BLESSED AMONG ALL WOMEN: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, by Robert
Ellsberg. Crossroad Publishing Company.
316 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a
native Cincinnatian and a retired public
ROBERT ELLSBERG, a convert to Catholicism
and editor-in-chief at Orbis
Press, is fascinated by saints—canonized
and non. His earlier books, All
Saints (1997) and The Saints’ Guide to
Happiness (2003), were well reviewed
and widely popular; Blessed Among All
Women is a worthy companion.
Most of the profiles of these holy
women average two pages and come
complete with quotations from the
individual portrayed as well
as references for further
reading. In chronological
order, and categorized by
their practice of the beatitudes,
137 women who, “by their
heroic faith and love, exemplified
the gospel challenge.”
When some of these profiles
appeared in the All
Saints book, the author
received criticism from an
acquaintance named Daria Donnelly
for not including more “gal saints.”
She wrote: “Your book was full of
insight and sharp people but where
were the kids? That’s not your fault:
Does our Church ever give the high
five to saintly parents? The noise, the
joy, the distraction. Nouwen, Merton,
the modern prophets, they don’t have
kids, and as a result they can’t sort all
the noise of culture: and their diagnoses
are limited....Saints use it all.”
In this entire book of “gal saints,”
Donnelly herself is included and
described as “a woman of symbol, of
story, of sacrament. She reached in the
deepest Catholic sense toward the loving,
nourishing, reconciling grace of
God through the ordinary, commonplace
things of God’s created universe.”
Ellsberg admits that women are underrepresented
as saints, perhaps due to
the obscurity in which they lived or
their few writings and that the canonization
process is controlled by men.
Additionally, traditional accounts emphasize
only their “feminine virtues.”
Isn’t it ironic that many female saints
were excommunicated for a time? This
collection includes non-traditional,
non-Catholic, non-Christian women,
some identified only by an action, nationality
There is Karla Faye Tucker, who “while in jail awaiting her trial...was
moved by curiosity to attend a meeting
with a prison ministry
group. Members of the
group shared their own
experiences of prison, prostitution,
drugs and violence,
and Karla observed
that ‘they had a peace and
joy—something that was
real. I had never seen that
in anybody.’ She found herself
wanting ‘to feel what
they’re feeling.’ That night,
not knowing that Bibles
were free for the asking, she
stole one and snuck it back into her
“As Karla began to read, she experienced
for the first time the full magnitude
of her actions, the realization that
‘I had brutally murdered two people,
and there were people out there hurting
because of me.’ On her knees, she
asked God ‘to come into my heart and
forgive me for what I had done.’ And
almost at once she felt an incredible
infusion of God’s love. ‘He reached
down inside of me and ripped out that
violence at the very roots and poured
Other examples are Mary Slesser,
Scottish-Presbyterian missionary to
Nairobi; Evelyn Underhill, Anglican
author of Mysticism; Lady Godiva of
Coventry, defender of the poor; Mother
Ann Lee, Shaker foundress; The Martyrs
of Birmingham, four Baptist girls killed
in a bombing; Sarah and Angelina
Grimke, Quaker abolitionists and feminists;
Cassie Bernall, Columbine High
School student and shooting victim;
Eileen Egan, Catholic peacemaker who
coined the phrase “seamless garment.”
The women portrayed here, so very
unique in the situations of their lives,
nevertheless share a striking similarity in
their display of courage, resourcefulness
and optimism across the years. Julian of
Norwich, who lived through the Black
Plague and the Hundred Years War in
the 14th century, could still write: “All
shall be well, all shall be well, and all
manner of things shall be well.”
But teenage Holocaust victim Anne
Frank—singled out for extermination
because of being Jewish—could also
write: “In spite of everything I still believe
that people are really good at
heart....I see the world gradually being
turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching
thunder, which will destroy
us too, I can feel the sufferings of
millions and yet, if I look up into the
heavens, I think that it will all come
This easily readable anthology makes
female saints more understandable and
makes sainthood seem more attainable
for the rest of us. I recommend it for
ordinary Catholics and for religious.
You can order BLESSED AMONG ALL WOMEN: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time from St.
THE ROSARY PRAYER BY PRAYER:
How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed
Mother, by Mary K. Doyle. Cover art
and illustrations by Joseph Cannella.
3E Press (firstname.lastname@example.org). 224
pp. $26.95, hardcover; $19.95, paperback.
Reviewed by VICTORIA E. HÉBERT, lay
associate editor of the English-language
magazine The ANNALS of St. Anne de
Beaupré, based at the shrine of the same
name in Quebec, Canada.
YOU MAY ASK, “Why another book
about the Rosary?” The answer is simple:
In this day and age, we
realize that we need additional
help to deepen our
personal experiences of
You may also ask, “But
why reinvent the wheel?”
We all know (and love) the
Rosary, so what new information
can we possibly
need? How can the Rosary
be brought to us in a different
way? All of these are
great questions which this
book more than handily answers.
There is so much I want to tell you
about this book, but I want you to
travel on its voyage for yourself. So
where do I begin? I came to be interested
in this book because the cover
threw sparks at my heart! It is powerful,
touching and a small introduction to
more of the same inside.
From the “first-time learner” right
to the advanced, daily Rosary pray-er,
this book has something for everyone.
It is written in easily understandable
language, delivered in manageable portions.
The book is divided into three main
parts. In Part One, this Marian devotion
is discussed as a means to grow closer
to Jesus and a way to honor the Trinity.
In addition, we are given some Rosary
history and an in-depth explanation
of how to pray the Rosary.
Mary Doyle also introduces us to the
mysteries—all four sets of them, including
the new Luminous Mysteries proposed
by Pope John Paul II in October
2002. Doyle describes the mysteries as
“reflections on the events and lives of
Jesus and Mary, telling the story of
redemption, making the Rosary a true
history of salvation.”
With each mystery, we are offered
pertinent scriptural verses, asked to
reflect on these verses and consider
various inner-directed questions (an
excellent set of suggestions), given a
special prayer and then treated to an
Concluding Part One, we are reminded
to think about our intentions
in praying the Rosary. Prayer intentions
fall into three main categories:
adoration, petition and thanksgiving.
The author observes, “The
only prayer unanswered is
the one that isn’t asked.”
The “heart” of the book
is Part Two, which explores
the four sets of mysteries.
This is where I feel the book
sets itself apart from others
in the same category.
I must mention the illustrations.
Although not always “typical,” they are
poignant, some so dynamic
you may find yourself almost in tears
(as I was). Look at each carefully for
the “hidden” symbols. Keep an eye on
the work of this young man, Joseph
Cannella. I predict many more good
things to come from this talented,
insightful, young artist.
Finally, in Part Three, the Appendix
offers additional prayers and basic how-to’s,
as well as a comprehensive list of
contact information for Marian organizations
and addresses where rosaries
can be purchased.
The author wrote this book to help
readers have a richer prayer experience
of the Rosary. To those who are overwhelmed
or confused, she wants to
make this wonderful devotion less
intimidating and more approachable.
This book makes you want to pray the
Rosary more often, and it will mean
more to you when you do!
You can order THE ROSARY PRAYER BY PRAYER:
How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed
Mother from St.
MEETING ISLAM: A Guide for Christians, by Deacon George Dardess. Paraclete
Press. 242 pp. $16.95.
Reviewed by RACHELLE LINNER, a librarian
and writer who lives in Boston.
GEORGE DARDESS, a Catholic pacifist
and permanent deacon, was horrified
by the 1991 Gulf War and accused himself
of complicity with its violence
because of his ignorance of Iraq and
As befits a lover of languages, his
path out of ignorance began with the
decision to study Arabic. The language
classes he took at Rochester’s Islamic
Center initiated what became a profound
encounter with Islam, including
two years of studying
the Qur’an (which Muslims
believe is “the reciting of
God’s very words”), participation
dialogue and friendships
with individuals and the
multiethnic local Islamic
Dardess was guided in
this interreligious journey
by a model of “passing over”
that was proposed by Notre
Dame theologian John
Dunne. “When one is no longer concerned
about reaching agreement...but
simply about attaining insight and
understanding, then one can enter
freely into other cultures, lives, and
religions and come back to understand
one’s own in a new light.”
This model informs the structure of
the 12 chapters in Meeting Islam. Most
begin with a personal anecdote, offer a
lucid explanation of a tenet of Islamic
history, faith or behavior, and conclude
with a reflection on a comparable
Christian practice or doctrine.
The book’s strength lies in Dardess’s
non-ideological, respectful presentation
of the depths and beauty of Islam,
an implicit rebuke to those who would
see only negative stereotypes. In almost
every chapter, Dardess conveys the
inherent moderation and balance of
Islam as it is engendered in practices
that foster personal and communal
“Islam is an experiment in practical
human community, in life lived harmoniously
among diverse populations,
thanks to a common vocation of praise
of the one God,” he contends.
Dardess even experienced Islam in
his body, by praying Salat, the public
prayer that is practiced five times a day,
a key action of which is Sujud, often
wrongly translated as prostration. “Salat...expresses at once dependence
and independence, self-yielding and
self-possession....If touching the forehead
to the floor expresses the extreme
of dependence, standing up again
asserts human dignity, for did not God
uniquely bestow on humankind his
ruh or breath/spirit?”
His discussion of this tradition of “embodied liturgical prayer”
introduces the concept
of Taqwa, the “total commitment
of body, mind,
and heart to the praise
of God” and leads to a
thoughtful meditation on
Christian watchfulness in
the Parable of the 10 Virgins.
Dardess’s goal of “meeting
Islam as a Christian”
imposes an asceticism of
restraint. For example, he
writes about the Hajj, the pilgrimage to
Mecca, as a symbol of unity, and proposes
its Christian analog in Easter. He
does not want to “force a comparison
or project a uniformity with Islam that
does not and probably should not exist.
The point is to enable us Christians to
look at our own symbols of unity with
This is a large responsibility, which he
handles particularly well in clarifying
the doctrinal differences between Islam
and Christianity. Two of the finest chapters
are on ‘Isa, the Qur’an’s name for
Jesus, and Islam’s rejection
of Trinitarian theology.
“...[T]hese differences, in
their polemical expressions,
can and should be tabled.
Not that the differences
aren’t central to our capacity
for relationship—as we
said before, there can be no
relationships without difference.
We simply don’t
know each other well
enough yet to talk about
our differences in a tone
that will bring joy to the Holy Spirit.”
Meeting Islam is a fine book, but it
would have been a more interesting
one if Dardess had been explicit about
spiritual struggles only hinted at. Despite
being such a respectful tour guide,
Dardess remains a one-dimensional
narrator, and it is possible that both
his reticence and his idealistic portrait
of Islam mask a still-unresolved
ambivalence over the cost imposed by
You can order MEETING ISLAM: A Guide for Christians from St. Francis Bookshop.
MARY MAGDALENE: A Biography, by Bruce Chilton. Doubleday. 220
MARY MAGDALENE: The Modern
Guide to the Bible’s Most Mysterious
and Misunderstood Woman, by
Meera Lester. Adams Media. 234 pp.
Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, an
assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and author of a Catholic Update on
Mary Magdalene (May 2006).
DEVOTEES OF Dan Brown’s The Da
Vinci Code will not be enamored of
Bruce Chilton’s biography. His book
is less biography than academic digest
and critique of earlier Magdalene scholarship,
plus his own analysis of this
biblical mystery woman.
Publisher Doubleday says Chilton
will “set the record straight.” Since he’s
a widely published scholar who has
read pertinent texts in their earliest extant
languages, I suppose I should concede
his success. Still, though he offers
evidence to counter Brown’s fictional
assertions, he also posits a
debatable spin on Mary
Magdalene’s role in the life
of Jesus and the Church.
I, for one, am not ready to
sign off on Chilton’s portrait,
The author attempts to
change Mary Magdalene’s
undeserved reputation as
a scarlet woman. But he
mitigates his defense by
speculating that she may
have been a mamzer, a
child of what Jewish law calls “doubtful
paternity.” It seems a faint favor to
replace one shady rumor with another.
Chilton sees Mary Magdalene as exorcist,
anointer and visionary, and elevates
her as a primary source for biblical
narratives on these three themes.
Some Scripture scholars question the
literal character of demonic possession,
thinking it a catch-all diagnosis for all
manner of physical, mental and emotional
disturbances. But Chilton sees
Mary’s exorcism as seven actual powerful
demons expelled over a long
period, due to their number and hold.
The author names Mary Magdalene
as the woman who anointed Jesus (in
Mark), though that woman is described
by Luke as “sinful.” (To be fair, Chilton
doesn’t think Mark’s and Luke’s narratives
are about the same woman.)
While Chilton returned to early
sources and rendered his own independent
analysis, his work seems inconsistent.
If the demons are real, then
why isn’t Mary’s vision of the resurrected
Jesus equally real, not ecstatic
and spiritual, as Chilton claims? He
seems to change interpretive lenses.
I appreciated the book’s back matter:
the chronology, the notes and the
Magdalene sources (the author’s own
translation/compilation of texts he
traces to her). His informative footnotes
are not hinted at in the text,
which seems a bit odd.
Mary Magdalene: A Biography is a
scholarly attempt to surf the wave of
interest in this saint. The book would
be better titled Mary Magdalene: An
In the other book, Meera Lester, a
teen convert to Catholicism, offers no
Magdalene biography either, though
she doesn’t promise one in her title.
While Catholic teaching and tradition
are given their due, so are many eclectic
and offbeat strains of thought.
Repeated references to the adoration of
Magdalene, which many will recognize
as an attitude reserved for the Almighty,
seem a fairly serious vocabulary glitch.
While I’m into glitches, the cover
depicts a penitent Magdalene while the
book describes a powerful and inspired
disciple. False start! The author sometimes
refers to an informative box (of
which there are almost too many) as
already known to the reader when said
box doesn’t appear until pages later.
The designer who misplaced these
boxes also overdid the special visual
effects. It creates a visual competition—
even a disconnect—between word and
This reviewer will stifle any further
complaints to focus on the book’s
pluses. As a back cover blurb suggests,
this book is really devotional in character.
That’s true. Lester diligently links
the life of Mary Magdalene to that of
the reader. It’s accessible in the main
and offers an interesting bibliography.
I valued Lester’s summary of Cathar
beliefs (deemed heretical by the Catholic
Church) and her intimation that
Mary might have been the Beloved Disciple
(attributing this notion to the late
Raymond Brown, though the scholar
only suggested that it wasn’t John the
Evangelist). It’s surely as stimulating
to read the Gospel of John while envisioning
the Beloved Disciple as Mary as
it is to grapple with the purported history
in The Da Vinci Code!
You can order MARY MAGDALENE: A Biography and MARY MAGDALENE: The Modern
Guide to the Bible’s Most Mysterious
and Misunderstood Woman from St. Francis Bookshop.
MUSIC FOR THE END OF TIME, by
Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Beth Peck.
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
32 pp. $17.
Reviewed by BARBARA
BECKWITH, book review
editor of this publication.
She has visited Auschwitz,
a concentration camp during
the Nazi occupation in
WHILE THIS LOOKS like
a picture book for young
readers, Eerdmans places
a warning on the dust
jacket that the book is
intended for children aged eight and
older—and rightly so. It is the true story
of Olivier Messiaen, a French composer
who was captured by the Germans during
World War II and taken to a prison
camp in Gorlitz (now part of Poland).
There, he survived his internment and
managed to write Quartet for the End of
Time, despite the privations.
Messiaen was inspired by a nightingale’s
song and used the bird’s notes as
the opening of his quartet music. A
young German officer provided him
space, privacy and a piano to aid his
composition. The officer also dredged
up a cello for Messiaen’s friend Etienne.
The quartet also includes parts for violin
and clarinet; two other prisoners
had brought those instruments with
This inspiring story describes how
the most awful of situations can be the
most creative and how one good person,
like this young officer, could
change things for the better.
The quartet is based on the Book of
Revelation where an angel descends
and says, “There will be no more time.”
The music became one of Messiaen’s
It was performed for the first time in
Stalag 8A on January 15, 1941: “In the
coldest, darkest part of winter, 5,000
prisoners gathered...to hear Olivier’s
tune. No one talked. No one sneezed,”
says Bryant’s poetic text.
After the war Messiaen returned to
the Paris Conservatory and is now regarded
as one of the 20th century’s
most respected and influential composers.
The pastel illustrations hint at more
than the book’s words say. They provide
realistic settings, plus
evocative images like
birds soaring in and
through bars of music.
My only criticism is
that so much of this information
only in the “Author’s
Note” at the end.
Those who can hear
hope in a bird’s song and
create wonderful music
in a prison camp should
inspire all of us now and
until the end of time.
You can order MUSIC FOR THE END OF TIME from St. Francis Bookshop.