Artist and educator Felicity Leng was inspired to work on this collection when she encountered Dhuoda, a ninth century French noblewoman and her Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for her Son. Drawn to explore the creative processes through which women bring forth spiritual wisdom, often in less than desirable circumstances, Leng compiles over 130 excerpts from the writings of 51 western, Christian women, that span not only 1000 years, but also diverse life experiences, spiritual temperaments, and denominational identities. She includes such well-studied figures as Thérèse of Lisieux, Hildegard of Bingen, Dorothy Day, and Emily Dickinson as well as several who will be new to most readers, such as Dhuoda, Anne Askew and Margiad Evans. Several features of this book make it an excellent choice for classes in Christian Spirituality and Women and Religion, among others, as well as for discussion groups, and for personal study and prayer.
Leng arranges the selections, not chronologically, but by paired themes including Love and Fulfillment, Creativity and Visions, Autobiography and Personal Testament, Suffering and Persecution, and Truth and Simplicity. At the end she includes a “Biographies and Bibliographies” section, arranged alphabetically. The biographies are tantalizingly brief and leave the reader eager to learn more about these extraordinary lives. To get us started, Leng includes references to the primary texts excerpted and in several cases one or two secondary sources.
Before each selection Leng provides a few lines of context and a title of her own creation to situate the text. Since each woman is excerpted several times throughout the book, it would have been helpful also to include very brief identifying information for each writer each time one of her selections is offered, for example: Anne Askew, English Protestant Reformer, 1521-1546. This would provide essential contextual information about the selection without obliging the reader continually to page back to the biography section.
The organization by themes makes for a glorious round-table effect across time and space. For instance, on the topic of Heaven and Eternity, we are treated to insights from Emily Dickinson, Julian of Norwich, and Dorothy Sayers, among others. Leng’s selection of the material allows for a taste of the richness and complexity of these women’s lives, as they treat everyday “practical” concerns such as finding the space and time to dedicate to prayer and meditation and its consequences for personal relationships, as well as more abstract themes. We get a sense of their “situatedness” in specific webs of relationship, of the effects of patriarchal norms on their practice and discourse, and of the varied challenges and costs of an intentional spiritual path. I am grateful to Leng for this valuable resource and look forward to using it with students.