From time upon time, it has been women more than men who have demonstrated a capacity for a fervent spirituality and devotion to God, who is love itself.
Below are listed women spiritual writers who’s writings have played a major role in my spiritual journey.
These women responded fully to the inner call to pursue a level of spirituality rarely seen or heard of. Through their unique personalities, gifts, and deep love for God, they found a way to express for the rest of us the ineffable experience of communion with the divine.
Yet, each of them were also trailblazers and reformers in the culture and situation they found themselves born into. They were tireless advocates for change. Through their writings and personal commitment to this way of life, they have demonstrated another way, a higher way, still relevant and so needed for both men and women of today. Forget the years that have passed, it is timeless wisdom.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179)
Hildegard was a German Benedictine , writer, composer, philosopher, and Christian mystic. She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems.
Left much to herself on account of her ill health, she led an interior life, trying to make use of everything for her own sanctification.
She Revolutionized worship through her musical compositions, by innovating a more complex melodic element in Chant composition. Hildegard’s music is often thought to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant. Its style is characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of the more staid ranges of traditional Gregorian chant. Click on the link to hear a sample of her work. Voice of the Blood -Music
Saint Catherine of Sienna (March 25, 1347 in Siena – April 29, 1380)
The works of St. Catherine of Siena rank among the classics of the Italian language, Catherine of Sienna: Classics of Western Spirituality; written in the beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. The “Dialogue” treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by Catherine herself), and considered a mystical counterpart in prose of Dante’s “Divina Commedia”.
Dr. Noffke says in her Foreword, the aim of the “Dialogue” was “the instruction and encouragement of all those whose spiritual welfare was her concern.” Catherine was “a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society, Church and the souls who came under her influence.” Professor Noffke goes on to call The Dialogue “a great tapestry to which Catherine adds stitch upon stitch until she is satisfied that she has communicated all she can of what she has learned of the way of God… It is not so much a treatise to be read as it is a conversation to be entered into with earnest leisure and leisurely earnest.”
” To the servant of God, every time is the right time, and every place is the right place”.
Julian of Norwich (c. 8 November 1342 – c. 1416)
Julian of Norwich is one of the most celebrated figures of the English Middle Ages. An English anchoress and an important Christian mystic and theologian.
Julian was also known as a spiritual authority within her community where she also served as a counselor and advisor. She is esteemed as one of the subtlest writers and profoundest thinkers of the period for her account of the revelations that she experienced in 1373. Her Revelations of Divine Love, written around 1395, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. Julian lived as an anchoress in Norwich, and after recovering from a serious illness she described the visions that had come to her during her suffering. She conceived of a loving and compassionate God, merciful and forgiving, and believed in our ability to reach self-knowledge through sin. She wrote of God as our mother, and embraced strikingly independent theological opinions.
“And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.”
Saint Teresa of Ávila (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582)
The account of her spiritual life contained in the “Life written by herself” (completed in 1565, an earlier version being lost), and in the “Interior Castle”, forms one of the most remarkable spiritual biographies with which only the “Confessions of St. Augustine” can bear comparison. St. Teresa’s position among writers on mystical theology is unique. In all her writings on this subject she deals with her personal experiences, which a deep insight and analytical gifts enabled her to explain clearly.
The “Interior Castle“, is a masterpiece of spiritual literature, inspired by a mystical vision, St. Teresa’s vision was of a luminous crystal castle composed of seven chambers, or “mansions,” each representing a different stage in the development of the soul.
In it, St. Teresa describes how, upon entering the castle through prayer and meditation, the human spirit experiences humility, detachment, suffering, and, ultimately, self-knowledge, as it roams from room to room. As the soul progresses further toward the center of the castle, it comes closer to achieving ineffable and perfect peace, and, finally, a divine communion with God.
Edith Stein, Jewish Philosopher and writer during the 1930’s-40’s, would convert to Catholicism upon reading St.Theresa’s “Interior Castle”
Way of Perfection This classic of the interior life and Christian mysticism remains as fresh and inspiring today as it was 400 years ago. It forms a practical guide to prayer that embraces readers with its warmth and accessibility.
St. Teresa of Avila’s detailed directions on the achievement of spiritual perfection designate three essentials — fraternal love, detachment from material things, and true humility. She discusses a variety of maxims related to the practice of prayer and concludes with a thought-provoking commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. A work of sublime mystical beauty, The Way of Perfection is above all a treatise of utter simplicity that offers lucid instruction to all seekers of a more meaningful way of life.
The Life Written at the command of her confessors, the books of this 16th century Spanish saint and mystic (a beloved friend to another great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross), St. Teresa’s writings remain classics of Christian mysticism. Less abstract and theoretical than her friend, Teresa’s works are no less noteworthy for the brilliance of their ability to convey with both warmth and rigor some flavor of this most extraordinary experience: union with God. Her autobiography may well be the best entry point into her work and into the great mystical literature of the Christian church. (Amazon reviews)
“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”
― Teresa of Ávila
Saint Therese of Lisieux (2 January 1873 – 30 September 1897)
Françoise-Thérèse Martin, was a French Carmelite nun. She is also known as “The Little Flower of Jesus”. She felt an early call to religious life, and overcoming various obstacles, in 1888 at the early age of 15, became a nun and joined two of her older sisters in the cloistered Carmelite community of Lisieux, Normandy. After nine years as a Carmelite religious, having fulfilled various offices such as sacristan and assistant to the novice mistress, and having spent the last eighteen months in Carmel in a night of faith, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. The impact of ‘The Story of a Soul’, a collection of her autobiographical manuscripts, printed and distributed a year after her death to an initially very limited audience, was great, and she rapidly became one of the most popular saints of the twentieth century. Pope Pius XI made her the “star of his pontificate”.
The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Theresa of Lisieux: Two and a half years before her death in 1897 at the age of 24, as Thérèse Martin began writing down her childhood memories at the request of her blood sisters in the Lisieux Carmel, few could have guessed the eventual outcome. Yet this Story of my soul quickly became a modern spiritual classic. Here, expressed with all of Thérèse’s spontaneity and fervor, we discover the great themes of her spirituality: confidence and love, the little way, abandonment to God’s merciful love, and her mission in the church and world today.
“I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
This book by Conrad De Meester, OCD, had a powerful impact on me. After reading it, St. Thérèse became a model for me rather than a “quaint little saint”. It is a deep study of her spirituality, a spirituality that revels in a complete trust in God and a great love for Him. This book traces how Thérèse came to such a “profound yet simple insight into the secret of the way to God’s heart” – her “little way of love”.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)-12 October 1891 – 9 August 194
In 1922, after reading St. Theresa of Avila’s book “The Interior Castle”, she converted from Judaism to Catholicism and was baptized at the Cathedral Church in Cologne, Germany. Eleven years later Edith entered the Cologne Carmel. Because of the ramifications of politics in Germany, Edith, whose name in religion was Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was sent to the Carmel at Echt, Holland. When the Nazis conquered Holland, Teresa was arrested, and, with her sister Rose, was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Teresa died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of fifty-one. In 1987, she was beatified in the large outdoor soccer stadium in Cologne by Pope John Paul II. Out of the unspeakable human suffering caused by the Nazis in western Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there blossomed the beautiful life of dedication, consecration, prayer, fasting, and penance of Saint Teresa. Even though her life was snuffed out by the satanic evil of genocide, her memory stands as a light undimmed in the midst of evil, darkness, and suffering. She was canonized on October 11, 1998.
Essays on Women; With reason Edith Stein has been called “the most significant German woman of this century.” Her writings on woman are the fruit of both reflection and debate with other leaders of the Catholic feminist movement in German-speaking countries between the World Wars.
The Hidden Life: Essays; an inspiring collection of Edith Stein’s shorter spiritual writings, many available for the first time in English translation. Topics include: Shorter spiritual writings on prayer, liturgy, and the spirit of Carmel. They were composed during her final years, often at the request of her Carmelite superiors. Here the noted philosopher, Catholic feminist, and convert shares her reflections on prayer, liturgy, the lives of holy women, the spirit of Carmel, the mystery of the Christian vocation, and the meaning of the cross in our lives. These essays, poems, and dramatic pieces offer readers a unique glimpse into the hidden inner life of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable women.
“All those who seek truth, seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.” ― Edith Stein
Evelyn Underhill (6 December 1875 – 15 June 1941)
An English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism.
In the English-speaking world, she was one of the most widely read writers Christina Mysticism in the first half of the 20th century. No other book of its type met with success to match that of her best-known work, Mysticism, published in 1911.
Since 2000, the Church of England commemorates Underhill liturgically on 15 June. She is also honoured with a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 15 June.
The Spiritual Life: “My object was to present some of the great truths concerning man’s spiritual life in simple language; treating it, not as an intense form of other-worldliness remote from the common ways and incompatible with the common life, but rather as the heart of all real religion and therefore of vital concern to ordinary men and women”
Practical Mysticism: Written just before World War 1, Practical Mysticism reviews the works of the greatest Western mystics, including Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas à Kempis. Underhill brings esoteric subjects onto a practical footing, showing that the profound gifts of mysticism are not only for the few but are within reach of us all. Underhill wants the reader to obtain mystical consciousness and to be able to see eternal beauty.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty (August 15, 1896 – December 14, 1985)
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a Russian-born aristocrat who has recently been proposed for canonization, emigrated to North America, dedicated her life to promoting “the gospel without compromise.” Her vision combined a deep spirituality with a commitment to social justice. One of her early projects was the Harlem-based Friendship House, which attracted a young Thomas Merton. Later, with her second husband, Eddie Doherty, she established Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. Though Roman Catholic, Catherine drew on her Russian roots and helped popularize the concept of Poustinia (the Russian word for desert)a place where a person meets God through solitude, prayer, and fasting
Poustinia: Encountering Silence , Solitude, and Prayer : The modern spiritual classic for those seeking the open heart and listening soul of a silent contemplation.
Poustinia, a Russian word, means ‘desert’, a place to meet Christ in silence, solitude and prayer. Catherine Doherty combines her insights into the great spiritual traditions of the Russian Church with her very personal experience of life with Christ.
Men and women who desire communion with God can discover how the poustinia powerfully fulfills their yearning. Readers are invited to leave the noise and harried pace of daily life to enter a place of silence and solitude. Catherine writes from her own experience with refreshing and startling Christian authenticity and a strong personal sense of spiritual authority.
Catherine emphasizes ‘poustinia of the heart’, an interiorized poustinia, a silent chamber carried always and everywhere in which to contemplate God within.
“The duty of the moment is what you should be doing at any given time, in whatever place God has put you…If you have a child, your duty of the moment may be to change a dirty diaper.
So you do it.
But you don’t just change that diaper, you change it to the best of your ability, with great love for both God and that child…. you have to realize that there is always the duty of the moment to be done.
And it must be done, because the duty of the moment is the duty of God.” ― Catherine de Hueck Doherty
Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980)
The Long Loneliness : This inspiring and fascinating memoir, subtitled, “The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist,” The Long Loneliness is the late Dorothy Day’s compelling autobiographical testament to her life of social activism and her spiritual pilgrimage.
It recounts her remarkable journey from the Greenwich Village political and literary scene of the 1920s through her conversion to Catholicism and her lifelong struggle to help bring about “the kind of society where it is easier to be good.”
A founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day was eulogized in the New York Times as, “a nonviolent social radical of luminous personality.” She is considered the pioneer of the Peace and Justice movement of the Catholic Church. What impresses me from her writings is that her strong stance on social issues and passion for justice originates from a deep and prayerful devotion to Christ. She is, like each of the women above, a model for tireless service that springs from the bedrock of her personal prayer life.
“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” ― Dorothy Day
Saint Teresa of Calcutta (26 August 1910 – 5 September 1997)
On 10 September 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” while travelling by train to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Calcutta for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
In the beginning of 1949, she was joined in her effort by a group of young women and laid the foundations of a new religious community helping the “poorest among the poor”.
Pope John Paul II asked: “Where did Mother Teresa find the strength and perseverance to place herself completely at the service of others? She found it in prayer and in the silent contemplation of Jesus Christ, his Holy Face, his Sacred Heart.”
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”
Writings of Saint Teresa of Calcutta: