A Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and Her Church
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
Reviewed by Paula Hamilton (NPCV)
PATRICIA S. TAYLOR EDMISTEN’S BOOK resonated with me — as I think it will with other Catholic women searching for their place in the Catholic Church of the 21st century. Like her, I was born into a Catholic family, educated in Catholic schools through college, have numerous friends who are priests, and love my Church. Also like her, I struggle with the dictates and the behavior of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially in their refusal to understand that we, women and the laity generally, are the Church.
The author articulates her views through numerous genre of literature: memoirs, poems, stories, passages of scripture, and essays, many written earlier in her life. They express a unifying theme: a growing discomfort resulting from questions, doubts, and anger over the perceived injustices against women in the Church, that same Church which she not only needs but loves. In the Preface — the first sentence of which contains 29 lines of text and is grammatically tortuous — Edmisten follows her conscience in decrying “the failure of the hierarchy of mainstream churches to recognize the contributions of women in the history of the Church; the widely accepted relegation of women to peripheral, rather than central, roles within churches and the unexamined ‘disease’(unease) of the hierarchy and some priests exhibit toward sexuality — their own and women’s — contributing to injustice within the Church and society … “ She needs a first-rate copy editor, not only here but elsewhere as well.
Edmisten expresses doubts about publishing her unhappy and questioning thoughts about the Church. She wonders if she is worthy or qualified to “pronounce judgment on those who have affected two thousand years of tradition.” Will she cause scandal and hurt?
Through her powerful and sometimes melancholy prose and poetry, Edmisten avoids “pronouncing judgment” and her book should not create a scandal. Her views are transparent, but they are voiced with respect. She allows the reader to decide for him or herself. The ideas and thoughts here are not are not new or scandalous, but they should evoke thoughtfulness and, occasionally, anger on the part of the reader.
Initially I was not captured by the writing. Parts of the Preface and the first couple of pieces on Mary, Hagar, and Mary of Magdala lacked poignancy. I was irritated by the author’s erroneous portrayal, at least twice in the book, of Mary of Magdala as a “prostitute” and as a “woman who had sinned in the flesh.” Mary has been unjustly maligned since the fourth century, yet nowhere in scripture has she been identified as a public sinner or a “prostitute.”
But when the author transitioned to contemporary Madonnas, I became intrigued, drawn in by the understated power of Edmisten’s writing. Even the five themes of her book are powerful: Madonnas, Neither Male nor Female, Impure Places, Lamentations, and Anticipating Grace. She is searching, actually longing, for answers, better behavior, and an end to the injustices perpetrated against women by the Church. And she is doing so in thought-provoking writings. In her essay, “The Tragedy of Abortion,” she takes on the Church’s stand against abortion and birth control as being against “natural law,” and in the same essay questions the sexual abuse by priests and others, concluding that “the Church should compare the ’sin’ of condoms and the thwarting of sperm with the prevalence of sexually violent acts against children and women that truly violate natural law.”
In her quest for wisdom, Edmisten brings the reader along with her. Her poetry and prose clearly delineate the ambivalence many face with the church: both love of the Scripture and the Eucharist and anger at the injustices. I will recommend this book to my Church reading group.
Paula Hamilton, wife of Robert Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67) is Director of Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, a non-profit to save and promote religious art, based in Portland, Oregon. She has been a librarian for 30 years and is currently consulting with architects to design and automate libraries.
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