This review by John Zmirak was originally posted on The Stream; to read the article on their website, click here.
There is something repulsive about sanctity. Go on, admit it. When we read the lives of people marked by extraordinary holiness, our first and persistent reaction is uncanny horror. We squirm in our seats, and try to explain away how strange these people make us feel. While we nod with pious approval at certain parts of the story, at others we shudder and shake our heads. We explain away the “excesses” of a saint by pointing to the weirdness of his times, or the flaws in her theology.
But those moments aren’t what troubles us. What “gets” us in the gut are the moments that transcend all cultural oddness, that can’t be explained away by the shrink or religious historian. As we gaze through the stained glass window that is the life of any genuine saint, we don’t much mind the bird stains or the dark panes. What troubles us are those that are blazingly, blindingly clear — which show us much more of Jesus than we are prepared to see.
That’s what Metaxas did to us in his massively, deservedly successful biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then again in Seven Men, a recent and highly readable collection of capsule bios of great believers who lived out the genuine masculine virtues. Each time, he lured us out with breezy prose and cogent analysis, gently stringing us along until we had run clear out of shadows. We were left with only two choices: Cover our eyes, or face the epiphany.
The same is true of Metaxas’ new book, Seven Women, which starts off with a brisk rejection of any feminist pretensions: This is not a book about women who “cast off” traditional roles and embraced the values and goals of the men around them. (No, Margaret Sanger didn’t make the cut.) Instead, Metaxas tells the stories of seven female Christians who deeply lived the particular feminine callings which they experienced, and in doing so helped to make the world a bit more human — which given the Incarnation, really means “more Christian.”
St. John Paul II was right when he wrote that Christ reveals man to man. The converse is also true: A more Christian world is also more human, and more humane. It turns out that our willingness to sometimes carry the Cross, to suck it up and willingly suffer instead of passing the pain to others, makes all the difference as to what kind of society we live in and leave to our kids: One that welcomes and loves the disabled, or one that puts them quickly out of our misery. One that sees the poor as truly human and tries to help them better themselves, or one that views them as blind mouths to be fed until they’re silent, or silently culled in the womb.
But we won’t reach that place of simple decency and sanity unless we are willing to sometimes go “mad” for the love of God, to reject the seemingly sensible compromises everyone offers us, and stare right up at the Son.
So Metaxas shows us in his lives of these seven women. Each of them was distinctively feminine, with virtues that our creaky, worldly, fallen wills are tempted to write off with a dismissive stereotype. In fact, that’s probably the best way to view them. Each one of these women was the real deal — the noble, holy thing that we try to evade with a misogynistic epithet:
1. The Fanatic: Joan of Arc
Metaxas retells this time-worn, well-known story with surprising freshness, inviting us to imagine a teenage girl barging in on the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a plan for ending Islamic terror — a plan they adopt, which turns out actually to work. Even in her time, the wise and worldly men who had despaired of an end to the Hundred Years War (it killed some 25 percent of the French population) dismissed this ignorant shepherdess and her talk of angelic visions. But Joan’s unique combination of ferocity and tenderness inspired just enough men to pay attention, and end one of Europe’s most vicious and ruinous wars.
2. The Church Lady: Susanna Wesley
Unless you’re a devotee of Methodist history, you probably don’t know the story of Susanna, mother of Charles and John Wesley — the two men who helped pull millions of Englishmen out of the drunken stupor of quasi-paganism to which a lazy clergy had consigned the poor in the 18th century. Learn here how she was the quintessential long-suffering wife and mother of a large homeschooling family, who endured the recklessness of her frequently worthless preacher husband. When the local pastor proved unsatisfactory, she gathered parishioners in her home and read them better sermons from a book — emptying the church on Sunday mornings. She ran her children’s lives like a pious drill sergeant, goaded them to learning and virtue, made pounds out of pennies, and somehow managed not to turn into a self-righteous scold. (Which tempts you to hate her even more, but then that’s just Screwtape speaking. …)
3. The Moralizing Lady Author: Hannah More
One of the great, if unjustly forgotten, writers of 18th century England, Hannah More could trade barbs and hold her own with the likes of Samuel Johnson. Her literary plays were hugely popular, providing rare moments of decency on the raunchy stage of her day. She evoked admiration and envy on the part of lesser, male scribblers — and through it all, imbued her work with the Christian virtue-ethic she had soaked in with her extensive education. Most infuriating of all, her work was attractive and carefully crafted, not clunky or didactic. (Christian filmmakers, are you listening?) Later in her life, she befriended William Wilberforce and used her talents to expose the evils of slavery and even (my favorite) wrote tracts refuting the shallow atheist arguments of Thomas Paine — who really should have retired after writing “Common Sense.”
4. The Religious Crank with a Past: Saint Maria of Paris
Is there any prospect less appealing than a female aristocrat who dabbles in radical politics, has children with different men, then later in life discovers the virtues of chastity and poverty? From that stark summary you would expect that this Russian emigre to France would be comprehensively insufferable, a mish-mash of Ayn Rand and Simone de Beauvoir, with a dash of Dorothy Day. But Metaxas makes a convincing case that Maria was a woman with a deep religious vision, who flustered and flummoxed the Tsar-loving monks and bishops who joined her French exile from Bolshevik tyranny because she loved God purely and cleanly — a love she saw through to the end in the even deeper darkness of the Nazi Occupation, as she helped to hide hundreds of Jews from French functionaries who were only too happy to help the Germans deport them. My favorite detail was this one: Saint Maria helped a Russian priest to forge baptismal certificates to save the lives of Jewish children by passing them off as gentiles.
5. The All-Forgiving Victim: Corrie ten Boom
This Dutch spinster lived in a big house for much of her life with her equally unmarried sister, Betsy. But they didn’t hoard cats or start a feminist Reiki collective. Instead, they ran church schools and filled the house with waifs and strays — poor children in need of religious and vocational education. Most memorably, they carried on their family’s 100-year tradition of countercultural philo-semitism by hiding dozens of Jews from the Nazi occupiers, and helping hundreds more to escape into the countryside and relative safety.
Eventually, both Corrie and Betsy were captured by the Nazis and deported to an extermination camp. Inside, they suffered horribly, but kept up their fellow prisoners’ spirits with prayer meetings and hymns. Hardest for us to swallow, they practiced radical forgiveness, ceaselessly praying for the brutal thugs who were implementing the slaughter. Through some miraculous failure of German bureaucracy Corrie was released from the camp. Later, in the post-war world, she encountered one of the camp’s most brutal guards — now dejected and claiming penitence. In fact, like so many criminals seeking clemency, he claimed that he’d found Jesus, and was sorry for all he’d done. Seven Women recounts how Corrie took the man at his word, grasped his hand, and forgave him. It’s a measure of Metaxas’ skill as a spiritual author that we finish this story surprised, not by naïveté but sanctity.
6. The Social Justice Activist: Rosa Parks
Generations of American schoolchildren probably think that Rosa Parks was one of America’s Founding Fathers, along with Amelia Earhart and Cesar Chavez. But Metaxas rescues Parks from her place in the pantheon of multiculturalist heroes by showing the deep and abiding Christian faith that sustained Rosa through a childhood of grinding poverty and appalling injustice. Her story is a window into a world of radical, cruel and arbitrary divisions among Americans and Christians, enforced by a brutal system designed to perpetuate the heritage of slavery.
Rosa took from her church upbringing and regular scripture reading a wholesome and holy balance of patience and hunger for justice, which made her the perfect “test case” behind which the burgeoning Civil Rights movement could rally: A hard-working, honest woman, a loving and faithful wife, a fellow citizen and believer whom white Southern Christians could not finally justify treating in the subhuman fashion that segregation prescribed for every member of her race. She too was willing to forgive — but not too soon, not before the depths of racism’s evil had been exposed, and the full and equal humanity of every American was recognized by law.
7. The Do-Gooder: Mother Teresa
Yeah, yeah, she cared for all those orphans over in India, and opened up AIDS hospices when no one else yet cared about victims of that disease. But come on, haven’t we heard this story already — and besides, didn’t Christopher Hitchens expose this woman or something? Metaxas does a good job of making fresh the often-recounted story of a nun from Albania who traveled all the way to India to care for the most neglected and unloved creatures on this earth: low-caste lepers and beggars in the slums of India’s most crowded cities.
Teresa’s worldview, of course, was starkly different from the Hinduism that justifies the fate of low-caste “untouchables” as just, as the “karmic” outcome of their sins committed in past lives. Instead, she saw each person, however desperate or hopeless, as Jesus Himself “in one of His distressing disguises.” She charmed her way through the xenophobia of Indians still bitter about colonialism, and cut through countless bureaucratic obstacles with her blazingly simplistic vision: people mattered, and the way to show that was to suffer with them willingly, as Jesus did. Teresa was also willing to face down the worst blind spots of the West, confronting secular humanitarians who sought to bask in her reflected glory with their blithe embrace of abortion. And she did all this despite a decades-long spiritual dryness that most psychiatrists would diagnose as clinical depression. That’s a story worth telling again.
So are all these stories. Metaxas is a sure-handed, trustworthy guide through historical and theological thickets. Read about them in Seven Women to whet your appetite. The stories are so compelling that they should send you back to Amazon to order longer biographies.