Women doctors at the heart of healing

By  Beth Brown, Youth Speak News
  • June 19, 2014

Accidental Theologians: Four women who shaped Christianity, by Elizabeth A. Dreyer (Franciscan Media, Softcover, 160 pages, $15.99). 

This may not be a beach read, but it sure is a girl-crush overload. 

Elizabeth A. Dreyer’s Accidental Theologians is a crash course in the teachings of four female doctors of the Church: Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. Bringing the saints to her audience through cultural and historical context, Dreyer has written a road map for reading the antiquated works of women we consider ever-so-holier-than-us, a book that reconciles our awe of these sanctified sisters with their rooted-in-reality approach to salvation. 

In case you’re unfamiliar with these gals, here’s a little recap of Dreyer’s recap: 

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine Abbess in 12th-century Germany who championed Church doctrine in a time of heresy and corruption. Her main theology taught of the harmonious union available between the human person and creation through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the reality of the sacraments. 

St. Catherine of Siena was a Third Order Dominican from 14th-century Italy with a fiery personality. Her theology is incarnational, teaching that because God became man the body is holy and cannot be separated from the soul. She compared Christ’s body to a bridge for humanity to reach heaven and focused her teaching on God’s love, not wrath. 

Teresa of Avila was a Cloistered Carmelite nun from 16th-century Spain. Her practices of contemplative prayer, divine visions and periods of spiritual ecstasy were met with great opposition. Her theology shows how the human person reflects the very being of God and encourages prayer and acts of service that take us outside of ourselves. 

Thérèse of Lisieux was another Cloistered Carmelite who lived later in 19th century France. This young nun is known for her little way of daily commitment to Jesus. Her theology is powerful not because it is simple and meek, but because it requires great surrender, as it must have for God Himself to be humbled on a cross. She saw in the Holy Face of Christ a genuine joy in suffering and found purpose in emulating this through small sacrifices. 

Dreyer begins by presenting theology as more than scholastic writing of abstract ideas and expired metaphors that leave the general public feeling boggled and illiterate. Theology can be pragmatic — simple, practical and easily applicable to our daily lives. These women “do not ask us to leave either our intellects or our emotions at the door when we enter the world of theological expression,” says Dreyer. 

As women of their times received limited education and acclaim, their ideas are not weighed down by a need to be lofty, clerical or stoic, but come primarily from personal experience. They boast a vernacular or grassroots theology focused on God’s all-encompassing love. The result is a Christ-centred, relational theology bringing courage in trial, comfort in sadness and companionship in between. “This type of theology is dynamic, messy and creative,” says Dreyer. 

Essentially, we blow the dust off our volumes of Aquinas and Augustine when confronted with an issue of apologetics, but Thérèse’s Story of a Soul and Avila’s Interior Castle are most likely to be sitting dog-eared by our bedside tables, and flown to when in need of inspiration or relief. 

Dreyer uses the works of these holy women to marry the idea that faith is both intrinsically personal and universal, saying, “Theology is impoverished when it does not embrace a wider range of experiences that feed our understanding and expression of the divine identity and God’s relationship with the world.” Far from poor, the theology of these mystics pursue truths so tangible and sound that people are still devouring their insights, even writing books, like Accidental Theologians, about what four long since dead nuns had to say. Was it really an accident? 

(Brown, 23, is a journalism graduate of the University of King’s College in Halifax.) 

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