Soul Sisters: Women in Scripture Speak to Women Today
by Edwina Gateley, with art by Louis Glanzman
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002
131 pages, $20.00 (US), paperback
Reviewed by Elizabeth S. Bowman
EEWC members may remember Edwina Gateley from her moving and humorous plenary speech at the 1996 EEWC conference in Norfolk, Virginia. British-born Gateley is a poet, retreat leader, inspirational speaker, missionary to Uganda, founder of the Volunteer Missionary Movement and of Chicago’s Genesis House, a ministry to women in prostitution. Two poems from her 1990 book, I Hear a Seed Growing, were reprinted in EEWC Update (Vol 20, No. 1). She’s back again! Out of the depths of her international experience, her faith, her urban ministry, and her boundless compassion for other women, she has produced a moving and elegant book of unrhymed poetry that celebrates women who knew Jesus. Edwina, welcome back!
The Inspiration for Soul Sisters
A man, the renowned artist Louis Glanzman, helped give birth to this book. Each chapter begins with one of Glanzman’s 12 portraits of women from the Gospels, who is then repainted in words by Gateley. In the Preface, she explains how viewing these paintings birthed this book. She says that “something happened inside [her],” and she knew she wanted to be the one to write the text to accompany the portraits. “It was as if I suddenly recognized beloved sisters whom I had never seen before but knew in my heart,” she writes. “The paintings had a life of their own — unique, powerful, and as real as any living woman. . . . After a lifetime of knowing all about the women of the Gospels, I felt that at last I had actually met them. . . . All of them were archetypes who reflected the journeys, struggles, joys and dreams of women today.”
The Structure of the Chapters
Each of the book’s 12 chapters is a written portrait of a woman from the Christian Scriptures. I imagined them as counterparts to the more famous 12 male apostles. The chapters are titled only with the woman’s name or a description for those women who remain nameless (e.g., the Samaritan Woman or the Woman with the Hemorrhage).
Each chapter opens with the major biblical account of that woman, which, for most of them, is the only known account of their lives. Following this is an outpouring of Gateley’s touching unrhymed poetry that evokes this biblical woman into real being and connects her to 21st century readers in startling and thought-provoking ways. The chapters are brief, mostly fewer than 12 pages of short lines of poetry. It is a fast and easy read of considerable depth.
Gateley speaks in second person pronouns to each biblical woman as if she were present, repeatedly calling her by name. The woman’s dilemma, joys, and pain are vividly painted. Then explicit connections to our modern situations are made as each chapter develops a theme common to women throughout the ages. Chapters conclude with a challenge to us modern women, calling each Biblical woman our “Soul Sister.”
The Example of Martha
In her chapter on Martha (Luke 10 and John 11), Gateley connects her with modern homemakers who long to sit and be taught, but who bake, serve and clean instead. (Sound familiar?)
“Your life’s work
necessary, but unsacralized.
Oh, did you wish, Martha,
that there was no bread
and no table?. . .
Generation after generation,
we women have prepared the meal,
waited at the table,
cleaned the house,
done the dishes…
and dreamed of sitting —
just like Mary did.”
This book does not stop there as many male church leaders do with Martha. Gateley’s strong feminist voice comes through again and again in these chapters. She praises Martha for “standing defiant and strong,” representing women throughout the ages who have given their lives “in love and service” while yearning not only for a quiet moment when the dishes have been put away, but also “for a little recognition, a touch of respect, for the caregiver’s awesome task.”
Gateley also praises Martha for demanding that Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. This was a new perspective for me, raised as I was to see Martha’s graveside complaint as only the whine of a grieving relative. Here is an example of how the author sometimes pushes the text and its interpretation to open new vistas on these women.
“While Mary cried at home
lost in grief,
You took charge of yours,
and challenged Jesus….
‘For you are the Christ,
the Son of the living God.’
Now DO IT!”. . .And Jesus did.
. . . .”No small part to play here,
. . . . Namer of the Messiah. . . .
Ah, Martha —
Blessed Apostle. . . .
Your solid, proud stance
comforts your sisters
baking still in soup kitchens,
homes, hospitals, schools,
and nursing homes throughout the world.”
Gateley sees Martha as challenging homemakers, mothers, and other caregivers with the task of “sacralizing” their calling and recognizing such work as holy.
As the chapter on Martha illustrates, each woman is presented as an example of a type of woman or a category of situation which that woman shares with modern women. The modern examples are striking. Mary Magdalene links the reader with modern women, waiting outside the prison walls that hold their men, waiting to claim their bodies after government executions. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist portrays the pain of childlessness in a culture where a woman’s worth lay solely in her fertility and her voice was not heard. Gateley even addresses modern criminal prosecutions of women who kill in the throes of post partum depression and psychosis, noting that in countries all over the world, the United States of America included, “women are still locked up and damned forever for the tragic consequences of Postpartum Depression which our men can never, never know nor understand.”
Some of the biblical characters portray more than one modern feminine dilemma. Recurrent themes include the silencing and disempowerment of women and our pain at being defined and controlled by our cultures at the expense of our own voices and identities. Gateley’s writing rings out, calling for women to define ourselves, to challenge the systems that imprison us in gender roles, to enact the Realm of God on this earth in the 21st century. Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks to frightened unwed teens, and to refugee women fleeing political violence, clutching their babies at foreign borders, dependent on government welfare and charity to feed their children — even God’s Son.
Anna the prophetess celebrates the wisdom of the Crone and chides us for hiding signs of age as we worship youthful beauty and fail to honor the beauty of the wise crones among us. Gateley also celebrates the Samaritan woman (the woman at the well), the infirm (bent over) woman, the woman caught in adultery, the woman with the hemorrhage, the twelve year old daughter of Jairus (and her father’s faith and love for her) and the penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Each is addressed with respect and empathy.
I was disappointed with several aspects of this book. First, it is subtitled “Women in Scripture Speak to Women Today,” but the content is confined to women of the Christian scriptures. I suspect the author felt constrained to write only on the subjects portrayed in Louis Glanzman’s paintings. I would like to hear of Lot’s wife, Sarah, Rachel and Leah, Hagar, Deborah, Miriam, Esther, Bathsheba, Rahab, Jezebel, and Eve. I hope Edwina Gateley will someday favor us with similar breathtaking poetry from the Hebrew scriptures. Those women, too, have stories to tell us.
I was somewhat uncomfortable with the author’s artistic license in the chapter on the Samaritan woman. The theme of the chapter is her exclusion from the company of other women who would have drawn their water early, not at midday when she came. Gateley portrays her as a lonely sex worker, having adopted this profession to survive after being a victim of rape, and perhaps childhood incest. Her ostracism by other women whose husbands are her clients is a message about the importance of sisterhood and the tragedy of prostitution. After years of hearing men interpret this passage, viewing this woman’s five husbands as an indictment of her character (while ignoring her commission to preach the gospel), I was uncomfortable with this portrayal. Perhaps she was an outcast, but I felt that my view of her character had been subtly and negatively changed. Balancing this, is the message to us modern women not to exclude or condemn our sisters. To the author’s credit, she portrays a realistic picture of rape and incest survivors. I see in Gateley’s approach to this woman the fruits of her own work at Genesis House. Her compassion for the Samaritan woman is palpable. However, those who prefer more literal interpretations of Scripture will find this chapter suspect and may be slightly uncomfortable with her imagination in other chapters.
New Lessons from Old Stories
In “The Widow’s Mite,” the author includes an event from her own life to illustrate modern correlations with these biblical sisters. The Widow’s Mite is a commentary on the extreme poverty of so many women. Gateley wrote of working in Africa as a missionary during tribal warfare and staying in solidarity with the poor left behind after the wealthy white upper class had fled. An African woman came to her home, bent over with age and poverty. With tear- filled eyes, she thrust a banana-leaf-wrapped package into Gateley’s hands and thanked her for staying with the people. Gateley then writes:
“I peeled away the banana leaves,
and found there,
all snuggled and warm together,
the treasure —
three tiny chicken eggs . . .
All she had,
given to me,
though I had all.”
Gateley goes on to speak to the African woman in the way she spoke to the Widow at the Temple:
“I can neither abandon
nor forget them.
like the coins your sister gave,
are eternally held within me.
But, even more profoundly,
locked in my deepest knowing,
are your eyes, sister,
like burning lights calling me
to divest and share
my bounty —
my eggs —
to trade my accumulated goodies
for a richer spirit
transparent in simplicity.”
And then comes Gateley’s challenge to herself and to us:
“. . . . Ah, is that it?
Must I become as God —
cracking open my heart
to pour out who I am,
. . . .Is that it? Soul sister,
will I be you?”
These words moved me to tears. Indeed, each chapter deeply stirred my heart, giving me much to ponder, and left me feeling close to these ancient women of the Christian Bible. I will never again see some of them in the same way. If these words stir you, this book is for you. There was not a chapter in this book that did not bring me to tears. The poetry is evocative, moving, compassionate, and so clear in the connections between those women of old and women today. I have profound admiration for Edwina’s creativity and her prowess with words. She paints these women as clearly and movingly with words as Louis Glanzman painted them with pigments. Both the visual and verbal portraits left me breathless.
I highly recommend this book to my EEWC sisters and brothers for personal devotional time and for reading aloud at chapter meetings. The short chapters read fast but provide deep truths for long discussions. I bought a copy for the Indiana EEWC chapter and recommend this for other EEWC chapters or as donations to church libraries. While there are a few aspects of the author’s imagination that left me uncomfortable, the book honors these sisters from long ago and lifts up the spirits of its readers.
Reviewer Elizabeth “Liz” Bowman takes time out to smell the roses on the Scripps College campus during the 2004 EEWC conference at Claremont, CA. Liz is a psychiatrist in private practice in Indianapolis and an adjunct professor of neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. A frequent contributor to EEWC Update, she has been an EEWC member for the past twenty years.
© 2004 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 28 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2004