Childhood Stories and Women Saints

We at WIT are aiming for a balance in tone between the academic and the personal.

So, this is a more personal post, of the “what forms the background for an interest in feminist theology, anyway?” sort. Like much, but not all, that has been posted thus far, it’s fairly Roman Catholic.

When I was in first grade, the students at my Catholic parochial school weren’t allowed to wear our Halloween costumes to school (I’m pretty sure I was a unicorn that year. My mother has always been impressively crafty.) — but we were allowed to come in costume on November 1, as long as we dressed up as our patron saint–in my case, Brigid of Kildare.

I remember both thinking and really wanting not to think that this was incredibly unfair.

I was a decently pious — and decently traditionally pious — Catholic child, due in large part to a godmother who took me to visit every bleeding and/or crying statue of Mary on the East Coast (yes, I mean “bleeding” in a literal, rather than ejaculatory, sense) and gave me enough Lives of the Saints to fill several bookshelves… I grew up with a lot of the Catholic devotions that were never part of my Millennial peers’ lives.  And from said Lives of the Saints, if there was one thing I knew (as a five / six / seven-year-old — so bear with me here.  I really, really do know that this is a caricature, and not the whole story — but it’s not a caricature that I came up with as a feminist theologian, it’s what I legitimately believed as a little girl going to Catholic school) — it was that girl saints were boring. The stories I had all followed the same narrative arc:

  1. There is a beautiful girl.
  2. An unvirtuous man wants to marry said beautiful girl.
  3. Said beautiful girl has already pledged her virginity to Jesus, and as such refuses to marry said unvirtuous man.
  4. A: Said beautiful girl is martyred in some gruesome sort of fashion, thus establishing her as a virgin and martyr
    or B: Said beautiful girl, through divine intervention, manages to escape marriage, thus fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a nun.

I was particularly disturbed, I remember, by the fact that you apparently had to be beautiful in order to be a saint —  let’s just say that the typical cruelty of children made it pretty clear that if beauty was necessary for canonization, I had no idea how I’d get to heaven. This became so strongly part of my implicit consciousness that the first time I read the account of the the martyrs of Lyons contained in Eusebius’ Church History (and this is in my first year of graduate studies, mind), it was like an electric shock:

Image of St BlandinaBlandina, through whom Christ showed that things which appear mean and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory, through love toward him manifested in power, and not boasting in appearance.

For while we all trembled, and her earthly mistress, who was herself also one of the witnesses, feared that on account of the weakness of her body, she would be unable to make bold confession, Blandina was filled with such power as to be delivered and raised above those who were torturing her by turns from morning till evening in every manner, so that they acknowledged that they were conquered, and could do nothing more to her. And they were astonished at her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken; and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings.

But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, ‘I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.’

You mean here was an account of an early Christian martyr who isn’t praised for her beauty?  Now, again, I’m not saying that this is the only narrative present in hagiographies, but it’s certainly one that I unconsciously imbibed, and I’m certainly not the only one to have picked up on it.  An entire strand of scholarship views many hagiographies of female saints as verging on, if not entirely stepping into, the pornographic, given their focus on the details of these saints’ appearances and the physical details of the violence done to them. (See, e.g., Kathryn Gravdal.)

Holy Card of St Brigid

ubiquitous St Brigid holy card

Now, the Children’s Book of the Saints story of St. Brigid I had entirely followed this narrative: beautiful girl, Christian slave mother, Important Druid father, started out by following her mother as a servant, was desired by many men, prayed herself ugly to avoid marriage (honestly, this is not the kind of thing that makes sense to a not-particularly-beautiful child…), was therefore permitted to become a nun, and exhibited such impressive purity that she was eventually known as a second Mary in Ireland.

So, while my friend at the time George got to dress up in a suit-of-armor and carry around a sword and a toy dragon — which, how cool is that? — first-grade Bridget dressed up as a milkmaid, in a dull brown robe and a basket with a stuffed cow. I’m not entirely certain how I wound up dressed like a milkmaid instead of a nun — presumably, I was going for the “serving girl” portion of Brigid’s life — but there we have it.  George got to fight dragons; I got to pray to be ugly.  Looking around at St. Anne’s parochial school on November 1, this seemed generally characteristic of the boys’ vs. girls’ costumes.

(Didn’t I know about St. Margaret, whose legend has her attacked and swallowed by a dragon, only to make the sign of the cross and have the dragon explode? Why yes, gentle reader, I did — and I also knew that Margaret was of rather suspect historicity. In first-grade terms, I think this amounted to “She didn’t even exist.” Why the credulity concerning George and the skepticism concerning Margaret? I honestly don’t know. But my skepticism toward Margaret, and my inability as an adolescent to see Catherine of Alexandria as someone of interest to a bookish young girl is in keeping with the disproportionate effect on female saints of the post-Conciliar reform of the calendar of the saints. )

These days, I have a markedly less ambivalently warm regard for female saints.

Blandina has remained a favorite of mine, not only for her unimpressive physical stature, but for the difficulty Eusebius’ account poses to Inter Insigniores‘ claim that women cannot be ordained because a woman does not bear a “natural resemblance” to Christ. Compare Inter Insigniores to Eusebius:

when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

versus

Blandina was suspended on a stake, and exposed to be devoured by the wild beasts who should attack her. And because she appeared as if hanging on a cross, and because of her earnest prayers, she inspired the combatants with great zeal. For they looked on her in her conflict, and beheld with their outward eyes, in the form of their sister, him who was crucified for them, that he might persuade those who believe on him, that every one who suffers for the glory of Christ has fellowship always with the living God.

Contemporary icon of Ss Junia & Andronicus

Contemporary icon of Ss Junia & Andronicus by Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

No one could fail to name Mary Magdalene, disciple and first preacher of the resurrection, but I also love the far-more-often forgotten Junia, a prominent apostle, according to Paul, after whom my goddaughter is named. And who can resist a fascination with Perpetua and her visions, even if the contemporary desire to portray Perpetua and Felicity as friends — a desire I well understand, given the deep significance of female friendships in my own life and faith — leads me to ask whether such portrayals perpetuate the sort of false sisterhood womanists, mujeristas, and other women of color have sharply and justifiably criticized in white academic feminism.

Contemporary image of St Brigid And I have a far different relationship to hagiographic portrayals of St Brigid today than when I was in first grade. Brigid was the abbess of a double monastery: she was the superior of both monks and nuns. Brigid was also extravagantly generous. Her generosity was so extravagant, in fact, that several versions of her story have her giving away her chieftain-father’s jeweled sword, his most prized possession, to a leper — which had been presented, in typical Children’s Books of the Saints manner, as a tame and pious exercise of charity toward the poor.  I’ve since seen this story reinterpreted by Irish peace activists as a foundational narrative for radical restructuring of society: by giving away her father’s sword, a weapon and the household’s most expensive item, Brigid inspires us toward a restructuring of social priorities which pour money into militarism rather than social networks. And since first grade I’ve read the ninth-century (let me say again, ninth-century — somewhere between 800 and 850) hagiographic account Bethu Brigte, which contains an account of Brigid’s consecration as a dedicated virgin in which something rather unexpected occurs:

The bishop being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. ‘This virgin alone in Ireland’, said Mel, ‘will hold the episcopal ordination.’ While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.

I’m certainly not arguing that this represents a historical account which indicates Brigid was a bishop — it’s likely Bethu Brigte reflects the significance of monasticism in Celtic Christianity — but, well, given the choice between telling a young girl that she’s named after a woman whom God miraculously made ugly and the Brigid of the Bethu Brigte, I know which one I’ll choose. I just wish there had been wider dissemination of that hagiography when I was a child. Showing up dressed like a bishop would have bested a suit of armor any day…

So happy All Saints, everyone — all you holy women and men, pray for us.

Update (11/2/2010): For a pop culture presentation of precisely what I’m talking about above that somehow manages to be both hilarious and profoundly moving, see Rebecca Clamp’s “St Wilgefortis,” shared by Megan.

14 thoughts on “Childhood Stories and Women Saints

  1. Can you please write a Book of Women Saints or something? This post is really powerful and has in a mere 5 minutes prompted me to rethink my understanding of the saints.

  2. Umm, yeah, going dressed as a Bishop would have been awesome for 1st Grade Bridget. But would the mitre have stayed on during recess? :)

  3. Sonja — no, I haven’t, but I will definitely have to! Sex Lives of the Saints looks fascinating…

    Megan — I will add that to my fanciful “Things I will do if I ever get a job and tenure” list, along with my planned anthology of poetry keyed to the liturgical year (Eliot for Ash Wednesday; Levertov for Holy Thursday; Auden for January 7…)

  4. Pingback: St. Wilgefortis « WIT

  5. I was not raised in the Catholic tradition and was taught that the Saints were all a bunch of made–up stories. I read Foxe’s “Book of Marytrs”, so I knew of Blandina when I was about 12.

    What would be a good book for a female theologian desiring to know about the great female saints of the past? Anyone is welcome to add feedback…

    Thank you, I loved this post!

    • Hi, Jessica — that’s a really great question. I’m not sure of too many sources off the top of my head. I think I’ve always gotten things piecemeal — but I will definitely think about that and ask around. I haven’t actually read Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets (“A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints”), so I’m not sure how much it touches on particular female saints rather than offering a more overarching and theoretical reflection on the topic, but that might be a place to start.

      I will give it some thought, though!

  6. Pingback: WIT and the Solemnity of Saints « WIT

    • While I haven’t read this book it comes highly recommended by David Steindl-Rast (www.gratefulness.org). I know that Dorothy Day is included as a contemporary witness for bringing the Gospel to life. All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for our Times by Robert Ellsberg. Also, the Holy Women, Holy Men blog (on WordPress) from the Standing Commission on Music and Liturgy (Episcopal) has a collection of commemorations featuring a number of women “saints” remembered in the worship of the Episcopal Church. Inspiring.

  7. My patron saint is Patrick. Imagine having to go to school as a “guy bishop” in elementary school. Yes, that’s what I had to do. It was the first time I thought about being ordained. Then, I decided…that’s what I’ll do. I’m going to be a priest. After many letters to the pope (who just sent me holy cards and never answered my questions) I grew up and went to a Divinity School, got my M.Div. and stood in my bishop’s office with diploma in hand and told “HIM” that I really felt the need to fulfill that inner urge to be ordained. He told me that the church didn’t call women…I responded…”But God does.

  8. Today 11/8 is the birthday of Dorothy Day (d. 11/29/80). She wrote “Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper… But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? … Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” Thank you for this post; it keeps me thinking, and keeps me growing.

  9. This was just fantastic. Such a solid contrast to make as well, between Inter Insigniores and Eusebius. And I wouldn’t so quickly give up Bethu Brigte, even as only literary evidence it’s fascinating, thanks for alerting me to it. As a father with two young girls, allow me to echo that a book of women saints after the manner of this post would be a delight.

  10. I’m a Jewish women full of admiration for your writing and the early “Christian” saints that thought of themselves as Jewish, as in the “The holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostle Junia of the Seventy.”

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