Robert Ellsberg had some explaining to do.
When his book All Saints appeared in 1997, readers celebrated its fresh take on the lives of “365 saints, prophets and witnesses for our time.” But many wanted to know: “Where are all the women?” It was a fair question, given the book’s lopsided male-to-female ratio of four-to-one.
With Blessed Among All Women, Ellsberg returns to address the question head on. In the introduction, he acknowledges the imbalance of All Saints, but is quick to portray it as a symptom of a larger problem. “Among the wide company of official saints,” Ellsberg laments, “women are vastly underrepresented.” Blessed Among All Women is Mr. Ellsberg’s balancing act, a compilation of the stories of more than 100 remarkable women, whose lives span centuries, continents and cultures.
But Blessed is not some updated Butler’s Lives of the Saints, expurgated of male characters; nor is it a condensed, ladies-only version of All Saints. As Ellsberg argues, the problem of sainthood sex discrimination is made worse by a sad lack of diversity among those women who’ve made it to sainthood. Within this group, historically chosen by men, we find many females whose names are followed by a comma and the word “virgin.” The majority are described with words like “patient,” “obedient,” and several other supposedly “feminine virtues” that the cynic might well translate into “submissive.” Ellsberg rightly broadens the criteria.
One of the great strengths of Blessed Among All Women is the author’s effort to seek out lives of merit inside and outside the Church, among both the canonized and un-canonized. He follows the example of John Paul II, a beatification machine who drew attention to people of faith from all over the world. But Ellsberg goes still further. His list includes twentieth century artists, authors, death row inmates, Jews, Quakers and some of the unnamed heroines of Scripture. Their brief biographies have been organized by correspondence to a particular Beatitude. While this move sometimes raises questions about arbitrary placement (Was Harriet Tubman really more merciful than she was hungry for righteousness?), Ellsberg’s arrangement provides a generally helpful structure and draws out parallels between stories that might seem dissimilar at face value.
Classic and Contemporary
The rich, varied collection of narratives in Blessed Among All Women provides more of a mosaic than a unified portrait of holiness. There are of course the standards, both classic and contemporary: Mary the Mother of God, Claire of Assisi, Joan of Arc, and Mother Theresa, among others. And Ellsberg beautifully captures their spirits. But there are also some truly inspired and unexpected selections that stretch the boundaries of saintliness. The fiercely Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor stands alongside Holland’s Etty Hillesum, a Jewish mystic and Holocaust victim. Lucretia Mott is remembered for her lifelong fight against the injustice of slavery. Ellsberg includes the striking tales of young martyrs, innocent victims of violence from the Columbine shooting and the Birmingham civil rights movement.
There are certainly moments when Ellsberg stretches too far in the name of inclusion. I am sure, for example, that he means well by incorporating Emily Dickinson, but she is out of place here, nestled between accounts of Julian of Norwich and Therese of Lisieux. Dickinson was a brilliant poet to be sure, but an agnostic shut-in all the same (in the landscape of Beatitudes, the author throws her in with the “meek”). In fairness, Ellsberg is confronted with a difficult tension between ecumenism and faith in Christ. And a few miscues cannot disrupt the delicate balance the book achieves overall. Blessed Among All Women manages to be both decidedly catholic and Catholic.
Misunderstood or Unappreciated
Ellsberg’s book is at its best when exploring the lives of nameless women we encounter in the New Testament. There is something strangely moving about these anonymous choices. Their presence recalls those holy women who have been misunderstood or unappreciated by a sometimes callous patriarchy. They remind us too of those wonderful and saintly women in our own lives who have loved us as Christ does, who have inspired us to rise to greater things, and whose petition for sainthood will never cross the desk of a Pope. Given the lack of biographical data, and the brevity of their appearances in the Gospel narratives, entries for humble heroines such as the Syrophoenician woman of Mark, and John’s Samaritan Woman at the Well become insightful reflections on universal issues of action, evangelization and sacrifice.
We as a Church would be nothing without the work of holy women of all stripes. Some of them are canonized, others not, but these female saints do their work with humble strength, and we would do well to hold up their holiness for veneration and remembrance. Blessed Among All Women is a heartfelt step in the right direction, a repudiation of the idea that the communion of saints is an all-male affair, and a celebration of female saintliness everywhere.