This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

Mystic women, modern seekers

By Elizabeth A. Dreyer
Paulist Press, 180 pages, $16.95

Elizabeth A. Dreyer, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, says that her aim in Passionate Spirituality is to explore the theme of passion in the spiritual life as it has developed in Western culture. “I … see the mystics as models and teachers who can instruct us about the deep feelings that run beneath the surface of an often hectic and superficial existence,” she writes in the preface.

She uses two medieval women mystics as models: Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Beguine Hadewijch of Brabant (mid-13th century). In recording their visions, both used the language and imagery of passion to describe their encounter with God. Dr. Dreyer hopes these two women give examples to contemporary people trying to develop their spirituality in a world that she says often is skittish about discussing love or strong emotion.

Passionate Spirituality is a revised and expanded version of “Passionate Women, Two Medieval Mystics,” which Dr. Dreyer delivered and published as the 1989 Madeleva lecture, a talk on women and spirituality given annually at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

By Megan Don
New World Library, 239 pages, $20

Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-82) in her masterwork The Interior Castle likens the soul to a castle with seven dwelling places, each of which represents a certain stage of the spiritual journey. Author Megan Don intends her Falling into the Arms of God as a “reflective interpretation” of The Interior Castle’s format and ideas.

Ms. Don is a retreat leader who divides her time between Melbourne, Australia, and Maine. She opens Falling with a helpful introduction explaining the lively St. Teresa’s life and works. The main part of the book is divided into seven parts that are meant to correspond to the saint’s “dwelling places”: “The Awakening,” “The Return” and so on. Each part breaks up into several chapters containing an opening quote from scripture or from Teresa of Avila’s writings, a reflection on the chapter’s theme by Ms. Don and a closing meditation, usually a suggestion for deepening your contemplative practice: “Fall into the gentleness of your loving self,” “Imagine looking at your inner castle.” The author recommends her book for use in discussion groups.

By Carmen Acevedo Butcher
Paraclete Press, 276 pages, $16.95

It’s a little disconcerting to hear Catherine of Siena (1347-80) say, “Keep up the good work!” or “I feel real, deep-down awe.” But those are some of the things she does say in Incandescence, a compilation of sayings from 19 women mystics of the Middle Ages.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher, assistant professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Shorter College in Rome, Ga., undertook her project in order to translate the mystics’ words into the “American idiom.” A preface by Phyllis Tickle, a contemporary writer on spirituality, compares Dr. Butcher’s efforts to those of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who devoted long hours to translating Dante’s Divine Comedy into a mode of expression late 19th-century Americans could understand.

Incandescence is a sort of devotional, with a short reading from a different mystic for each day of the year. The book draws most heavily from the writings of well-known mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich and of course Catherine of Siena, along with offerings from a few less familiar names such as Marguerite d’Oingt and Umilta of Faenza. Biographies of the women are included at the back.

-- Antonia Ryan

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: