By Loretta Pehanich
“Go Bravely: Becoming the Woman You Were Meant to Be” by Emily Wilson Hussem. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2018). 142 pp., $13.95.
“Girl Arise! A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith and Change the World” by Claire Swinarski. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2018). 106 pp., $14.95.
“A Catholic Woman’s Guide to Happiness” by Rose Sweet. Tan Books (Charlotte, North Carolina, 2018). 183 pp., $19.95.
Women are all about stories. We grow in faith through conversations and mutual sharing. Three recent books aim to fill a gap in publishers’ catalogs: books about feminine spirituality.
In previous decades, little was available for Catholic women, who are pressured by modern values, objectified, unequally paid, judged by externals, and tempted to unhealthy, unbalanced lives.
These three authors use autobiographical vignettes to encourage women to be, above all, daughters of God. Each reveals personal secrets to affirm, shock and challenge women to live their faith confidently.
Both in their 20s, Claire Swinarski and Emily Wilson Hussem offer concrete tips for women today and write as if visiting over coffee. Occasionally promoting a prosperity Gospel, Rose Sweet returns to the ’50s and ’60s with autobiographical reminiscences of bygone days.
Swinarski’s fun colloquialisms ought to appeal to millennials primarily, and Sweet to women past 50. In addition to Wilson Hussem’s intended audience (pre- and college-age women), those wanting to talk with young women about their concerns will find great conversation starters in her book.
Each of Wilson Hussem’s chapters ends with questions and suggestions for action. Similarly, Sweet includes reflection questions, beginning with softball ideas and moving toward deeper ones later.
Swinarski’s approach is feisty, laced with terms like moxie — something she thinks all Catholic women need. “Listen, sister: The church is my family. … I love it fiercely … and just like my actual family, sometimes I want to punch it in the face.” Swinarski answers, “Why stay Catholic?” with a passionate loyalty to the church, her “home and lifeblood.” She writes, “It can be so frustrating to belong to a church made of broken humans, can’t it? I mean, really. Fix it, Jesus.”
She offers great advice on discernment: “The Holy Spirit whispers kindly; the devil slaps you in the face. The Holy Spirit encourages; the devil nags.”
A feminist “because Jesus was,” Swinarski comes across boldly and occasionally irreverently or as she writes, “ragey.” The title refers to Jesus’ command: “talitha koum.” She asks Catholics to reclaim the word feminism.
Don’t expect support for women deacons in any of these works. Even the edgy Swinarski writes, “Aren’t there a million and one ways for women to serve the church? What if instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we started focusing on what we can do?”
Both pro-social justice and pro-life, Swinarski writes, “We can’t only love people who agree with us.” Getting to know people is “the first step toward loving them” and “a tangible way to live out the Gospel.”
Swinarski quotes Pope Francis; Sweet frequently quotes St. John Paul II and Wilson Hussem occasionally does, but quotes Scripture more.
Rather than use gender-neutral language for God when it’s easy to do so, both Wilson Hussem and Sweet frequently use “him” when speaking about the triune God. Swinarski does a beautiful job of referring to God with language that transcends gender.
To close her chapter “Encountering God,” Sweet asks, “How has your relationship with your father or other men in your life affected how you see and relate to God?” She fails to ask how relationships with women have. This oversight is one example of this book’s old-fashioned views.
Conversely, Wilson Hussem writes, “There is no action necessary to earn the love of God.” All women need to hear this today.
Writing mainly about family and parenting, Sweet’s work is built on the traditional four levels of desire by Aristotle. Some stories will help newcomers to the interior life. Others will raise eyebrows, such as her use of the word magic to reference the supernatural. “Happily-ever-after will come only when and if we follow the specific conditions that God has set,” she writes.
All three authors employ short chapters. Wilson Hussem’s will invite readers to pause and prayerfully reread rather than rush to the next topic. She offers a framework for women making life decisions regarding dating, self-care, food, careers, dependence on God and more.
“God is not out to torture you and force you into a vocation that will make you depressed, unhappy or lifeless. God wants us to feel alive and deeply fulfilled,” Wilson Hussem writes. It takes courage to tell stories about people’s cruel remarks under the guise of friendship. Hussem’s stories about such experiences should help young women struggling with feeling unattractive or unlovable.
Storytellers are in great company; Jesus told many. Bookshelves need more works by women about our unique experiences of God.
Loretta Pehanich is a Catholic freelance writer, blogger, spiritual director and former assistant editor for the Diocese of San Jose, California.