A Singular Hunger for God

In Blessed Among All Women, Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, has compiled another unorthodox hagiography. The book records the lives of 136 holy women. Their stories, eloquently told in short entries, are grouped according to the virtues of the Beatitudes, an arrangement that reflects Ellsberg’s definition of saints as people who made the Gospel concrete.

This book is a corrective to Ellsberg’s earlier work All Saints. Although it too offered an unconventional roster of holy souls, his first collection, like all hagiographies, suffered from gender imbalance. (Only one out of four entries featured a woman.) After a community of contemplative Maryknoll nuns and some of his readers pointed out this deficiency, he began gathering stories for his latest collection. Each entry begins with a quote from the woman profiled and concludes with a citation of works consulted, making this a useful literary as well as spiritual reference.

Ellsberg draws heavily from the official list of Catholic saints, and featured here are many old favoritesClare, Joan, Teresa and Thérèse, and the two Catherines, to name a few. But also profiled are women who will never appear on Catholic holy cards. They include Protestant reformers, a saint and two martyrs from the Orthodox tradition, abolitionists, civil rights activists, a Christian Zen monk, a death row penitent and a teen victim of the Columbine high school shooting in Colorado. The Gospel message, writes Ellsberg, is written in many livesmarked by love, hope, and a passion for lifeand we may read them as we like.

The diversity of women represented here is extraordinary. Ellsberg has identified holy women in various centuries practicing their faith amid cruel or ordinary circumstances. Crispina, a North African Christian martyr from the fourth century, stands trial and defends her beliefs with uncompromising dignity. Florence Nightingale, the healer, single-handedly reforms Britain’s hospital system. Etty Hillesum, a Jewish mystic, bears witness to the power of love and the beauty of life while awaiting death in a concentration camp. Caryll Houselander, artist and writer, entertains at her kitchen table those whom others found repulsive, because she realizes Christ is in everyonethere can be no outcasts.

Eighteen of the women in this collection founded religious orders. Within their distinct histories, a common pattern often emerges. After enduring physical hardships and poverty to start missions and religious communities, they then had to fend off bishops and priests who wanted control of the new establishments. Remarkably, these women did not abandon their faith or their fight for autonomy. Several were at some point excommunicated, including the recently beatified Mary McKillop, founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation that originated in Australia in the late 1800’s.

McKillop was persecuted by her local bishops because she had the audacity to insist her community be governed by a mother general, answerable to Rome rather than to the Australian hierarchy. Desperate to discredit her, a team of bishops and clerics seized her community’s financial records and then accused her of being an alcoholic and misappropriating funds. Ultimately vindicated by Rome, she weathered her ordeals without bitterness, calling them presents from God. But she acknowledged, God’s presents were often hard to understand.

The stories of these foundresses, along with Ellsberg’s accounts of women disciples, evangelists of the early church, missionaries, theologians and religious reformers, are an impressive reminder of how much women helped to disseminate and define Christianity.

Mystics also feature prominently in this collection. In their own ways, they too informed the world of the presence of God. The story of Simone Weil, the 20th-century French philosopher, both confounds and inspires. Convinced her vocation was to be a Christian outside the church, she chose not to be baptized. Weil died young from tuberculosis, exacerbated by her refusal to eat more than was available under rationing to those in occupied France. Although a difficult and complex person, writes Ellsberg, she represents a type of noninstitutionally sanctioned sanctity, an engaged mysticism that takes into account the pathos of the human condition and the particular horrors of the modern age.

What distinguishes saints from the rest of us is not their accomplishments, practical or intellectual, but their singular hunger for God. The women in Ellsberg’s biographies seek and encounter God in all sorts of ways. His descriptions of their conversions are some of the most moving passages in the book. For some women, transformation comes after hours of prayer. Others are changed by their work with the poor, a friendship with an inspiring priest, a reckoning with cancer or, in many cases, after a visitation from Christ that follows a time of great loss.

Many, like the Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee, encounter God in the depths of their souls. After her four children died in infancy, Ann Lee entered a spiritual crisis that resulted in her dramatic conversion, an experience she poignantly likened to childbirth: My soul broke forth to God, which I felt as sensibly as ever a woman did a child, when she was delivered of it.

Although Ellsberg is yet another man narrating tales of women saints, his accounts are far from one-dimensional. The women he depicts are fully human, which makes them useful spiritual guides. Each saint, he observes, offers a glimpse of the face of God and enlarges our moral imagination. To the extent we forget women in our purview of holy souls, we narrow our perception of God and the ways to reach her.

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