Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Few Good Women

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Few Good Women

Article excerpt

Mary's cooperation with the will of God put her in line with the great women of the Old Testament, the women saints of Christian tradition, and Aunt Helen.

VIRGINIA WOOLF Probably started it: the changing of my perspective about everything. I was an English major in college, taking semester-long courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer, reading the classics in Middle English, paying my respects to Keats and Yeats and Byron and Shelley. The parade of important names was endless, and so were their works. Thomas Mann. Herman Melville. James Joyce.

And then came Virginia Woolf, silently entering the room like a breeze, stirring the curtain and making me look up. She made me "think different," as the ad goes. The way to tell a story never looked the same to me again.

What Woolf did as a writer was to reinvent the novel, not as an outward narrative but an inward journey. She didn't spend her words on long descriptions of objects in a room or imagining landscapes for the reader to behold. Instead, she told the story as a series of reactions and reflections of the characters. The technique was dubbed "stream of consciousness," and it attempted to mirror how life really goes for us, not a solid block of context but a wild juxtaposition of experiences incorporated in bewilderment while they are happening.

Virginia Woolf is just one example of a woman who slipped into the world like Diogenes with a lantern, illuminating a new path. When I begin to consider the women who have changed the world for me, here and there along the way, the scroll of names grows long and curls up on the floor.

This is why Luke's gospel arrives every third year into the church cycle like a breath of fresh air. Of the four gospel writers, Luke most frequently names the women of salvation history and shows great concern for telling their story. Some scholars speculate that Luke wrote his gospel for a female patron, a Greek woman rich enough and independent enough to expect that Jesus had something liberating to say about women. Whether or not this is the case, Luke certainly has more to say about the women around Jesus than the other three writers combined.

Compare the stories about the circumstances of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, the two gospels that contain infancy narratives. Matthew tells the story from the perspective of Joseph, whose dreams about angels shape the action, from his decision to stay true to Mary to his flight to Egypt and return to settle in Nazareth. But when Luke tells the story, Mary is the one to whom the angel appears, and it's Mary's acceptance of the plan that makes salvation history pass through her like a river. Matthew tells stories of three wise men and a treacherous king. Luke weaves stories about a kindly elder cousin having a baby in her old age and includes a prophetess named Anna who first proclaims the baby's significance to all in the Temple. Is this the same story? Yes--but perhaps as it was told in the company of women.

When we listen to the stories of salvation history, the litany of names can sound a lot like the bulk of my education in the English department: Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and assorted prophets--all male actors on the stage of eternity. When a rare woman does emerge, she's not exactly a heroine. Think Eve, Delilah, Jezebel. We can only be amazed and relieved when Mary shows up and finally redeems the biblical portrait of women. Or is this, too, a matter of the way the story is generally told?

Consider for a moment the five amazing women behind the story of Moses. The first two, Shiprah and Puah, are practically unknown, yet their role in the exodus from Egypt is enormous. They are the Hebrew midwives ordered by Pharaoh to put to death any boychild born to Israel. They choose instead to lie to Pharaoh and spare the children, putting their lives on the line in the process. Their courage allows the mother of Moses to come up with a plan to buy time for her son. …

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