Women Who Pray: Voices From the Past Come Alive

Four new books probe history for fresh insights
into how the feminine spiritual experience differs from men's.


At prayer, at work and at play, a woman's experience of the divine is distinctive. What is changing, according to four new books on women's spirituality, is that voices silenced for centuries finally are being heard.

Sifting through women's writings over those centuries means uncovering a wisdom, clarity, beauty and distinctiveness reflecting their corporate faith and experience, says Lucinda Vardley, editor of "The Flowering of the Soul, A Book of Prayers by Women" (Beacon Press).

Themes and symbols in women's prayers "are different from prayers by men, and therefore these prayers speak to our experience of life and the great love of the divine," Vardley said. "Most traditional prayers don't speak to women's experience, so I was hoping that this book could fill that gap, introduce the feminine aspect of devotion in all its elements."

Her book, which features prayers addressed directly to God, showcases prayers by such women as Sun Bu-er, Sappho, Julian of Norwich, Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard and Marion Woodman. Vardley, a writer and spiritual teacher, weaves in the teachings on prayer of such spiritual giants as St. Teresa of Avila and Hildegaard of Bingen. Then she introduces the ideas of noteworthy writers including Simone Weil and Evelyn Underhill.

The result is a history of women's teachings on prayers and a common spiritual reader crossing religious traditions. She explores the virtues of women who pray, including relatedness and connectedness. In so doing, she bridges the usual separations between Buddhists and Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

In a different but related volume, journalist Pythia Peay uses the stories of women from the past and present to offer models for how women can cultivate five divine qualities within themselves. She identifies those qualities as courage, faith, beauty, love and magic.

A Spiritual Workbook

Peay's book, "Soul Sisters: The Five Divine Qualities of a Woman's Soul" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam) provides a spiritual workbook for women seekers. She argues that women act as "faith-holders" for one another. In other words, to strengthen the quality of faith in her life, a woman might seek out a close woman friend to offer inspiration and hope in times of darkness. She might also practice "giving the gift of faith" to another woman.

"Perhaps you have a friend who is struggling to hold her marriage together, get her doctorate, paint or start her own business," Peay writes.

"Let her know that you are proud of her efforts--that you have no doubt she will one day succeed, and that you are there for her. As I have discovered, to have just one friend who never doubts the successful outcome of your efforts--whatever form that might take--is a priceless treasure beyond measure."

Though her life had been dominated by spiritual exploration since childhood, Peay did not understand how deeply gender had shaped her journey until she wrote the book. She discovered how history had shaped her, how patriarchy had influenced her outlook on the divine.

"Even though I had been aware of the recent archeological discoveries of goddess statues, I didn't fully understand the impact these discoveries would have on my unconscious perceptions," Peay noted.

"The image of God as a man is firmly embedded in our cultural psyche--so just to image God as a woman, or to pray to 'her' rather than 'him' had a revolutionary effect on my inner life. It precipitated a transformation in values toward an ethic based more in nurturing and tolerance and compassion in the here and now rather than a transcendent heaven."

She also began to realize that the rediscovery of the Goddess "doesn't mean that the masculine image of God is wrong, but that our religious history up until now has been imbalanced," Peay said.

"A part of all our history and a part of all our souls--both men's and women's--has been missing. And the women's spirituality movement has been about righting that imbalance and restoring wholeness. As the mother of three sons, I feel that in many ways women's spirituality is just as important for men as for women."

Inner Lives Examined

Working on different continents, two other female scholars have written books providing perspective on how women's inner lives differ from men's.

"Women Pray: Voices Through the Ages, From Many Faiths, Cultures and Traditions" (SkyLight Paths) by Monica Furlong, a journalist and author in London, celebrates the diverse ways women worldwide have called out to the divine.

"Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages" (HarperSanFrancisco) by scholar, teacher and writer Mary Ford-Grabowsky explores selections from 150 female sages.

Furlong's book, a creative collection packaged like a prayer book with a ribbon to mark one's place, seeks to span continents and cultures.

In her introduction, Furlong writes that mystics of all cultures have shared a sense of wonder and vastness as they contemplated the presence of God. Everyone is somewhat limited by her own perspective, she writes. Prayer, no matter what the tradition, may help to broaden one's outlook.

For "prayer is about a new perspective on the world about us, or perhaps the recovery of an earlier perspective," she writes. "It is about a rediscovery of awe and wonder, of love and joy, of a transforming of grief and pain and loss, of a turning to one another and to the world in which we find ourselves. All this is its territory."

In "Sacred Voices," Ford-Grabowsky compiles one of the most far-reaching anthologies of women's voices. Her work presents the long-suppressed laments, yearnings and praises of women across the last five millenniums, including prayers from ancient Mesopotamia to present-day America.

In prose, poetry, chants and other writings, we hear from women as different as Sufi poet Rabia and author Alice Walker.

The exploration that led to the book began when Ford-Grabowsky was a 17-year-old college freshman. The house mother in her dorm, a nun and French literature professor, told her how she would copy quotes from her favorite books onto small strips of paper and then tape them inside her closet door.

On waking each morning, she would open the door for inspiration.

Ford-Grabowsky adopted the practice, eventually realizing most of her quotes came from men. An accomplished theologian, she is associate professor of spirituality and on the board of trustees at Matthew Fox's University in Oakland.

The extensive collection of writing and stories she compiled through the years now fills 37 computer disks, containing works by women mystics, contemplatives, hermits, healers, rabbis, homemakers, founders of movements and others.

In an era of economic downturn and escalating violence, these four authors offer ideas, teachings, meditations and prayers that they hope will bring change.

Their outlook feeds into the sort of paradigm shift called for by some feminists: a rebirth of the feminine principle in faith and life, and a corresponding global increase in women's influence and leadership.