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Books: Five volumes to give women’s wisdom a voice

Their voices sound like thunder, like jubilee, like a shining star. Their voices sound of thirst, of longing, like our mothers’ voices. Their voices sound like Negro spirituals, a whispered prayer and can be heard at the city gates, in the public square and in the silence of interior spaces.

These images of women’s voices are sprinkled throughout five books, all of which are collections of writings echoing across ages and cultures, all the voices of women, who, in speaking for themselves, speak for all of us, women and men, who ache to be heard, long to be listened to, yearn to make a difference.

Finding Our Voices: Women, Wisdom and Faith, by Patricia O’Connell Killen (Crossroads Publishing, 143 pages, $14.95 paperback) grew out of a series of talks O’Connell Killen gave to women who urged her to “write it down for countless other women ... women of faith who long for more.” Through these essays she develops the theme that “the journey to voice, the journey to wise faith” is a life-altering mission. By “wise” she means grounded in Wisdom literature, which in turn requires us to be aware of our own rhythms and processes.

To do this, two steps are required: First is an honest reflection and a courageous naming of all the life-giving and death-dealing aspects in our religious heritage; second is seizing the stories of our mothers, indeed, all our foremothers, to put perspective on our own.

This book would be an excellent choice for a women’s discussion group because O’Connell Killen concludes each essay with provocative questions to stimulate the reflection and encourage the naming. In fact, it would be worth forming such a group to take advantage of this book, but don’t necessarily wait for that to read it.

One way to tap into the stories of our foremothers would be Susan Cahill’s Wise Women (W.W. Norton, 395 pages, $15 paperback). Cahill has assembled over 90 entries by poets, philosophers, novelists, suffragists, social activists, theologians, mystics, priests and saints whose voices span 2,000 years of joy, pain, desire, courage, friendship and freedom.

The women who populate these pages are well-known: Sappho, Julian of Norwich, Joan or Arc, Sojourner Truth, Hannah Arendt, Dorothy Day and Rigoberta Menchu, to name a few. Selections are short but poignant so that this could be a daily journal prompt or reflection starter, to say nothing of stimulating reading. And when you have gotten to the end, however long it takes you, it will be time to start over and read it again.

African-American women, too, have not been silent, but their voices have been too seldom heard. Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (Katie Cannon, Continuum Books, 191 pages, $15.95 paperback) contains a series of essays written over a 10-year period by Dr. Katie Cannon that contest multiple forms of domination. An ordained minister in the United Presbyterian church, Cannon defines the womanist struggle in its various guises from the ideology of slavery through its literary tradition and then its economic dimension. Several middle chapters are devoted to the life and writing of Zora Neale Hurston, which will delight those of you who are fans of Hurston and all of you who don’t know yet that you are.

Canon’s ideological foremothers, besides Zora Neale Hurston, can be found in the pages of this next book: Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and their Sermons, 1850-1979, edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 345 pages, $25 hardcover). This book consists of 38 sermons by 14 African-American women, only some of whom are well-known but all of whom deserve to be. According to Collier-Thomas, her purpose in Daughters of Thunder “is to explore the history of African-American preaching women and the issues and struggles they confronted in their efforts to function as ministers.”

Though they differ in style, content and intended audience, a unifying theme connects all these sermons: “They seek to present their audience with strategies for understanding and living with the tension between what is -- human imperfection, injustice, suffering -- and what God calls creation to be -- a creation in which humans live righteous, harmonious lives ... with God and other human beings.”

Exploring tension in yet another venue, this last collection of essays is both similar and different from the rest. Building Sisterhood: A Feminist History of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (Syracuse University Press, 392 pages, paperback) is a collection of essays by members of the Monroe, Mich., community of IHM that tell the same stories as their secular sisters except within the context of a religious foundation.

Eighteen women collaborated on this history divided into four parts: their groundings as a community, the life cycles of the IHM, their authority, leadership and governance, and their ministry in education. Besides the feminist issues they have confronted all their lives, they also share insights into life in a religious community and the unique challenges it presents.

Whether the voice be thunder or the silence that follows thunder, in these books women have found and used their voices. A paragraph late in Finding Our Voices is applicable to all: “Each of these women, through her relationship to her own humanity, through her capacities to perceive dimensions and relational patterns in reality that others could not, through her deliberate actions aimed toward others and the world to restore harmonious relations and richer existence, embodied dimensions of Wisdom. All were wise women of faith.”