Book review: ‘Becoming Women of the Word’
“Becoming Women of the Word: How to Answer God’s Call with Purpose and Joy.” By Sarah Christmyer. Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2019. 160 pages. Paperback: $15.95; Kindle: $10.99; Nook: $10.99.
As a “cradle Catholic,” I began learning about the saints at roughly the same age I started memorizing my first prayers. Consequently, names like Mary, Bernadette, Theresa, Elizabeth, Bridget and Monica were just part of the feminine vocabulary of my faith, and it was nice to know that I was surrounded by such a strong and comforting group of spiritual sisters.
The names I wasn’t as familiar with, however, belonged to the women who came before them. The stories of these “Biblical trailblazers” — to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for their perseverance, strength, example and faithfulness to the God of Israel — can be found in the books of the Old Testament. These were the spiritual forebears Mary knew and remembered so vividly when she proclaimed what we now call her “Magnificat.”
Consequently, when I came across Sarah Christmyer’s new book, “Becoming Women of the Word,” I was drawn to it in part because it celebrates these Old Testament women. Despite their human failings and challenging circumstances, each of them, as Christmyer says in her introduction, “testified to and helped prepare for the coming of Christ, the Word Himself.”
“You and I are about to embark upon a kind of spiritual pilgrimage through the Old Testament,” she begins. Christmyer, it turns out, is an excellent guide on this journey; an adult convert to Catholicism, she was raised in the Protestant tradition, and her youth was steeped in the stories of the very women she introduces us to. Eleven of them appear here – Eve, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, Esther and Judith — with one chapter devoted to each (except for the sisters Leah and Rachel, who share a story.)
Rather than just retell what Scripture already relates, however, she begins each chapter with a remembrance from either her own or a female relative’s life in order to show that “the more things change, the more they stay the same. … Although the situations some of these women found themselves in are worlds away from what we might experience today, human nature is the same,” Christmyer says. “We face similar temptations and dilemmas as they did. But God hasn’t changed. He still calls us to follow him.”
Indeed, one of the things I was struck by was how she didn’t downplay the sheer “grittiness” of these stories. “If Moses or anyone else who wrote the Bible were around today, I don’t think much of it would end up on social media,” Christmyer says. “It’s too raw. People show all their warts, like Miriam in the desert. Like Rachel fighting with her sister, Leah crying over her unloving husband. Like Sarah persecuting Hagar. … They all fail. Yet they are examples God has given us of faith.”
It is the straightforward humanity of these women that makes them so compelling, and also makes this book such an enlightening one. The reader comes away with the distinct feeling that if these women, with all their personality quirks and difficult circumstances, can become conduits of faith, then perhaps so can we.
The end of their story ultimately points to the one woman who many of us see as the beginning of another story – Mary, the Mother of God. Just as the patriarchs of the Old Testament paved the way for the coming of Jesus, so too does the faith of these women find its culmination in the perfect faith of a young virgin from Nazareth. “The women of the Word we have met in this book … prepare for and help us understand the role of Mary in salvation,” Christmyer concludes. “Ultimately these women point to Mary whose yes to God’s call was as deadly to the serpent as Judith’s sword was to Holofernes. … These women are cheering us on, encouraging us to say yes! They are our mothers in faith.”
Sarah Christmyer is a Catholic author, speaker and adjunct faculty member at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. She is the co-developer and founding editor of The Great Adventure Catholic Bible study program, where she served as director from 2010 to 2013.
A member of the board and executive committee of Malvern Retreat House, she serves as chair of the spiritual programs development committee there.
Christmyer lives in the Philadelphia area with her family.