Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“Don’t be afraid, because a kind providence is watching over you, and – you’ll see – everything will work out in the end.”     St. Josephine Bakhita

st-josephine-bakhitaSlavery is supposed to have been abolished, but today, millions around the world are enslaved, victims of human trafficking. Traffickers prey on the helpless, most often women and children. Even poor men are used and exploited for the benefit and gain of others, and some spend their entire lives never knowing the basic human freedoms that we so often take for granted.

Our story this week is about a woman who was trafficked as a child – St. Josephine Bakhita. God brought this daughter through many trials and her story of courage and grace is very inspirational.

“My family lived in the middle of Africa…” Josephine knew precisely where she was born though not exactly when. Due to the years of torture she endured “Bakhita” did not remember her original name either. However, she always held in loving memory her home in a village called Al-Qoz in Darfur. The name means ‘Sandy Hill’ and it is at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.[1]

Her father was a landowner overseeing a large staff of field laborers and herdsmen, and the village head man was her uncle. Her family was well-off, but most importantly, they were loving and close. Josephine recalls, “It was made up of father, mother, three brothers and three sisters, plus four others whom I never knew because they died before I was born. I had a twin sister; I’ve no idea what became of her or of any of them, after I was stolen. I was as happy as could be, and didn’t know the meaning of sorrow.”

Josephine’s story shows one of the most tragic things about human trafficking: the way it also destroys families. One day when she went out to play with a friend, Josephine was suddenly kidnapped by Arab slave traders. She was about 9 years old.

For the next 12 years Josephine would be bought and resold many times. One slaver gave her the name ‘Bakhita’. It means ‘Lucky’ and was a very common name for slaves. Lucky for the slave owners, but not for Josephine. She and another girl attempted to escape one time. How she longed to find her way home. But Bakhita was quickly found and brought back. The slaver eventually brought them to a market for sale.

Her treatment as a slave varied from one owner to the next. Her first owner was a wealthy Arab who gave her to his daughters as a maid. This went fairly well considering the circumstances until she angered the owner’s son. “He immediately seized a whip to flog me. I fled into the other room to hide behind his sisters. I should never have done that! He flew into a rage, dragged me out of there, flung me on the ground and with the whip and with his foot gave me so, so many blows. Finally, a kick to my left side made me lose consciousness. The slaves had to carry me to my sleeping mat, where I lay for over a month.”

When Bakhita recovered she was put to other temporary work and then resold. Worse torture was still in store for her. A Turkish general bought her. His wife ordered her to be scarred. It was a custom of that culture for slaves to show honor to their masters by wearing tattoos. These were given in a very cruel way. Indeed, Josephine Bakhita would eventually suffer a total of 114 scars from this abuse.

She remembered, “A woman expert in this cruel art arrived. She took us to the porch, while the mistress stood behind us, whip in hand. The woman had a dish of white flour fetched, and another of salt, and a razor. She ordered the first one (of three girls. Josephine’s turn was last.) to lie down on the ground and two of the strongest slaves to hold her, one by the arms and the other by the legs. Then she bent over the poor girl and, using the flour, began to trace on her belly about sixty fine marks. I stood there, watching everything, knowing that afterwards they were going to perform the same torture on me. Once the marks were completed the woman took the razor and swish, swish, sliced along each mark she’d traced, while the poor girl groaned, and blood welled up from each cut. When this operation was finished she took the salt and rubbed it as hard as she could over each wound, so that it would go in and enlarge the cut, and keep the edges open. The agony and torment! The victim was writhing in pain, and I was shaking in anticipation.”

When her turn came, Bakhita received cuts on her chest, belly, and right arm. She kept thinking, “’This is it: I’m going to die,’ especially when she rubbed the salt into me.” She and the other two girls were left on mats, unable to move for over a month.

Later Bakhita was sold to the Italian Vice Consul, Calisto Legnani, who proved to be a kinder master. When he decided to return to Italy, Bakhita begged him to take her along. He agreed and when they got to Italy she was given to another family. There she served as a nanny.

Her new mistress wanted to travel to be with her husband and left her child, Mimmina, and Bakhita in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. There Mimmina could get some education while her mother traveled. While they were there, Bakhita learned about God.

Josephine later said that she had always known about the God Who created all things, but did not know Who He was. The Sisters answered all of her questions and Bakhita made a decision to follow Christ. She desired to remain at the convent when her mistress returned.

Her mistress tried to talk her out of it and Josephine admitted that she would really miss Mimmina, but she believed that her decision was a call from Christ. The sisters believed it too and tried to make a way for her to stay.

The case went to court, and thankfully, it was discovered that slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before Josephine was born. Therefore, she could not lawfully be made a slave. Now Josephine was free to live her own life. She chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters.

She was baptized on January 9, 1890 and took the name Josephine Margaret and Fortunata. Fortunata is the Latin translation for the Arabic ‘Bakhita’.

Josephine became a novice and then eventually took her final vows on December 8, 1896 with the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She was assigned to a convent in Schio, Vicenza. For the next 42 years of her life Josephine served as a doorkeeper and cook at the convent. She also traveled and spoke. She helped many nuns who were training to be missionaries in Africa.

Josephine was kind to children and was known to have surreptitiously lifted her sleeve to show mother_bakhitathem her scars. At first the Italian children were in awe of her because they did not see many black sisters, but they soon grew to love her and call her ‘Black Mother’.

Gentle and quiet with a ready smile she became known affectionately as the “little brown sister”. After some years she was honored with the title “Black Mother”. When people would ask her story and then offer sympathy, Josephine would sometimes say that she should thank her kidnappers. Though God brought her to Himself in such a difficult way she was thankful for Jesus Christ. She told others that they should serve and love God no matter what. Her words really carried some weight!!

Josephine lived through two world wars and many other trials but always remained firm in the belief that God was watching over her. She was an encouragement to thousands and thousands throughout the rest of her life.

Josephine went to be with her Savior on February 8, 1947. Josephine is the patron saint of Sudan.

 

 

[1] All quotes from the booklet by Jean Olwen Maynard, “Josephine Bakhita: A survivor of Human Trafficking”, Catholic Truth Society, 2015.

“How in the world could I have lived such a helpful life as I have lived had I not been blind?”        Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby Alstyne

crosbyov2In her life­time, Fanny Crosby was one of the best known Christian women in the United States. Today, most American hymnals contain some of the over 9000 hymns that she wrote. There probably isn’t anyone who goes to church who hasn’t sung one of her hymns.

Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby was born in 1820 and died in 1915. Though blind ever since a quack doctor ruined her eyesight while treating an eye infection when she was a baby, she never let her blindness make her feel sorry for herself. She turned her blindness into a blessing for millions around the whole world who enjoy her many hymns to this day.

Recently I watched a video production of her story. It is part of a “Testimony” series of videos that fanny-crosby-videoyou can easily find online and is titled, “The Fanny Crosby Story”. The video is only 46 minutes long and could be shown at church or any small group meetings for study and worship. Though it is not the best production of a documentary I have ever seen, it is very inspiring.

 

fanny-and-husbandThe video relates her story from birth until death. People often wonder if a blind person can marry and have children. Well, Fanny married a blind man and they had a child. Tragically, the child died. Still Fanny led a full and happy life. She helped others until the day of her death.

 

 

 

Darlene Neptune, author of “Fanny Crosby Still Lives”, is one of the narrators. Darlene Neptunedarlene-neptune-crosby is considered the world’s leading authority on Fanny Crosby and frequently presents dramatizations of Fanny’s life to audiences around the country. I would highly recommend her book.

fanny-autobiographyI have also read “Fanny J. Crosby: An Autobiography”. If you enjoy watching a movie and reading the book as much as I do, you will be very inspired by both of these books.

 

 

There were a couple of things about this video production that were disappointing. The other narrators were very amateurish in comparison to Darlene Neptune. Also some of the music in the background was from other composers. I would have thought that with over 9000 hymns to choose from the background music would have all been familiar Fanny Crosby hymns.

Nevertheless, at the end of the video, choirs sing one of Fanny Crosby’s most famous and favorite hymns “Blessed Assurance” and you will feel like joining in and praising the Lord!

Once a preacher sympathetically remarked, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you.” Fanny replied quickly, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I should be born blind?” “Why?” asked the surprised minister. “Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!”

Some day the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing.
But, O, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story — saved by grace.

Some day my earthly house will fall,
I cannot tell how soon ‘twill be,
But this I know — my All in All
Has now in heaven a place for me,
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story — saved by grace.

 

 

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.
Dorothy Day

d-d-entertaining-anglesRecently I came across a DVD that does a pretty fair job of telling the story of Dorothy Day’s life.

In our busy world it is often easier to watch a good video than to find time for books. I would still recommend reading the biography of Dorothy Day as well as her own writings. They are very inspiring.

The video is titled: Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.

It is done by “Paulist Pictures”. You can get the DVD from Amazon or many other religious organizations that sell books and biographies of historical Christians.

I thought that the production of the movie was well-done. The actors, Moira Kelly as Dorothy Day and Martin Sheen as her friend and mentor Peter Maurin were very believable in their parts. Often other movies are ruined by the shallowness of the acting but in this production Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen gave very strong performances.

I really appreciated the introduction to the movie – It showed Dorothy in prison in the early 1960’s for protesting the war in Vietnam. It gave the viewer a glimpse of another facet of her life besides caring for the poor. Dorothy believed in peace and justice and was willing to practice what she preached! She went to prison several times.

The scene in the prison may or may not have been a real event in her life, but it pictures for the viewer just how much Dorothy loved the ‘unlovely’.  She comforts a woman cell mate who is quite agitated, seemingly coming off of drugs. As Dorothy sits with the woman’s head in her lap, the woman vomits on Dorothy whose reaction is only kindness and concern. The woman is moved by Dorothy’s kindness and wants to know “What is the story of your life?”

Dorothy begins a reminiscence. She reflects back to the time that she lived like a bohemian in Greenwich village along with friends who were trying to find answers to poverty in socialism and communism. No one in the crowd believed in God. Dorothy herself was very skeptical.

Over the next few years Dorothy suffered from failed love affairs and had many heartbreaks. But she encounters a wonderful nun who shows her love. The nun is also engaged in helping the poor. Dorothy wonders what the nun gets out of it. Dorothy finds out that just helping others gives you great joy.

I won’t give away any more details. I hope that this has whetted your appetite to see a film about a very courageous woman. A woman who did many things that she regretted in her early life but found forgiveness and love in the Lord Jesus. A woman who did not look back but spent her time helping others more unfortunate than she was.

In our day especially, women can be encouraged that they can do great things for God. Dorothy was a single mother with no money whose legacy includes over 100 “soup kitchens” and other places of charity for the poor. She ministered to the lives of thousands of angels.

And if you have some time, read the books too!!

Following are some pictures of the real Dorothy along with some of her most famous quotes.

quote-the-gospel-takes-away-our-right-forever-to-discriminate-between-the-deserving-and-the-dorothy-day-44-23-97

dorothy-day-poverty

 

 

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.                 Helen Keller

It was noted by one of Helen Keller’s biographers in 1960 that if a worldwide poll were to be taken to determine the most outstanding woman of their generation, no doubt the top selection would be Helen Keller.

I would say that even in 2017, if a poll were taken of women whose lives were a tremendous influence for good, Helen Keller would be still be among the top on the list. The work that she did for the blind and other handicapped people has helped untold numbers of people.

And those of us who are not physically disabled can still be inspired by her courage.

helen-keller-youngHelen Adams Keller was born a normal, healthy girl on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She had nothing wrong with her vision or hearing until she was about nineteen months old. Then in February 1882 Helen developed a severe congestion of the stomach and brain. In those days the doctors called it “brain fever”, but they really did not know much about the condition medically. Modern doctors believe it may have been scarlet fever, hemolytic streptococcus or even meningitis. In any event it was very serious and doctors even thought that Helen would die.

Gradually her fever subsided and Helen recovered. Her parents did not suspect that anything was wrong until one morning when Helen’s mother passed her hand over the baby’s face. Helen did not blink her eyes. They soon realized that Helen could not hear a bell ringing either. Helen was living in a world where she could not perceive light or sound and she was also mute.

Helen was an unusual girl. She had such a zest for life that her parents found a teacher for her, Miss Annie Sullivan. Annie Sullivan helped Helen to lead a happy life in spite of her disabilities.

There is a famous story about Helen as a girl which illustrates the wonderful occasionhelen-keller-annie-sullivan-160177633x when she was able to grasp the idea of language. Annie had been trying to teach Helen to connect the spelling of “mug”, “doll”, and “water” to the objects themselves. Helen was so frustrated that she threw a temper tantrum, throwing a doll on the floor.

Annie did not give up on Helen. They went for a walk and came upon a well. Annie thrust Helen’s hands into the cool water as it was being pumped from the well while she spelled the word “water” into Helen’s other hand.

Later in her autobiography Helen recalled, “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”[1]And with Annie’s help many barriers were swept away.

About two years after Helen discovered the joy of language she had her first instruction in religion. She received instruction from Bishop Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Helen had many questions about God; questions that Annie who was a nonbeliever could not help her with.

Helen went on to be highly educated, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1904, the first deaf-blind women to graduate from college. There were many Braille books for her to read from by this time. She studied many subjects in college but loved philosophy best.

It is so incredible to me how someone who did not have sight or hearing could even imagine such deep concepts. Without having some sort of examples to draw from how did she experience God, life, love, and thoughts of eternity including Heaven. Those things are hard enough for a seeing/hearing person to think about.

Helen’s favorite philosopher was Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg had been a member of the Swedish Parliament and was a scientist when at the age of 55 he had a profound religious experience. He wrote many books explaining his experiences. He wrote about concepts of universal spiritual reality and brotherhood, a loving God, and an afterlife in which no one would suffer from limitations and physical disabilities. According to Swedenborg death is just a change of place from earth to a new world where Helen would be able to see and hear.

Helen’s father died in 1896 when Helen was sixteen. In the 1920’s Helen, in her forties, went on the vaudeville stage to support herself and her teacher Annie. It was difficult for Helen to get up in front of an audience but she willingly did it because she had to. In 1921 Helen’s mother died from a prolonged terminal illness. Helen could take comfort in the thought that she would see her mother in Heaven.

Now Helen had only Annie. A sad day finally came when Annie suffered a severe case of the flu and would be plagued with bad health for the rest of her life. Helen continued to perform on stage to support them. Then in 1936 Annie died. She and Helen had been together for nearly fifty years.

helen-keller-quotesPeople wondered, “How would Helen get around now without her helper?” But Helen met the challenge with her usual courage and fortitude. Her vitality and sense of adventure amazed everyone. They knew that in part at least it was due to her strong religious faith. Many would claim that meeting Helen was like having a religious experience. They were uneasy around her, not knowing how much sympathy to give. She always put them at ease with her good spirit and ready laughter.

In June 1955, a week before her seventy-fifth birthday, Helen received an honorary degree from Harvard University, the first women to receive such an award. When her name was called at the ceremony she received a standing ovation.

In her final years of life Helen read her Bible every morning, especially the Psalms. It is no surprise that her favorites were Psalms 90, 98, 100 and 23. Every Sunday Helen took time for private devotions to God.

Helen Adams Keller died on a Saturday afternoon, June 1, 1968, several weeks before her birthday. She had suffered a heart attack a few weeks earlier. Her companion at the time, Winnie Corbally was at her bedside. Winnie said that Helen died peacefully, just drifting off into her sleep. Helen was not afraid of death.

And so the woman who spent almost her entire life in a dark and soundless world was welcomed by her Savior into light and life and joy and the sound of trumpets and angels rejoicing.

Helen could now sing one of her favorite Psalms, Psalm 98, seeing the Lord and hearing His praises.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things, …
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.

 

 

[1] From “The Story of My Life”, Helen Keller

Medieval Women Saints

There is very little teaching done on women who lived during the Middle Ages. This is not only true in general society but also in church. It is a shame because the women who lived 5 to 10 centuries ago did wonderful work in the Kingdom of God. They served the poor, comforted the mourning, raised godly families, and much more. Many even left us written accounts of their activities. If we did not have these stories we would not know as much about everyday life during Medieval times.

The material in the books covered in these reviews spans about ten centuries – from 500 AD to 1500 AD. Three of the books contain biographies. One book, Crown & Veil, gives us the background to life in the female monasteries. If you ever wondered what God’s saints were doing during this thousand-year time period, these books will fascinate and enlighten you.

 

—  Hamburger, Jeffrey F., and Marti, Susan, Editors, Crown & Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, (Columbia University Press, New York, 2008).

crown-and-veilWhen most people picture a convent the image they get is a quiet, secluded, austere building far away from civilization. While some convents were purposefully more secluded, most were communities of women who were able to engage in activities otherwise denied them both inside and outside of the cloister.

Convents were not the bleak places we often imagine them to be. Women went to convents to get an education as well as to fellowship and pray with other women. Many “nuns” wrote books, poetry, and music. Others painted and engaged in other facets of art. Most did not reside like hermits in their cloisters but moved out into the surrounding community with food and clothing and medicine and love for the poor and needy. Some abbesses were renowned for their Biblical knowledge and wisdom and their spiritual care of others in the convent and in the surrounding community.

This book is a series of articles by different authors, each telling of the different aspects of female monastic life. It is thrilling to see what sort of life Christian women lived during the Middle Ages. You won’t be disappointed!

 

—  Dronke, Peter, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984).

This book actually covers from 300 AD to around 1300 AD. That is because Perpetuadronke-book is included (see my post on this site – August, 2010). Perpetua is considered one of the earliest women Christian writers. Perpetua and her slave Felicitas were martyred on March 7, 203 AD. Perpetua wrote an account of her life that has been preserved for us. Peter Dronke continues moving through the Middle Ages telling the stories of Dhuoda, Hrotsvitha, Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen and Marguerite Porete, focusing on their writings. He also includes the poetry by women of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The book is written from a technical standpoint, but it is still fascinating because Dronke emphasizes the women’s personal testimonies. Peter Dronke has shown what skilled writers women are. It is too bad that their stories are so neglected. Though a little on the “dry” side I think you will be amazed and uplifted by these accounts.

 

—  Mayeski, Marie Anne, Dhuoda: Ninth Century Mother and Theologian, (The University of Scranton Press, Scranton, 1996).

One of the women mentioned in Peter Dronke’s book as an exceptional female writer dhuodaof the Middle Ages was Dhuoda. Dhuoda is very well known among scholars of literature. Marie Anne Mayeski has given the world a gift in her book about Dhuoda’s life. We know so little about women in the Middle Ages. This book whets our appetites for more.

Admittedly, not much is known about Dhuoda except through her writings, but we do have the history of her times and her family. Through her writing we can deduce what a dedicated mother Dhuoda was. One of her books (published in 843 AD) was copied for many years and is in print today – Liber Manualis. Dhuoda intended this book to be a manual for the personal growth and edification of her son William.

Dhuoda’s book contains teaching from the Scriptures. Her Bible knowledge and wisdom, coming from years of study, proves that Dhuoda was a lay theologian.

We can be thankful that Dhuoda left us her writings. Her advice to her son on moral behavior is timeless. Dhuoda is a shining example of a woman who loved God above all and spent her time studying about Him to get to know Him better and to pass on that knowledge to others.

Marie Anne Mayeski is a good story teller. You will not find this book dry! You will appreciate how Mayeski weaves Dhuoda’s learning and writing with history and biography. For me, it was a book hard to put down. I think you will enjoy it.

 

—  McNamara, Jo Ann, Editor and Translator, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, E. Gordon, Editors, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, (Duke University Press, London, 1992).

The book contains the stories of 18 Frankish women (12 abbesses, 3 queens, and othersaints-dark-ages devout widows and wise women) who lived during the so-called Dark Ages – the time period of the sixth and seventh centuries. This time period covers from the fall of the Roman Empire until the rise of Charlemagne’s family.

When the stories begin, we find the women living in the land that was known as Roman Gaul. The Christians were the survivors of the wars. Gradually they formed their own kingdoms of Neustria, Burgundy, and Austrasia. The people in this land would come to be called the “Franks”.

Each chapter in the book gives the historical background of the saint. Then the editors include information gained from historical documents. Many of the stories will contain information that is strange sounding if you are not a Roman Catholic. I grew up with stories of the miracles that surrounded women saints. The editors of this book put their own commentary in the footnotes for you. How much is myth or legend? I believe that God does do miracles and heal people. I am sure that the prayers of these saintly women had some effect. Even if some of the legends are just that – legends – they are interesting stories. Every legend contains a kernel of truth.

I think you will still enjoy reading this book. Again, it is proof that God was at work in the so-called Dark Ages!

 

—  Deen, Edith, Great Women of the Christian Faith, (Christian Herald Books, Chappaqua, New York, 1959).

deen-women-bibleEdith Deen has also written a companion book that I think you will enjoy, All of the Women of the Bible.

In this book on great Christian women in history, you will encounter the stories of 45 spiritual leaders and 76 other women from around the world. The stories include women from many denominations. deen-women-faithTheological controversies are put aside. The important thing about each woman is that she loves Jesus and that her life shows how she served God faithfully.

You will be inspired as you read the stories of martyrs, mothers, wives, and even political leaders. The stories span the last twenty centuries (at least up until the writing of the book in 1959).

Of special interest for this review is the fact that Edith Deen relates the stories of more than a dozen women from the Middle Ages. Edith Deen has a great gift as a storyteller and I think you will not find this book to be as “dry” as the others in this review. It is a great book to share with your daughters and other Christian women who are interested in stories.

Both of Edith Deen’s books could be used to good effect in a Bible Study or Sunday School. Women will love the stories!

Do not despise them, even though they’re full of faults,
But, with your gentle heart, praise the deeds of God.  Hrotsvitha

hrotsvithaDuring the medieval times women often went to convents as a way to serve God. It was a good, safe option for women who did not get married. The convent also enabled women to get an education. Convents were the ideal environment to express their artistic and literary talents.

One such woman was Hrotsvitha, a young nun in a convent at Gandersheim in the late 10th century. The convent at Gandersheim was especially well known as a cultural and educational center.

Gandersheim was different from most convents because it was established by Duke Liudolf and his wife and her mother in 852 to be a “free abbey”. In other words, it was not connected to the hierarchy of the church. Gandersheim was answerable to the local ruler until king Otto 1 declared it to be a completely free abbey.

The abbesses of this convent were related to the reigning family. During Hrotsvitha’s time the abbess was Gerberga, the niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto 1 the Great. All of the nuns at this abbey were of noble birth, so we know that Hrotsvitha came from the aristocracy and may have even been distantly related to the king.

Some of the nuns took vows and became full-fledged nuns; others did not take vows and remained canonesses. Hrotsvitha did not take the vow of poverty, so she remained a canoness. She was able to control her money and have servants and other luxuries that most nuns did not. However, she did take the vows of obedience and chastity.

stift_gandersheim_side_view_1942

Hrotsvitha is considered to be Germany’s first poet and playwright.  While at the convent she wrote six plays – they were comedies. She also wrote stories, poetry, and a history of the abbey.

As was common in those days, Hrotsvitha wrote in Latin. That was the language that educated people used for writing. We know from things she said about events of her day that she must have written her poetry and plays some time after 968. There was an extensive library at the abbey. Allusions to famous lyric poets such as Ovid, Terence, Virgil, and Horace confirm the fact that Hrotsvitha made much use of the library.

Why would a nun write comedies? There were several reasons.

Hrotsvitha had studied the Scriptures and she was aware of the evil of her times. The church was very corrupt. Church leaders were involved in greed, licentiousness, and immorality. It was not uncommon for priests to force women into compromising positions. Hrotsvitha wanted a way to admonish the wicked rulers.

Women were not expected to teach or preach in the medieval ages. How could Hrotsvitha call for reform? As a woman she wanted to be seen as sharing a spiritual message but not as preaching, so she put her thoughts into six comedic plays.

Another reason that Hrotsvitha deliberately chose the medium of comedic plays was that in Hrotsvitha’s day theater was secular and outrageously immoral. Hrotsvitha wanted to present her own Christian version of this interesting literary form.

Her comedies and poetry were probably mostly shared with the other women at the abbey. Hrotsvitha would enjoy writing something so different from the usual writing of her time thinking that it would go no further than her sisters. She could be bold and express her thoughts on the sins of the church leaders in her day in a very creative way.

Hence, the quote above – Hrotsvitha calls for her readers to forbear with her humble efforts. She asks them to praise God for His working, not hers.

Hrotsvitha realizes that she might be criticized by men when they realize that she is pointing the finger at their corruption and so she is careful to point out that she is only seeking praise for Christ.

And let him not scorn the frail sex of the woman of no importance
          Who played these melodies on a frail reed pipe;
But rather let him praise Christ’s heavenly mercy:
          He does not want to destroy sinners…

Hrotsvitha admitted to blushing with shame when writing about sexual sin. In her day, and in ours in certain cultures such as the Muslim culture, women were blamed for all sexual temptations. She was calling the men to take responsibility for their own sin. She had a purpose in writing about matters such as lasciviousness. She stressed that she was trying to show how ‘womanly frailty emerges victorious and virile force, confounded is laid low’.

She wants to show the strength in weakness of Christian women and the weakness in power of the men. In the end it is the men who should blush.

For example, in one of Hrotsvitha’s comedies, Emperor Diocletian orders three chaste virgins to deny their faith. They refuse and are thrown into prison. An army general, Dulcetius sees how beautiful they are and decides to take advantage of them.

Dulcetius locks the women in a kitchen, thinking to return later that night and have his way with them. The women pray for protection. God answers their prayers  in an admittedly strange-sounding way to us –(but remember this is written as comedy – to make a serious point in a dramatic way.)

When Dulcetius returns for the girls things don’t exactly go according to plan. As he enters the kitchen:

          Befuddled, he begins to caress the pots and pans, while the girls watch through a crack in the wall. “Why, the fool is out of his mind. He fancies he has got hold of us,” reports one of them. “Now he presses the kettle to his heart, now he clasps the pots and pans and presses his lips to them . . . His face, his hands, his clothes are all black and sooty; the soot which clings to him makes him look like an Ethiopian.” One of her companions comments, “Very fitting that he should be so in body, since the devil has possession of his mind.”

The girls in the play attribute their escape from Dulcetius’s evil attempts to the grace of God. The moral lesson in the play is that Hrotsvitha wants women to understand that they can turn to God for protection. And she has found a clever way to show men that they are “out of their minds” or “immoral” for taking advantage of the “weaker” sex.

Some of Hrotsvitha’s plays were lost for centuries. Then in 1502 they were discovered and published in Latin. They were published in English in 1920.

Many of Hrotsvitha’s poems were written to honor the saints, including the Virgin Mary, as well as Agnes, Basil, and the martyr Pelagius (not the 4th century heretic – but a later Pelagius who was tortured and martyred by the Muslims.)

Her last extant work, probably written about 973 or later, is a poem on the founding of Gandersheim. As in her other works, Hrotsvitha opens her work with humility:

Behold, my spirit, lowly and submissive,
Breaks forth to tell the origins of blissful Gandersheim.

The primary inspiration for this poem was the Gospel account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are many allusions in the poem to “shepherds” and “guiding lights”.

Hrotsvitha claimed often that she was so blessed to have the gift of writing. In spite of being a woman and living in a convent, she was able to express her thoughts in a way that inspired many others. Even if not many people would see her works, she felt that she was nearer to God by using His gift to her. She was thankful that God had given her a way to address the wrongs of her times in a Scriptural, yet creative way.

We can learn from Hrotsvitha’s example of humility and service. We can use our gifts with joy and thanksgiving and praise to the One Who gave them to us.

 

    

 

 

 

I admonish you continually to mull over the words of the holy gospels and the writings of the fathers concerning these (things)…. By thinking, speaking and acting rightly, you may believe in the everlasting God, who remains one in trinity and triune in unity. Dhuoda – “Liber Manualis”, 843 AD

This remarkably astute advice was given to a son by a mother who lived in the 9th century. It is so wonderful to be able to connect with someone who lived and wrote nearly 1200 years ago. Dhuoda studied the same Scriptures that we study. She read the church fathers that we have read. She came to the same doctrinal understanding of the faith that we consider “orthodox”. Reading Dhuoda’s story is an encouragement to my faith.

dhuodaWe only know of Dhuoda’s life through her writings. She married Bernard, son of William of Gellone, at Aachen on June 29, 824. William was a cousin to Charlemagne. Bernard and Dhuoda lived in southern France where Bernard was an advisor at the French court. Dhuoda accompanied Bernard on his travels until the birth of their first son, William, in 826. Then she went to live in a castle at Uzes for the rest of her life.

To put Dhuoda’s life into perspective let us review the 8th and 9th centuries in Europe. Charlemagne (c.742-814) ruled much of Western Europe from 768 to 814. In 771, Charlemagne became king of the Franks (a Germanic people group who extended through most of Western Europe). He wanted to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and convert his subjects to Christianity. He spent most of his reign engaged in warfare in order to bring this about. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne founded the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival in Europe.

When Charlemagne died in 814, his empire encompassed much of Western Europe, and he had also ensured the survival of Christianity in the West. It was into this largely Christian society that Dhuoda was born around 803 AD.

After Charlemagne died his son Louis (778-840) reigned in his stead. It was rumored that the self-seeking Bernard had an affair with Louis’s second wife, Judith. In any event, Bernard was an advisor at court when Louis died in 1840. Louis’s three sons then started a bloody civil war for the throne. At first Bernard backed Pepin II but then changed sides and backed Charles the Bold. In order to prove to Charles that he would not change sides again, Bernard presented his first born son, William, to Charles as a hostage.

Bernard was a very selfish, cruel, lecherous man. He tortured and maimed his enemies. He shut Dhuoda up in a castle in Uzes when he took their firstborn son from her. When Dhuoda’s second son was born, Bernard snatched him away even before he was baptized. In her writing, Dhuoda tells us that she never found out what her second son’s name was. (It was usual to name the child at Baptism.) Bernard’s enemies were just as treacherous. They killed everyone else in Bernard’s family. Perhaps it was just as well for Dhuoda that she was shut away in a castle.

In spite of the fact that Bernard had given his son as hostage, Charles lured him to court in 844 and had him beheaded. Apparently Bernard was still engaged in intrigues. He was always only thinking of himself. His son William proved to be too much like his father and unwisely sought to gain back his family’s territories.

Meanwhile at the castle in Uzes, Dhuoda decided to write to her son. She had heard that thingsliber-manualis were dangerous at court. She was perhaps also told that William was not living the Christian life that he should.  She thought that writing to him would help to get her son to live rightly.

The city of Uzes where Dhuoda was living had seen many changes over the centuries. It began as a Christian community very early in the 2nd century. There were monasteries there and a large cathedral. It was a very peaceful city until 843 with the Treaty of Verdun. After that Uzes became a major battlefield in the dynastic wars which Dhuoda’s husband and family were involved in.

This was the year, 843, when Dhuoda’s book, Liber Manualis, was completed. Dhuoda intended this book to be a manual for the personal growth and edification of her son William. The book was written against the backdrop of all of the wars and fighting and intrigues going on around her. Her main purpose was to write words of wisdom for her son. She wanted him to survive, not as a selfish person, but as a man of God.

Dhuoda stressed three allegiances in her book, first to God, then to William’s earthly father, and then to the king, Charles the Bold.

Unfortunately, Dhuoda’s wise counsel was lost on William. As we now know Bernard was put to death for treason in 844 the following year after Dhuoda’s book was written. William forsook his mother’s counsel and supported Pepin II in spite of owing his allegiance to Charles. William tried to regain his territorial rights against Charles. He was beaten in battle and slain in 850. It remains unclear what happened to Dhuoda’s second son, possibly also named Bernard. In any event Bernard’s family fortunes were now lost.

Though Dhuoda’s well written instruction manual went unheeded by her son, it remains for us a beautiful example of Medieval writing by a woman was is considered a lay theologian in her own right.

Dhuoda wrote during a time when few women were writing. Only the wealthy could afford the kind of education that Dhuoda had. Yet, thanks to Charlemagne’s efforts at advancing Christianity and the culture, more people were reading the classics. We can tell from Dhuoda’s writings that she had read the Scriptures many times. She was also familiar with the major works of the Church fathers. She learned Christian principles that she wanted to pass on to her son.

One example comes from her teaching on the Beatitudes. She tells her son that being “poor in spirit” does not mean only being poor financially. “Someone may shine with gold, gems and the royal purple, but will go forth to the shadows naked and poor, carrying nothing unless he has lived well, piously, chastely, and worthily.” She admonished William to be generous to the poor. She reminded William that his position came from God and he needed to be a good steward.

Too bad William didn’t pay more attention.

Dhuoda wrote in Latin. She was a gifted writer who presented her thoughts in unique ways. She used poetry and prose and even played word games, such as an acrostic she made of her own name.

Dhuoda was a lay theologian. She wrote commentaries on many parts of the Bible. Her translations are orthodox. Some of her theology takes a fresh approach to interpreting Scripture. For example, following Augustine, the main commentaries on the beatitudes in her day compared the beatitudes with the gifts of the Spirit. Dhuoda understood that the gifts of the Spirit enable believers to live the holy life expressed in the beatitudes. Dhuoda used these as concrete examples in her writing to her son.

But, while Augustine reduced the number of beatitudes in order to complete the numerical parallel with the gifts, and he reversed the order of the gifts of the Spirit in order to make them fit his pattern, Dhuoda described both the gifts and the beatitudes as sets of military skills needed to live a mature Christian life. This is not surprising given that she is encouraging her son to live rightly in the world of the intrigues of the court and political revolution.

Dhuoda advised William “to ascend the fifteen steps through the seven formative gifts and the eight beatitudes; ascend them in order and thoughtfully, a step at a time, but vigorously, my son.” Historians believe that Dhuoda was uncertain of her son’s Christian commitment. In her writing we see that she assumes he is a Christian, but very immature. Her book was written to help him know how to grow up to a complete man in Christ.

The date of Dhuoda’s death is unknown. Though we do not have more details of her life, we can be thankful that she left us her writings. Her advice to her son on moral behavior is timeless. Dhuoda is a shining example of a woman who loved God above all and spent her time studying about Him to get to know Him better and to pass on that knowledge to others.