The enthusiastic reaction to Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s choice of the name Francis underscores the ongoing power of the saints in shaping the Catholic sacramental imagination. The new pope implicitly suggests that the things that mattered to St. Francis—concern for the poor, care of creation, a commitment to pacificism and the reform of religious life—may also matter to him and therefore to millions of Catholics.
But getting a sense of saints as real people can be difficult, since joining the cloud of witnesses tends to both smooth over the sharp edges of their personalities and over-polish the tarnished ordinariness of their day-to-day lives. The cloud quickly becomes a disorienting fog when it comes to saintly women in the church, who not only faced the challenge of living authentic responses to the countercultural call of the Gospel in the midst of narrow social and religious ideals of femininity, but also mediated their relationship with the sacred in the midst of far more profane relationships, voluntary and involuntary. Perhaps Dorothy Day was thinking of Joni Mitchell when she resisted sainthood—It’s cloud’s illusions, I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.
Three new novels imaginatively attempt to bring three women saints—Hildegard von Bingen (canonized and made a doctor of the church in 2012), Joan of Arc (burned as a heretic in 1431 but made a saint in 1920) and Xenia of St. Petersburg (canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988)—into focus for the 21st century by exploring the gaps in the historical and hagiographical record. The authors blend the factual drama of each women’s historical context and mundane details of their daily lives with more fictitious accounts by named and anonymous people affected by their holiness—biological and religious family members, lovers and comrades, friends and bystanders.
In portraying actual women shaped by a variety of circumstances beyond their control and haunted by multiple personal longings, the novels suggest that the power of the saints rests not so much in what they did but rather how they wrestled with the demons that arose from their need for relationships with other people—Hildegard’s loneliness in a vocation not of her choosing, Joan’s fear of disappointing the men she led, Xenia’s grief at the loss of the love of her life.
In Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen Mary Sharratt debunks the romantic myth of the medieval anchorage by invoking the terrifying perspective of a child of 8 years entombed in two tiny rooms with a mentally unstable woman whose relentless narcissistic asceticism could only be described as psychologically and physically abusive. We observe Hildegard finding solace year after year for three decades, growing plants in a walled outdoor cell warmed by the sun for a handful of moments each day or in brief encounters across the screen with her confessor. Sharratt contrasts the suffocating demands of solitary confinement with Hildegard’s free ranging spaces of internal freedom—in her writings, her music, her cosmic sensibility and her deep prayer life. She also captures the anchorite’s balancing act as she came into her own—carefully not surpassing the literal outsiders’ sense of the glory of her magistra, Jutta, as she herself begins to attract devotees; judiciously not overstepping hierarchical authority in forming her own community; piously not allowing herself to favor any women in her community or to allow her love of them to surpass her love of God.
Kimberly Cutter opens The Maid with Jehanne, a “magical virgin,” imprisoned and on trial for heresy, a climactic scene she intersperses throughout the novel. But she quickly rewinds to the early adolescence of her protagonist, Jehennette, who is constantly making sense of religious fervor in a time of scarcity in a family with strong male personalities and in a village terrorized by violent skirmishes with the English. Cutter’s detailed descriptions of Jehanne’s internal encounters with Michael the archangel and Sts. Catherine and Margaret, as well as her external dealings with men of the world drawn to her vision of glory for France and to her daring nature, allow us to empathize with this complex woman. We can appreciate how she had to be tougher and more pious than the soldiers she led, more persuasive in her “Godvoice” than the others who had the ear of the Dauphin, more beautiful than her rumored beauty, resolutely virginal despite a deep love for at least one of the men who rode by her side and defiantly pure in the midst of the vices of hand to hand combat and struggles for power.
Debra Dean’s narrator, Dashenka, tells a somewhat predictable tale of her cousin and dearest friend, Xenia, a fanciful and deeply sensitive St. Petersburg socialite “bequeathed every worldly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches” and guided by conventional longings for a husband, family and the trappings of a socially mobile life. This lasts until Xenia’s unpredictable and inconsolable grief at the death of her child and husband hijacks Dasha and the reader in a rarely told story of what happens to the people left behind by “holy fools.” The second half of The Mirrored World unfolds as a kind of feminist midrash on the Prodigal Daughter. Cutter pulls us into the confusion of a cousin and best friend who mourns the loss of the woman she loves to a consumptive grief, her anger at being pillaged along with all of her cousin’s finery in Xenia’s seemingly mad attempt to die to her former self and live on the streets. Finally we witness her eventual resolution to support her cousin’s prophetically prodigal ways, albeit while grieving her own loss of Xenia’s companionship.
While engaging in their creative details, the novels lack deep theological insights, and the authors’ engagements with feminist frontlines in Catholicism are not particularly new. Here we have historical biographies of three women succumbing to the demands of an intervening and masculine God, navigating the confines of sexuality and holiness and confronting patriarchy even in the micro-matriarchal contexts of an anchorage.
Each author clears the hagiographical fog swirling about these saintly women, however, by refusing to romanticize their religious ecstasy. We learn that mysticism is not necessarily beautiful in the traditional sense of the word—as pleasing or arresting or even sublimely transcendent. The interpersonal drama of life in a hyper-cloistered religious community of two, the violence of religious visions in the midst of 15th-century insurgencies in France and the indignities of extreme poverty in St. Petersburg are ugly places in which these women experienced unmediated connections to God. As Dasha notes of her cousin, Xenia, “I should still choose for her the easier blessings.” But these authors do give us a sense that the weird, the ugly and the crazy do in fact allure us with their disruptive contrariness. We come to know three women turning away from conventional expectations, stepping out to public arenas in ways that confound, commanding the attention of those they encounter and being too easily dismissed by those who could not understand their Christly foolishness as spectacles, lunatics and witches. These are not docile and ephemeral witnesses from the cloud but touchstones of the weighty messiness of human experience.