Many women, both young and middle-aged, seem to live their lives as if their mothers were looking over their shoulders. "My mother would die," they say, "if she could see the way I keep my house." Or with rueful mock despair, they ask themselves how their mothers always managed to keep the house in order, put fresh cookies in the cookie jar, sort and fold the laundry, get a variety of children to an even wider variety of lessons and still get a hot balanced supper on the table promptly at 6:00 p.m. Even when they have chosen significantly different goals for themselves, women are often still haunted by a sense that they have failed to become the full women they perceive their mothers to have been.
Does this same sense of inadequacy haunt women as they pursue their inner and spiritual lives? Do the models of earlier Christian women, the saints and writers who were so prominent a part of religious education in an earlier time, haunt rather than inspire women? Perhaps our earthly mothers, in their desire to protect and nurture their daughters, did not sufficiently share their struggles and anxieties; in the midst of our own struggles, we find it difficult to identify with them. Most certainly, the hagiographical tradition did not usually provide stories of women who struggled and made compromises; the lives of the saints revealed only the great holiness that was finally achieved. And the holiness that they imaged was often narrow in its conception, seemingly more appropriate to an earlier age than ours, and so stereo-- typed as to leave no room for individual personality, gifts and challenges. Is that tradition beyond retrieval?
Without doubt, many women have experienced great difficulty when attempting to reclaim the stories of their spiritual mothers, the saints. Feminist writers have documented the ways in which the Christian tradition has inhibited authentic maturation and, therefore, genuine holiness in women. Joann Wolski Conn, for example, speaks of Christian teaching as "legitimating and even promoting restrictive heteronomy rather than mature autonomy for women,"1 though her own work successfully retrieves the insights and texts of women mystics. But many women have had the stories of their mothers in the faith interpreted for them; they have not always been encouraged to enter imaginatively into these stories from the perspective of their own experience. If this interpretation by others is allowed to stand, then the stories of the saints will, for the most part, be lost to women today. But I believe that the reclaiming of the stories of our female ancestors is both possible and necessary, and I find in the work of recent feminist scholars suggestions and methods that can prove helpful in the spiritual journey.
Perhaps the most important step in that retrieval is an understanding of the lives of women saints within a revised historical framework. A lack of such understanding has been one of the primary ways in which the lives of earlier Christian women have been distorted. The preponderance of women religious among the saints, for instance, has been used to support the teaching that religious life was objectively a superior vocation to that of marriage or of the single life. It was not generally understood that, in the limited range of options open to women throughout most of Christian history, religious life was the only choice that gave a measure of social as well as spiritual freedom. In convents, women had access to education, were somewhat free from day-to-day control by men, were not threatened by the physical dangers of childbearing, and could express their gifts for administration and ministry. Added to the religious and spiritual benefits of religious life, these human possibilities made the choice of consecrated virginity extremely attractive to women whose only other option was an arranged marriage.
Similarly, those aspects of a woman saint's life that made her an individual with a very particular set of challenges to overcome were often suppressed in order to highlight the way in which she fit the general pattern of holiness. …