Robert Ellsberg is an editor’s editor. In the era of market-driven, rather than mission-driven, publishing, he has stayed the course in publishing some of the most important authors and books of our time. Through his 18 years at Maryknoll’s Orbis Books, Ellsberg and crew have printed the writings of Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Thomas Merton, Megan McKenna, Henri Nouwen, Kelly Brown Douglas, Ched Myers, James Cone, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, Daniel Berrigan, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Penny Lernoux, and countless others whose names aren’t well-known but whose work advances the reign of God.
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Ellsberg’s own work includes All Saints (Crossroad), The Saints’ Guide to Happiness (North Point Press), and most recently, Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.
Blessed Among All Women builds on All Saints, Ellsberg writes in his introduction. “Soon after that book’s publication I was pleased to receive an invitation from a small contemplative community of Maryknoll Sisters. While they appreciated my nontraditional approach to saints, they noted with some passion that I had maintained the traditional imbalance of women and men (about one out of four).” Soon Ellsberg was bombarded with hundreds of suggestions of women spiritual leaders who deserved to be considered in the company of saints.
Ellsberg took up the challenge to examine why, among the wide array of official saints, women were vastly underrepresented. He discovered two primary reasons. First, he writes, “Many holy women in history tended to spend their lives in the relative seclusion of the cloister.” Second, “the process of canonization, like the general exercise of authority in the church, has been entirely controlled by men.”
Blessed Among All Women contains the life stories of more than 140 women—biblical, historical, and contemporary—who exemplify the Christian witness. They are theologians, prophets, visionaries, healers, warriors for social justice, and trailblazers in the spiritual life. All are women who, Ellsberg writes, “enlarge our moral imagination.”
The book itself is organized according to the Beatitudes. The first chapter, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” includes writings on Mary, the mother of Jesus; Anna the prophetess; Clare of Assisi; former slave and nun Josephine Bakhita; photographer Mev Puleo; and Ade Bethune, a Catholic Worker artist. Not all of the women highlighted in the book are Catholic—Ellsberg includes Emily Dickinson, Evelyn Underhill, Gladys Aylward, Ida B. Wells, and others. And not all of the women are Christian—he includes Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum. But all of the women are dedicated, courageous, and creative incarnations of the compassionate character of Christ.
These women exhibit the “feminine virtues” of humility and patient endurance, but also the ability to call the ruling powers to account, defying laws or customs that restrict a woman’s full authority, and an incisive wit that allows them to circumvent obstacles in their path. These are virtues that every Christian needs to develop in order to witness effectively in the world today.
We also must acknowledge that even today there are women who withdraw from a male-constructed world in order to more fully embrace the Original Image in whom they were created, without the mediation of a male model. They withdraw in order to claim their original authority in Christ, as well as to deal directly with the issues of their own separation from God, rather than definitions of sin mediated through cultures of patriarchy. If we don’t address the sin of patriarchy, how will we ever hear their stories?
The lives recounted in Blessed Among All Women are realistically inspiring. Their examples teach us how to follow Jesus in the garbage-strewn streets, in the McMansions of our day, in prisons, hospitals, and boardrooms. They allow us to see that there is a multitude of ways to be a Christian. This book should be on every Christian school shelf and church library, as well as used often in the liturgies and services where people gather to embody the Christian narrative.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.