Fairfield Now - Fall 2008
Called to Holiness
By Virginia Weir
Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer's new series of books celebrates women's spirituality, in and out of the pews
"The time is ripe for 'ordinary' women to become grassroots theologians," said Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer, professor of religious studies and editor of a forthcoming series of eight books focused on women's spirituality entitled Called to Holiness: Spirituality for Catholic Women. "As laity, we have a responsibility to call each other forth in our journeys toward holiness. Women have always loved God, served others, and struggled to be holy, but the historical context has often been less than friendly in terms of women's dignity, acknowledgement of female gifts, and empowerment by church and society."
"Women in and beyond the pew" are the target audience for the Called to Holiness series, to be published over the next year by St. Anthony Messenger Press, with the first three volumes in print this September. The books are meant to be practical tools, for use individually or in groups, to inspire women to look more closely at their own spiritual growth and needs. Each book is short - about 100 pages - portable, and accessible (see sidebar for a full listing of the series). "While the series is grounded primarily in the Roman Catholic tradition," said Dr. Dreyer, "it is our hope that Christian women from many denominations will hear about the books, and benefit from reading them. The authors are committed to a truly ecumenical, global perspective."
The books cover a broad range of topics, including: the intertwining of spirituality and theology; creating and nurturing family; taking action for social justice; prayer; Latina spirituality; and dealing with the loss of loved ones. Care was taken to include perspectives from the whole lifespan of a woman, including a volume focused on the middle years and another by a young adult. As a scholar and author of many books on spirituality, Dr. Dreyer is a frequent lecturer at conferences across the country. Speaking with diocesan directors of education, women's concerns, and family life, she found that most popular spiritual and theological resources for women were evangelical or ultra-conservative. "I was hearing that women were hungry for theologically informed, accessible material that would speak to their experience as women and help them develop and explore their faith." Dr. Dreyer hopes that Called to Holiness will help enhance and celebrate women's spiritual journeys.
"Spirituality and theology are partners that together assist us to live fully as Christians," Dr. Dreyer writes in her own book in the series, Making Sense of God: A Woman's Perspective. Describing spirituality as "the journey of falling in love with God and living out that love in everyday life," and theology as "ordered reflection, in which we interrogate our experiences in order to name and make sense of them from a faith perspective," Dr. Dreyer explores this intersection. All Christians are called to do theology, she contends, and she invites women to begin to view themselves as "grassroots theologians" who are informed and reflective about their faith, and willing to be challenged.
The world has persistently identified women with the body and feeling, and men with the mind and reason, Dr. Dreyer observes, and she encourages women to explore theology from their own unique perspective, asking questions and reflecting on the responses in light of their faith tradition: How do I experience God? How do I treat others? What work am I pursuing? What kind of family am I helping to nurture? Who are my friends? How do I deal with difficulties, illnesses, setbacks? "Grassroots theology is for everyone who asks questions and seeks to understand their faith more deeply and broadly."
Women in particular must explore the many faces of God in language and imagery. "The naming of God influences our identities, the ways we do and do not value ourselves, our outlook on the world, and how we relate to others," Dr. Dreyer writes. "When God is seen in exclusively male terms, the tradition has often concluded (wrongly) that men must be more like God than women."
Dr. Dreyer's studies of female medieval mystics - Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena - have helped her come to a deeper appreciation of God revealed through relationship and community. The Called to Holiness books reflect a renewed theological interest in the Trinity as a "community of love."
A statue of St. Catherine of Siena in an Italian church. Studies of medieval mystics have helped Dr. Dreyer to a deeper appreciation of God, revealed through relationship.
Self-sacrifice and virtue - two thorny issues for women's spirituality - are also examined. Besides looking at how Christians might respond to living in a consumer culture, Dr. Dreyer explores the asceticism of everyday life found in dealing with illness, aging, and the long-term "giving up" that is fundamental to parenting. Women are also called to be prophets - courageous individuals who are willing to take risks - in spite of much social conditioning to be silent. "With the cross as a central Christian symbol, we should be asking ourselves what is wrong if we are not in some kind of trouble. Standing up for the truth, for the poor, for the outsider or the abused always exacts a price."
Evolution of the project
In 2005, Dr. Dreyer was asked to speak at a conference focused on the role of women in the church hosted by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA), an organization of philanthropists based in Washington, D.C. The mission of the 30-year-old network of donors is to inform and involve its members so they can effectively address the needs of church and society.
"One area that funders wanted to explore was what resources women were using for their theological and spiritual formation," said FADICA president, Dr. Francis J. Butler. "Elizabeth was able to show the shockingly wide gap between the vision of the church as a community of disciples and the reality on the ground today, where so many hunger to tap into the rich spiritual tradition of Catholicism, but cannot do so because the tradition needs constantly to be brought forward and communicated in ever-changing circumstances, cultures, and generations."
"They heard my appeal for a renewed focus on women's spirituality, especially in the context of significant religious changes in the 20th century - and the challenges of the 21st," noted Dr. Dreyer. Further conversations with the FADICA board led to a grant proposal, and within six months the University, FADICA, and St. Anthony Messenger Press formed a collaborative partnership with funding of $73,500 from FADICA donors to produce the series.
"It's been a unique project," said Noël Appel '80, Fairfield's director of foundation relations, who shepherded the initiative and without whose guidance and support, Dr. Dreyer said, it would not have gone further than her first presentation at the FADICA conference. "What is especially exciting about what Elizabeth, FADICA, and the various authors have accomplished here is the partnerships that informed every aspect of the project from its earliest design phase, through the process of securing funding, and the ongoing implementation."
St. Anthony Messenger Press was chosen as publisher because of its effective marketing to a wide audience of women, and a highly developed Web division within the company. In spring of 2006, Dr. Dreyer and her associate editor, catechetical expert Jean Marie Hiesberger of Kansas City, Mo., put out a request for both themes and authors, eventually whittling the list from 30 to eight themes. Since the audience is primarily Catholic lay women, it was important that themes be pertinent to women's everyday life and spiritual concerns. Chapters are peppered with thought-provoking questions and conclude with suggestions such as describing the roles of Jesus or the Holy Spirit in one's spirituality, identifying positive and negative associations with "power," and expanding one's vocabulary and imagery of God. Prayers and rituals that readers can pursue on their own, or use to generate a group conversation, as well as additional resources on the topic, are also included.
The Press will launch a website dedicated to the series, with pages for each of the authors and short articles published throughout the year. Electronic greeting cards are in the works, and will be available at www.catholicgreetings.org. A double CD with music selected by liturgical composer David Haas from the library of songs of GIA Publications in Chicago will also be created to complement themes and accompany specific rituals in the books.
Editing eight books over the past two years, and writing her own, which is among the first three volumes to appear this fall, has been a pleasure, said Dr. Dreyer. "Authors were generous, open, and truly committed to the values behind this project. It has been a genuine experience of sisterhood - women helping other women... I think each of us sees it as part of our mission to the wider church."
Gatherings for Fairfield alumni
This fall, Dr. Dreyer and two other authors in the series - Dr. Joan Mueller, O.S.C., professor of theology at Creighton University, and Dolores Leckey, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center - will go "on tour" to talk about the Called to Holiness series. "A Fairfield education involves life-long learning, and so we thought it was natural to get Elizabeth 'on the road' to share her work, and engage with alumni," said Janet Canepa '82, director of Alumni Relations. Alumni gatherings will be hosted in Boston on September 23 with Dr. Dreyer and Dr. Mueller; in Washington, D.C. on October 7 with Dr. Dreyer and Ms. Leckey; and on the Fairfield campus on October 25 during Homecoming/ Parents' Weekend.
As short presentations in an interactive format, the gatherings will both generate conversation about women's spirituality and facilitate new connections among Fairfield graduates. "I'm grateful to Fairfield for providing me with an education, but more importantly, with a foundation and network of wonderful women friends," said Cindy Stack '80, who is hosting the September event in Boston which will also feature University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. While at Fairfield, Stack observed, students may or may not think about spirituality. "But after college, many of us have experienced life's ups and downs - the death of a child or spouse or parents; battles with disease and cancer; raising children with special needs; financial instability - all of the experiences of life that make you reach deep down inside yourself and choose how to go forward." Stack hopes the gathering will foster new relationships among women who live close to each other.
"The goal of these books is to give women ideas, energy, and creativity to continue on their journey toward holiness," said Dr. Dreyer. "The world needs the voices of women - their virtues and their gifts."
The eight volumes of Called to Holiness: Spirituality for Catholic Women, edited by Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer, will be published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in 2008 and 2009.
Making Sense of God: A Woman's Perspective
Grieving with Grace: A Woman's Perspective
Living a Spirituality of Action: A Woman's Perspective
Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman's Perspective
Awakening to Prayer: A Woman's Perspective
Creating New Life, Nurturing Families: A Woman's Perspective
Weaving Faith and Experience: A Woman's Perspective on the Middle Years
Finding My Voice: A Young Adult Woman's Perspective