Edited by Susan Cahill
Reviewed by Julie Sara Porter
There are just as many spiritual practices and religions as there are people and just as many individual ways people approach their deities and the reasons behind their connections or their inspirational words. Women hold a well documented place in humanity’s quest for meaning.
Susan Cahill, professor of English at Fordham University and editor of various Women’s Studies anthologies like Writing Women’s Lives, Growing Up Female, Among Sisters, New Women and New Writing, and Motherhood collected writings from or about various women and their connections to spirit.
The book, Wise Women: Over 2,000 Years of Spiritual Writing By Women is arranged chronologically from Ancient Times to the late 20th Century. They are essays, novel excerpts, poems, personal memoirs and other writings that demonstrate the author’s closeness to deities whatever they call them: God, Jesus, Allah, Isis, Goddess, the Universe, Spirit, even Quantum Mechanics. It doesn’t matter what they call it. What matters is what they get out of it.
Most of the writings cover three basic themes. The examples are arranged by theme and then sub-arranged chronologically within each theme, Ancient Times, Middle Ages, Early Modern Era (16th, 17th, 18th Centuries) 19th Century, 20th Century: Voices of Faith, Imagination, and Protest, and New Insights: The Goods of The Spirit According to Shamans, Scholars, Witches, and Theologians. The themes are:
Personal Connections with Spirit
“The Goddess Isis of Egypt”/”Isis, Queen of Egypt”
The only work in this book written by and featuring a man is an evocative beautiful encounter that Lucius, a character of Apuleius, had with the Egyptian goddess Isis, who he hoped will transform him from beast to man.
Apuleius’ description of Isis coming out from the middle of the sea with her long ringleted hair, the disc over her head, vipers rising from her hand, her many-colored robe, and lustrous mantle gives a perfect picture of an ethereal being. When she introduced herself as various names such as Pessinuntica, Cecropia Artemis, Paphian Aphrodite, Dictynna, Stygian Proserpine, Juno, Bellona, Hecate, Rhamnusia, and Mother of the Corn suggested a being beyond transcendence that accepted any name and that all deities are one to those who believe in them.
Mary Magdalene by Kassiane
The Byzantine poet, Kassiane combined the Christian stories of Mary Magdalene and the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’s feet into one story to portray a repentant sinner.
While the speaker, presumed to be Mary Magdalene, was filled with a spiritual love, Kassiane used phrases like “bend to the pain in my heart/You who made the sky bend” to suggest a love that is deep, passionate, and almost personal. In her poem, Kassiane combined the passion and innocence of a woman who expressed love the best way she knows how: through her actions and her body.
In this poem from India, Mirabai wrote about her desire to leave her husband and join a religious order to worship Krishna and serve others.
Mirabai sacrificed herself from an earthly existence to serve her deity. Like Kassiane, she compared her love for Krishna like that of a lover by wanting to “see (his) beautiful face” and offered her body and soul. The small poem suggested a spiritual marriage between her and her God.
Poems by Emily Dickinson
If anyone understood having a close connection to spirit in solitude it was Emily Dickinson. Many of Dickinson’s poems show a deep private connection to the world around her.
In poems like The Soul Selects Her Own Society, Some Keep The Sabbath Going to Church, and Much Madness is the Divinest Sense suggested a solitude that is beneficial even preferable to the non-stop chatter, meaningless lip service, and cruelty of the people around the Speakers. Dickinson’s writing suggested that the Speaker found a stronger connection to their deities through a love of nature and her thoughts.
From The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Willa Cather often wrote about her character’s connections towards nature and Spirit especially in the Plains and Southwestern United States. That nature had restorative powers for her characters. This is shown most prominently in The Song of the Lark, her novel about Thea Kronborg, an aspiring opera singer.
In this excerpt, Thea struggled through a time of rejection, poverty, and self-esteem problems. Her then boyfriend invited her on a trip to Arizona. In the Panther Canyon setting, Thea bathed in the river and meditated at the canyon walls. The solitude gave her a sense of purpose. She also found a connection to creativity and art by seeing the pottery left by Native American women. The connections to those women allowed Thea to feel a connection to her art with her voice. She saw both forms of art, the pottery and her voice, as artists giving their gifts for a higher purpose: the best of themselves to the world. Thea left the Canyon and returned to her singing career rested, rejuvenated, and with a deeper connection to her talent and spirit.
Soul, God, and the Self and the New Cosmology by Angela Tilby
While most people think of science and religion as two separate beliefs, Anglican priest, Angela Tilby wed the two beliefs as one. In her essay, she looked at a more scientific view of nature through quantum mechanics as a means to explain cosmology and creation.
Tilby wrote that as compared to most sciences that relied on things and data that could be quantified and tested, quantum mechanics by nature is unpredictable and uncertain, and is similar to theology in that it relies on theory for people to learn about the life energy around us. Though she used scientific terms instead of theological terms in her essay, Tilby made the connection between God and quantum mechanics as an explanation on how the world was created. Instead of seeing them as opposing views, Tilby saw Science and Religion as two different ways of telling the same story and recognized the quantum energy that surrounds all beings as a logical explanation on how the world was created and how it changes
Inspiration to Do Good Works and Humanitarian Causes
“Eshet Chayil” From The Book of Proverbs/”Proverbs 31” – An Updated Version by E.M. Broner
Many biblical scholars and ministers consider this as an endorsement of how a woman who stays home and cares for her family is “worth far beyond that of rubies.” But Readers are advised to look closer.
While it does mention her husband and children were happy, it also spoke of the Wife as a maker and seller of cloth. It mentioned her creativity and artistic talent as well as her entrepreneurship in selling goods in the marketplace.
In an updated version of the verse, E.M. Broner also wrote of her involvement in the community helping battered wives and victims of rape and sexual harassment. In both the original and revised version, the Wife was praised not just for her attention to her family but of her active involvement outside of her home and within her community.
From The Treasure of the City of Ladies/The Book of The Three Virtues by Christine de Pizan
One of the most famous female Medieval authors is Christine de Pizan. Her work, The Book of the City of Ladies has been cited by Feminists as a Medieval-era parable about the strength and solidarity of sisterhood. De Pizan’s other work, The Treasure of the City of Ladies or The Book of the Three Virtues also advised women on how to contribute to this world and the next.
The excerpt in Wise Women focuses on the importance of Charity. De Pizan described a princess who acted for the good of her people. In this allegorical tale, the Princess inquired which houses have the people who are most deserving and delivered them food, clothing, and other gifts. But above all the princess did it anonymously. To do so otherwise would mean that she gave charity for herself and not to genuinely help others.
Meditations, Divine, and Moral by Anne Bradstreet
Bradstreet arrived to America from England at the age of 18. Her husband and father were ardent Puritans and while she was a Puritan as well, her writings reflected her questions about being a woman in such a society. Meditations, Divine, and Moral is a collection of advice that she gave to her eight children on how to maintain an upstanding life in their world. Some of her witticisms are similar to Benjamin Franklin in that she wrote in a common sense way that was informative and witty like: “Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.”
Bradstreet devoted much of her writings on how her children should get along in society. She reminded them that there are people who appear wealthy but they died like everyone else and that no one person can have all virtues or one place have all commodities, so people and societies depend on each other to share what they lack.
An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States by Angelina Grimke
Many of the women in this book used religion as a springboard for their causes. In the 19th Century United States, one of those causes was to abolish slavery. Two women who spoke and wrote about freeing slaves were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two white sisters who left their Episcopalian South Carolina home for Philadelphia where they became ardent abolitionists and suffragists.
In her letter to “Women of the Nominally Free States” Angelina Grimke, appealed to women’s human decency to recognize African-Americans especially women as fellow human beings. Grimke stated the many ways African-Americans were oppressed from being separated from their families, forced into labor, receiving insults, and denied entry in many places including the so-called “free states.” Grimke appealed to Northern women’s sense of community and religious service to free slaves and accept all African-American people as equals.
Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan: One Love by June Jordan
In her essay, June Jordan looked at the same sex love shared between the Biblical figures Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan. She quoted Biblical passages which Ruth told Naomi “whither thou goest I will go” and that David’s love of Jonathan “surpassed that of women” as true examples of love in any form.
Jordan also recognized love from her female friends after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She cited her female friends with helping her through chemotherapy by bringing lunch, taking her to medical appointments, cleansing wounds, and just being there to talk or comfort her when she cried or was scared. In the Biblical stories and her own life, Jordan acknowledged the love that people of the same gender share with each other as one of affection and commitment.
From Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk
Some of the more politically active spiritual figures are Wiccans. Many of them, like priestess and author, Starhawk, are involved in Feminist and Environmentalist causes. The introduction of her book, Dreaming the Dark, described the fear of nuclear war and environmental disasters. The resolution she believed was calling forth power in ourselves, in love, in a spirit she calls the Goddess.
She believed that much of the conflict involved estrangement from ourselves holding dominion over nature when it isn’t a part of us, thinking of people as “others” because of different races, religions, countries of origin, sexuality, gender. Starhawk saw the image of the Goddess and God as beings that transcend form and gender. They are in all of nature and inside us humans. She wrote that humanity must embrace those connections with Spirit and each other to create a better world.
Person Against Society/Human Law Against Higher Law
From Antigone by Sophocles
In this excerpt from the Greek play, Antigone explains to her uncle, Creon, why she buried her brother who was slain in battle instead of leaving him as an enemy of the state.
In a message that is succinct and to the point, Antigone told Creon that the law was not God’s law but man’s. A king’s law forever changes, she said, but God’s law to treat people decently is much higher.
From The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe
Like Antigone, Margery Kempe was put on trial, though it was for heresy. Unlike Antigone, whose words were simple and to the point, Kempe was verbose, eloquent, and even witty in her conviction of man’s laws against God’s.
Kempe put her antagonists to shame with her knowledge of Scripture and Biblical tenants never losing her ability to put others in their place. When a crowd gathered around her to swear horrible oaths, she told them that she feared they would burn in Hell if they did not quit their swearing. When she was told to vow that she would not teach or challenge the diocese, she quoted Biblical passages in which Jesus encouraged his followers to speak including women.
Kempe then spoke directly to the Archbishop spearheading the trial. She compared him to a withering pear tree: quoting Scripture but not practicing it, buying indulgences but not humbly apologizing for sins, drinking, lying, gossiping and hurting others while accusing other people of the same. In her trial, Kempe showed the difference between those who claimed to follow a spiritual path but were hypocrites and those who actually did.
From the Transcript of the Trial of Anne Hutchinson
There were many people in the 17th century that believed that women should be silent in church. One of those was not Anne Hutchinson. She was known for walking out on sermons and opening her home as a pulpit drawing crowds with her lively animated sermons.
In this Transcript of her trial which ultimately led to her excommunication and banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson made distinctions between the law and her calling. She insisted that she was called to lead her services and that the judges violated God’s command by not allowing her to use her voice to teach. She cited many passages in the Bible in which figures were called to speak despite the wishes of the rulers around them. Though not as eloquent as Kemp’s trial, Hutchinson’s transcript showed a woman of great courage and resilience to stand her ground in the presence of her assailants unwilling to waver in her position even through a threat of execution.
From The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Many know the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton as she and her partner, Susan B. Anthony were two of the most prominent feminists to fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. While the vote was important to these women, they also sought to change views on women’s placement in other areas as well. One of them was how clerics and theologians saw women in the Bible.
In her introduction to The Woman’s Bible, Stanton took to task many of the views men had by misinterpreting the Bible and justifying their view of women as second class citizens and the bearers of sin to the world (the whole Adam and Eve thing). Stanton wrote that those views were mostly misinterpreted or taken out of context and revealed various stories and passages where women are praised and encouraged to lead, fight, witness, and held in as high regard as men. In her writing, Stanton drew a strong distinction between what the Bible actually said and how it was misinterpreted by people with specific agendas such as demeaning others or justifying archaic views and prejudices.
Selected Writings by Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day was a woman who not only talked about spiritual connections but lived every day according to them. A former journalist and novelist who converted to Catholicism, Day founded the Catholic Workers Movement. The Movement created bread lines, soup kitchens, and temporary housing for the poor. Day was also actively involved with labor unions and disarmament to the chagrin of many authority figures and higher echelon members of the Catholic Church.
Day’s essay described the function of Catholic Workers as well as her involvement with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union protests. While many considered her involvements embarrassing even sacrilege and she was jailed, Day saw herself in former thieves, drug addicts, and migrant farm workers, people who just need help and assistance. As a result, many, including Chavez, saw more Christian charity in her actions than they saw in many of the bricks and mortar churches. In Day’s eyes, she saw no distinction between herself and those she helped and that the best thing she could do was to be by their side.
Jihad Fi Daniel Allah: A Muslim Woman’s Faith Journey From Struggle to Struggle by Riffat Hassan
In her autobiographical essay, Pakistani author, Riffat Hassan, wrote about her connections to Islam and how it shaped her life. She learned to reconcile her religion with her growing feminism when she challenged the patriarchal stances of many particularly her more conservative father and her more liberal but cold and classicist mother.
Hassan broke free from her parent’s tempestuous household and became a Doctor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s College University of Durham, England. She then settled into an unhappy marriage with a man who wanted her to conform to the patriarchal society she left behind and another who paid lip service to being in the Muslim Brotherhood but was an abusive bigot who almost bankrupted her.
Instead of renouncing Islam, Hassan was strengthened by it, to care for disadvantaged people and respond to calls for assistance. She used her stronger faith to argue against the men like her husbands who twisted the teachings of the Quran for their own purposes and to rescue other women from being exploited in similar situations.
Wise Women is a wonderful book that explores the many forms the spirit can take and how we as humans respond to them. It truly is a wise book.