Catholic Women/Common Wisdom: Notes on a Confirmation

Our older daughter Catherine was recently confirmed. She asked to wear for the occasion an antique dress that an elderly cousin had worn for her high school graduation in 1910. The dress is white batiste, a tiny-waited model fitted in with small tucks, trimmed with embroidery and inserts of lace, fastened down the back with the minute buttons of a baby’s christening dress.

The cousin who originally wore the dress must have liked herself in it. She, too, was a Catherine—named for the great-great-grandmother from whom both my daughter and I derive our first names. This cousin was an intelligent, high-spirited, opinionated girl with snappy black eyes and curly hair. Her nickname Kate suited her. Kate never married, but she had had a beau. When my grandmother told the tale of Kate’s love affair, we hung on every tragic word. The young man Kate was engaged to marry returned shell shocked from World War I. The wedding was called off. Kate apparently never met a man she could love so well. Instead she ventured forth to make a living for herself—which she did successfully for many years in the management of women’s apparel shops.

But it was a life Kate did not choose. Though she made the best of the life she had, she would have preferred another one. Yet Kate’s life of aloneness, the one she gladly would have changed, is the very life that many young women today deliberately choose. The single life, or at least a life of prolonged singleness or even of singleness with a live-in man is what they think they should choose.

Now here was our Catherine, in the white batiste dress, taller at thirteen than Kate was at seventeen. The dress, without an old-fashioned corset underneath, was tight in the waist, she whispered—too tight to allow her the traditional stop afterward at Graeter’s for chocolate chip ice cream with the great hunks of chocolate, our usual treat after all school performances and special events.

The seventh and eighth-grade confirmands took their places in the chapel, a blue and white Della Robbia 1920’s convent style done up with statues and flowers. The girls looked pretty and new, some a little off-balance in their sheer stockings and mini-heels. Here and there a hint of cheek blusher or eye shadow indicated there had been some experimental hours before the mirror. The boys, unaccustomedly brushed and slicked down, looked younger by eons than the girls—and distinctly throttled by their coats and ties. All in all the assembly looked properly sober and dignified.

The processional hymn began in the usual way—when suddenly there broke forth from the right transept the deafening crash of rock and roll drums. If we were about to witness the entrance of the Holy Spirit, the parents and sponsors rolling their eyes and even the confirmands with their startled expressions showed they did not care for the manner of his appearance.

My husband and I are tolerant of guitars, synthesizers, hymns that run to juvenilia, and other plagues of modern liturgy. If tolerance does not mean approval, there is still a certain amount of humor necessary to survival in church—but these ear-splitting drums that shattered the air also shattered the spirit of the confirmation liturgy. The mood of the ceremony did not snap back.

I could not help contrasting Catherine, pleased and contained and demure in Kate’s dress, with the raucous inappropriateness of the assaulting drums. It gave me pause to consider the chaotic world into which she is moving. I wondered if this slender young figure of order and tradition can hold her own in a world in which nearly all things are lawful. Will the grace of confirmation arm her to be a Christian woman in the sort of Karamazov world she will inherit?

A mother worries about a son but worries even more about a daughter. A mother has an intuitive sense of the possibilities that could someday make her daughter unhappy. Will this Catherine, like that other Catherine, be deprived somehow of the joy of being loved by a man and bringing his children into the world? Her life then would not be what she would choose but what she would accept.

Or could it be that her life will be shaped not by choice or circumstance but by the constraint of an ideology that insists that girls, like it or not, must hurry off the graduation platform and into a career? Will she be so bombarded by the feminist message of fulfillment in the worker-world—not even a feminist message anymore but the universal taken-for-granted gospel—that her resistance will wear so thin she no longer can think any man is worth living for or any children are worth having? Will she believe the modern rule that a woman shows character only by escaping from her private domestic world in which, as Chesterton pointed out, she does all things widely to a public world in which she does one thing narrowly? Will she succumb to popular blandishments that will tell her to give up a free private world of love and service for a confining public world of specialization? Will she be ashamed to hope at all for that private world?

It is not that men in their public world are slaves or that their public world is less than the private one. After all, the public world is the world of the polis, of political debate and constitution-making. Yet men in their work are required to be specialists, and specialization bears its own limitations on freedom.

We need two halves in a whole world. If men are specialists, then, as Chesterton said, some people in the world ought to be generalists. It is the generalists who make and keep the private world of the home the really free space for both men and women. Today, however, the public world is not just half the world; it instead defines the entire world. The object of much current doctrine, by getting both men and women out of the home and into the workplace, is to absolutize the public world. And the public world that is consequently glorified is not the civility of the polis but the servility of the proletarian workplace.

I hope Catherine will not be thwarted either by circumstance or by ideology. Whatever else she does, I hope she will not be afraid to be a generalist. Even under the duress of rolling drums, may the grace of confirmation take root.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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