphysical realities and modes of being are apprehended, not in an abstract manner but by way of a likeness. Symbols are therefore the language of an invisible reality becoming articulate in the realm of the visible. This concept of the symbol springs from the conviction that in all beings and things there is an intelligent order that, through these very beings and things, reveals itself as a divine order by means of the language of its symbols.

The individual carrier, therefore, has an obligation toward his symbols, which remain above and beyond him, inviolate and inviolable, even when he no longer recognizes their meaning, or when he has gone so far as to reject or deny them. As a result, the symbol does not disclose the empiric character or condition of the one who for the time being is its bearer; but it expresses his metaphysical significance. The bearer may fall away from his symbol, but the symbol itself remains.

Just as the meaning of the symbol does not necessarily coincide with the empiric character or condition of the individual who for the time being is its bearer, so also the essential quality that it designates is not restricted to the individual in question. We maintain, for instance, that from the point of view of her symbol, woman has a special affiliation with the religious sphere. To conclude from this that woman herself is particularly religious, or that she holds supremacy over man in this respect, would imply a complete misunderstanding of this book. The matter concerns itself with the figurative aspect of the religious quality, its visual representation; and this, as belonging to the symbol, has been in a special measure entrusted to woman.

What is true of womanhood in its fundamental significance applies also to the meaning of its individual expressions. This book pertains throughout to revelation as it comes through woman; but she must never usurp the place of that which is revealed, insofar as its metaphysical reality is concerned; for here on earth the revelation of all being is a twofold one. This is precisely what the two forms of masculine life that are greatest in symbolic significance demonstrate. Thus in the really heroic manifestation of manhood the strong strain of womanly compassion appears, but under a masculine aspect: to the chivalrous man belongs the protection of the weak and helpless. Thus a St. Vincent de Paul, man and priest, takes the abandoned child of the stranger to his heart as a woman would. And thus in St. Aloysius Gonzaga, as well as in all typical figures of spiritual knighthood, virginity appears as also a masculine virtue.

It is a recognition of this twofold manifestation but from its other aspect, when St. Catherine of Siena regards precisely the virile virtues as essential to the truly Christian life, and the supreme acknowledgment of this duality, in accord with defined dogma, is included in the Litany of Loreto, which invokes Mary both as Mother most amiable and Virgin most powerful, and places the womanly image of Mystical Rose beside the manly symbols: Mirror of Justice and Tower of David. Like every truth concerning woman, this image of the Eternal Woman awakens also an understanding of the symbolic significance of womanliness. Mary, standing for the creature in its totality, represents at the same time both man and woman.



The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine

by Gertrud von le Fort | With a New Foreword by Alice von Hildebrand

Also available as Downloadable eBook

When The Eternal Woman was first published in Germany, Europe was a battlefield of modern ideologies that would sweep away millions of lives in war and genocide. Denying the Creator, who made male and female, Nazism and Communism could only fail to appreciate the true meaning of the feminine and reduce woman to a mere instrument of the state. In the name of liberating her from the so-called tyranny of Christianity, atheism, in any form, leads to woman's enslavement.

With penetrating insight Gertrud von le Fort understood the war on womanhood, and consequently on motherhood, that always coincides with an attack on the faith of the Catholic Church, which she embraced at the age of 50 in 1926. In The Eternal Woman, she counters the modern assault on the feminine not with polemical argument but with perhaps the most beautiful meditation on womanhood ever written.

Taking Mary, Virgin and Mother, as her model, von le Fort reflects on the significance of woman's spiritual and physical receptivity that constitutes her very essence, as well as her role in both the creation and redemption of human beings. Mary's fiat to God is the pathway to our salvation, as it is inextricably linked with the obedience unto death of Jesus her son. Like the Son's acceptance of the Cross, Mary's acceptance of her maternity symbolizes for all mankind the self-surrender to the Creator required of every human soul. Since any woman's acceptance of motherhood is likewise a yes to God, when womanhood and motherhood are properly understood and appreciated, the nature of the soul's relationship to God is revealed.

"There are books that being timeless are always timely. This is why the reprinting of Gertrud von le Fort's The Eternal Woman should not only be welcomed, but acclaimed. The felicitious title of this great book is taken from the famous words of J. W. Goethe: "Das Ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan." (The eternal feminine draws us on.) They refere to woman's role in time because her meaning hints at eternity. With unfailing female intuition, von le Fort addressed this topic of crucial and perennial importance: the role of woman in the salvation of the world, which is the battlefield between good and evil, life and death." -- Alice von Hildebrand, from the Foreword to this New Edition of The Eternal Woman

"It can be said without fear of contradiction that no book like this has ever before been written, none certainly on this difficult subject as penetrating and with as deep an insight. It is a book on woman written by a woman whose competence in dealing with her topic is unique. For Gertrud von le Fort not only is a trained philosopher and historian. She is also a highly gifted poet and, above all, steeped in the noblest traditions of the Christian past, which in the light of the present day she interprets with a rare mastery." -- Max Jordan, from the original foreword (1954)

"The Eternal Woman is an inspiring meditation on the meaning of life and motherhood, viewed through the mysteries of the Rosary. The book illuminates woman's exalted position in creation as the symbol of grace building on nature. Her consent and cooperation with divine grace are, like Our Lady's, necessary to God's achieving His Will for creation. " -- Donna Steichen, Author, Prodigal Daughters


Gertrud von le Fort (1876-1971) attended the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin and Marburg. She was a prolific writer whose poetry and novels, which have been translated into many languages, won her acclaim throughout Europe. Her most famous work of fiction, Song of the Scaffold, tells the story of Carmelite nuns martyred during the French Revolution.




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