Women Mystics

Today I will be speaking at the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, speaking on Women Mystics of the Catholic Church. I will speak about three mystics – Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena – and about what we can learn from them.

My focus on women mystics is not intended as a slight against the male mystics of the Church, which include some who are deep favorites of mine (men like Thomas Merton, Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross). But some of the greatest mystics in the history of the Catholic Church have been women and I think that for contemporary women, the experience of so many Christian female mystics is something that is a source of strength and encouragement. Women like the Teresa, Julian and Catherine each showed extraordinary strength and courage, especially if one takes into account the social limitations of their times, challenging conventional ideas about gender. They heard God and they did not keep quiet about it. They recorded their experiences in journals, treatise, letters, music and visionary poetry. It was not their aim to form an opposition to the Church and society of their day. But, as Carol Lee Flinders observed in her Introduction to Enduring Lives, “when God comes to visit, you don’t keep quiet about it out of fear you might disquiet the bishop, and you don’t reword what you actually heard or censor what you saw.”

Ursula King had this to say about the importance of the mystics to our lives today:

To rediscover the story of the Christian mystics is a great adventure. Their manifold experiences and examples can be truly empowering for our own lives. Mystics traveled along the margins of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the world of the mundane and the world of the spirit, where all things are made whole. Today, at the beginning of a new millennium, we too are finding ourselves at an important threshold of a new, perhaps different and more difficult world, where we can gain much from spiritual nourishment. The Christian mystics speak to us across the centuries, and if we listen, we can learn something about the deepest experiences of their lives, so that we too may glimpse the glory of God and feel the healing touch of the Spirit.

If you are in the St.Paul area, come on over to the auditorium in Owens Science Hall at UST for what promises to be a wonderful day.


Choices That Convey That Women Are Optional

There is no shortage of strong and independent women in the Bible. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, viewed by many as presenting a low view of women, there are numerous stories of courageous women, women who take strong leadership roles and women with independent personalities.

What we hear proclaimed at Catholic Masses however, is not the entire Bible, but only those portions selected for inclusion in the Lectionary (the book from which Mass readings are taken). Thus, choices have to be made about what to include and what to exclude from the Lectionary. And those choices – intentionally or not – convey a message.

What is excluded from the Lectionary conveys to women that they are not important. The Lectionary gives short shrift to many stories of women, including strong women with important accomplishments in our faith history—they are either ignored completely or included only on weekdays and never on Sunday. So we hear nothing ever of Deborah, a prophet and judge of Israel; the Lectionary completely ignores her song of victory. The strong, brave, faith-filled figures of Ruth and Naomi appear only in two weekday readings in every three-year cycle. Courageous Esther gets only one weekday reading. Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection is only one of two possibilities in each cycle for Easter morning, despite the fact that she was the first to see the risen Christ.

In addition, and I was reminded of this in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, the Lectionary makes stories of women (or portions of their stories) included in Gospel passages optional, such that they may be excised to shorten a lengthy Mass reading. Thus, the story of Anna the Prophetess is often excised from the Gospel for the feast of the Presentation. Similarly, Jesus’ healing of the woman with a hemorrhage – such an important image regarding what it says about Jesus attitude toward the taboos that existed at the time – is part of a long passage involving the healing of Jairus’ daughter and is often excised, keeping the focus on the portion of the passage relating to Jairus. In the example of last Sunday, in which Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, the portion where she goes off from her encounter with Jesus – transformed by that encounter – and evangelizes the people of her town is optional. Thus, in the version I heard Sunday morning, we are told simply that many of the Samaritans in the town began to believe in Jesus, rather than that many began to believe in him because of the testimony of the woman.

The examples could go on and on, but they all convey that women are optional and that their stories are less important than those of men. I am not suggesting that is the intention, but the perception created is one that should be of concern.

The Voice of Catholic Women

We (that is, my co-editors Marie Failinger and Lisa Schiltz) just sent to Ashgate Publishing the manuscript of our book on women, law and religion. Part of our motivation for writing/editing the book (which includes chapters written by each of us and as well as by a number of other women of different faith traditions) is to remedy the lack of the voice of women of faith from the legal feminist dialogue.

Responding to a similar concern that we hear too little from Catholic women on too many issues, Our Sunday Visitor has recently published Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvare. I was delighted to receive a copy of it from The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

In her Introduction, Alavare invites: “If you want to know who believing Catholic women are, and what we think about being Catholic and female today in connection with a host of hot-button issues, listen to engaged Catholic women, not commentators with little genuine curiosity. Listen to women who are honestly trying to grapple with how their faith might inform their thinking and their acting. Let Catholic women speak for themselves.”

And that is largely what the book does. Although I would not say that the women who contributed to the book represent the broadest range of views of Catholic women, there is a diversity of age, occupation and background of the contributors. Their faith journey differ, but they all have grappled seriously with difficult issues. And, while each of our faith journeys is unique, hearing each others’ stories helps us as we navigate our own path.

There are some themes that carry through the very different chapters. First, is that there are many ways women of faith may live out their vocation in the world. Religious order or lay, married or single, professional or stay at home. There is not single model of a “good” Catholic woman, and that diversity is worth celebrating. Second, is that we can find no answers to the difficult questions we face without opening ourselves to the power of God. Each of the authors recognize, in Alvare’s words, that “when we let God in, better answers suggest themselves, answers that satisf[y] both our souls and our minds.” Third, is that the voice of women matters. We have something important to bring to table – to all issues, not just those often spoken of as “women’s issues.”

To be sure, there are some statements in the chapters I would take issue with if I were engaged in conversation with the women who made them. But that doesn’t detract from the value of the book. Perhaps it actually adds to it.

The Women Who Came Before Us

This morning I gave a women’s retreat day at Church of Christ the King on the theme The Women Who Came Before Us. As I said at the outset of our time together, although my visualization of the Communion of the Saints includes many men, I think there is value to women in focusing on some of he women in our history.

Although we read about them far too infrequently, women played significant roles in the narratives of both the Old and the New Testament. Women have been among the greatest mystics of the Catholic Church and included in the ranks of those who have been recognized by the Church (and some who have not been formally recognized) are some amazing women – strong, courageous women of faith.

I divided our time together into two segments: Women of the Bible and Latter-Day Women Saints (which term for me includes women who have not been formally canonized as well as those who have). During the first segment, I spoke about Miriam, Ruth, Hannah, Martha Phoebe and Mary (mother of Jesus). In the second segment, I spoke about Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Sr. Thea Bowman and Elizabeth Ann Seton. After each talk, the women spent time in individual prayer and reflection, following which we had both small group and large group discussion.

Directing women’s retreats is always an incredible privilege for me, whether it is long weekends like last weekend or a half-day like today. I think we all benefitted by our time and sharing together.

You can access a recording of my reflection on Women of the Bible here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 37:38.) The recording of my talk on Latter-Day Women Saints is here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:39.) A copy of the handout I distributed for prayer on Women of the Bible is here and the handout for praying with Latter-Day Women Saints is here.

Women of the Bible:

Latter Day Women Saints:

What We Can Learn from Early Franciscan Lay Women

Almost two months ago, my friend Darleen Pryds sent me a copy of her book, Women of the Streets: Early Franciscan Women and their Mendicant Vocation. I put it on my “to be read” pile, where it promptly got buried. (If your “to be read” pile looks anything like mine, no further explanation is necessary.) I finally picked up the book this past weekend and was delighted that I did.

When people think of women who followed in the path of St. Francis, the image that comes to mind is that of St. Clare and her sisters, who lived cloistered lives. But there were a number of lay women who were inspired by Francis and his tradition to follow their calling in public, not in a cloister. This book teaches us something of four of those women: Rose of Viterbo, Angela of Foligno, Margaret of Cortona and Sancia, Queen of Naples, all born within the first century of the Franciscan Order. Each of these women, as the author observes, modeled their spiritual lives on Francis, not on Clare.

The four women highlighted in this book lived very different lives, but faced similar challenges, some of which had to do with view of the roles of women vs. men and some having to do with the views of the roles of laity vs. religious. (The latter is illustrated most strongly by the experience of Margaret of Cortona.) In other words: challenges not dissimilar form those faced by many people today who struggle with living out their calling in an authentic way.

As I read the book, I reflected on the fact that our education of young Catholics today includes so little education about the saints – certainly less than I had in my Catholic school education in the 60s. But even when we do teach about the saints, I suspect people like Rose of Viterbo never get mentioned. That is sad, because she is such a powerful role model for all Christians, but particularly for the young. Described by one of her biographers as an “amazon of Christ,” despite her youth she was a powerful preacher and teacher who was fearless in her willingness to speak truth to power. The model provided by Angela, who combined passion for Christ with a deep humility, is equally strong. The same is true for the other two women we meet in the pages of this book.

The book is “intended for both an introductory academic audience and a general audience interested in studying role models of lay religious for personal and spiritual reflection. To aid the latter, each chapter of the book ends with some wonderful questions for general discussion and for spirtiual reflection.

I am deeply grateful to Darleen for sending me her book, which I otherwise might have missed. I hope many others benefit from it.

Ruth and Naomi and the Role of Women

Again today, we hear from the Book of Ruth in our first reading, this time a passage from near the end of the book.

Yesterday’s reading ended with Ruth and Naomi returning to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. In today’s reading Naomi sends Ruth out into the fields to glean barley, where she is noticed by Boaz. Naomi then sends Ruth to the threshing floor at night, telling her to go to the place where Boaz lies down. Ruth does what Naomi tells her to do. The result of that plan, we hear, is that

Boaz took Ruth. When they came together as man and wife, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord, who has not failed to provide you today with an heir! He will be your comfort and the support of your old age, for his mother is the daughter-in-law who loves you. She is worth more to you than seven sons!” Naomi took the child, placed him on her lap, and became his nurse. And the neighbor women gave him his name, at the news that a grandson had been born to Naomi. They called him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

One of the fascinating things about the Story of Ruth, is that it is one of too few stories in the Old or New Testaments in which women drive the course of redemption. Women plot the liaison between Ruth and Boaz. Women initiate the relationship. The women of Bethlehem credit Ruth with Naomi’s salvation. And finally, women name the baby – Obed, father of Jesse, father of David.

The implication, particularly when we consider Obed and his followers, is that what we do as women to bring ourselves to fullness is not just for us. Rather it is for the life of the world – what we do to bring ourselves to fullness makes the world around us a fuller place as well.

When women are strong and fulfilled, they become collaborators with men in what it means to be human…what it means to be created in God’s image.

Women and the Needs of the World

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, a day on which I and many other moms were treated to gifts, dinner cooked by our husbands and/or children, or other forms of recognition. While I enjoyed both my own cards, gift and dinner from Dave and Elena (as well as the dinner I had with my mother and two of my siblings in NY last night), I always wonder about holidays like this one. Mostly I wonder where they came from and whether there is something other than greeting card profits behind them.

Last night I wondered about the origin of this holiday. What I learned was that Julia Ward Howe, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, “was instrumental in creating Mother’s Day, which she envisioned as a day of solemn council where women from all over the world could meet to discuss the means whereby to achieve world peace. They would also convene as mothers, keeping in mind the duty of protecting their children.” Her Mother’s Day Proclamation reflected her belief that women had a responsibility to shape the politics of the societies in which they lived. The Proclamation calls on women to arise and say firmly

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

It goes on to ask “in the name of womanhood and humanity”

That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Pope John Paul II spoke of the “genius of women.” In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae , he wrote wrote: “In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.”

The world in which we live needs the “genius of women.”

Celebrating Our Giftedness as Women

Yesterday I gave a Women’s Retreat Day at St. Hubert parish in Chanhassen, Mn. The theme was celebrating our giftedness as women. Recognizing that nurtuing our relationships with God and others requires nurturing our relatoinhsip with ourselves, the day was about recognizing and celebrating the gifts women bring to the world. It also invited participants to get in touch with those things that sometimes inhibit our ability to celebrate that giftedness. The day included prayer, talks, time for individual reflection and small and large group sharing.

There were three segments to the day: Things that Inhibit our Ability to Recognize and Celebrate our Giftedness as Women, The “Genius” of Women (to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II, and Discerning our Individual Gifts. The first focused on some of the baggage we pick up during our lives that cause us to lose sight of who we really are. The second segment focused on the collective gift that women bring to the world, drawing on, among other things, some of the writings of John Paul II. The third segments turned to individual vocation and the unique giftedness of each of us.

I successfully recorded the talks I gave during the first and third segments. A minor mechanical problem prevented the second from recording. (I’ll rectify that by recording a version of that talk soon.) You can find links to both of those two podcasts here. (The first runs for 25:36 and the second for 15:01.) You can also find a copy of the handouts for prayer during the individual sessions here.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first US-born canonized saint in the Catholic Church. Mother Seton, as she was called, was one of the women I remember learning about in my Catholic grade school (although she had not yet then been canonized).

Elizabeth was born into a prominent Episcopal family in New York City and married the son of a wealthy New York mercantile family with international connections. As a young society matron, she enjoyed a life that included loving service to her family (she and her husband had five children) and care for the poor. (She and her sister-in-law became known as the “Protestant Sisters of Charity.”)

Near the end of the eighteenth century, political and economic turmoil took a severe toll on Elizabeth’s husband’s business and on his health and he became increasingly debilitated by tuberculosis. Hoping to improve his health, Elizabeth and her husband traveled to Italy. However, on their arrival, they were placed in quarantine and her husband died soon thereafter, leaving Elizabeth, then 29 years old, a widow with five children.

While waiting to return to the United States, Elizabeth spent several months with a Catholic family who had been business associates of her late husband. She was affected deeply by her experience of the family’s Catholic piety and began learning more about the faith. She returned to New York in June 1804 and a year later made converted to Catholicism, a choice that resulted in financial struggle and social discrimination. After receiving her First Communion as a Catholic, she proclaimed, “At last God is mine and I am His!…I have received Him!”

Elizabeth opened a school in New York City to support her children. Eventually, the school’s good reputation resulted in an invitation to open a school for girls in Baltimore. In June, 1808 she moved with her family to Baltimore to open the school. Ultimately, Catholic women from along the east coast came to join her work, leading to the establishment of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Elizabeth became the first superior of the congregation and served in that capacity until her death.

Widow, convert, single mother, educator and religious leader. Today we remember Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Two Women Meet

For the second day in a row, we hear proclaimed in the Gospel the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, after the angel tells Mary that Elizabeth is with child. Yesterday I commented on Elizabeth’s declaration of Mary as the “Mother of My Lord.” In contrast, what struck me as I sat again with the passage was the beauty and simplicity of the encounter between these two women.

This is the only passage I can think of in the Gospels that records an encounter between two women (which is perhaps not surprising). When I close my eyes and visualize the months that Mary spent with Elizabeth (we are told, although not in the lines we hear in today’s Gospel, that Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months), what I see is, one sense, nothing extraordinary, but in another, something very special.

I see an older woman, who has been through so much more in her long life, providing counsel and emotional support to the younger woman, her young cousin. Elizabeth listening to Mary’s fears, responding to her questions, reassuring her when she needed it. I see the younger woman, eager to provide assistance to the older woman, as the effects of her pregnancy on an older body make getting around and doing chores more difficult. Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, becoming for a time handmaid to her older cousin.

No hint here of Elizabeth being jealous that she, the elder, was only asked to play second fiddle, birthing John the Baptist while Mary was given the role of Mother of God. No hint here of Mary feeling like she should be sitting in honor somewhere rather than making the long journey to be with her cousin. Instead, two women, lovingly and generously giving each other what the other needs.

Two women opening their hearts to the needs of the other and being willing to accept care and love of the other. It is a beautiful vision…and a worthy model for all of us, men and women.