Book Review: “Accidental Theologians”

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Greetings from mid-November! I must admit, I’m already seeing great advantages to changing my blog schedule from every week to every-other-week. For the first time in months my stories have Top Priority Status–and thanks to my Twitter/Instagram/Facebook hiatus, I’m reading even more than usual, as well! I’ve been pretty selective with my reading: for some reason I’m either reading old classics (like Jane Eyre and Les Miserables), stories based on classics (like Till We Have Faces), or books that will strengthen me as a Christian and a woman.

One of the books I recently finished, Accidental Theologians*, fits that final category. Truth be told, I’ve had very few relatable role models in Christian history. Most proffered heroines are either the wives or mothers of famous evangelists, or single women on the mission field–vocations I do not relate to at this stage in my life.

As my understanding of Church history has expanded, however, I’ve been so comforted and inspired by the stories of Catholic and Anglican nuns.

“Three Nuns in Prayer” by David Dalhoff Neal (@ Pinterest)

Yes, I can already hear the question: “Now hang on a minute, how are nuns more relatable than female missionaries?!” It’s easier than you’d think, actually. Contrary to popular belief, most nuns weren’t (and aren’t) cloistered in a teeny-tiny cell, cut off from all society whatsoever. In most cases, it’s the exact opposite: nuns were/are deeply involved in the lives of their convents and their outside communities! Nuns are well known for caring the sick, struggling mothers, and children in need of schooling and discipline. They’ve tended churches, planted gardens, made music, and studied (and taught) theology throughout the centuries.

Their lives are small and rarely adventurous, but nuns see themselves as truly married to Christ. They are dedicated to serving Him, each other, and their communities. Accidental Theologians*, written by Elizabeth A. Dreyer, examines the lives of four of the most influential nuns of all time: Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

Hildegard of Bingen; Catherine of Siena; Teresa of Avila; Thérèse of Lisieux (collage by Yours Truly)

Before I continue, let’s get some quick historical context. Hildegard, a German Benedictine nun, lived from 1098 to 1179–an exceptionally long time, considering she lived in a time when the average life expectancy was 30-40 years! Catherine, who lived from 1347 to 1380, was an Italian lay member of the Dominican order; Teresa, a Spanish nun of the Carmelite order, lived from 1515 to 1582 (and was thus a contemporary of many Protestant reformers); Thérèse was a French Carmelite who died at the tender age of 24 in 1897. All four were declared Doctors of the Church (“individuals acknowledged for their outstanding interpretation and teaching of Scripture and Christine Doctrine”) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Hildegard, Catherine, and Teresa were reformers in their own right, courageous and defiant towards corruption and lukewarm faith in the Church. [Take note, fair reader: contrary to popular belief and/or opinion, there were passionate Christian reformers before Martin Luther or John Calvin.] They were also heavily involved in their communities within and without the convent. Thérèse is a little different, I find, due in part to her short life and her flowery writing style, but her faith in the midst of great physical and emotional suffering is nevertheless heart-stirring.

Let there be no disappointment when obedience keeps you busy in outward tasks. If it sends you to the kitchen, remember that the Lord walks among the pots and pans. - Teresa of Avila @ AZ Quotes

For the most part, Elizabeth Dreyer presents the Doctors’ stories and writings without delivering much of her own modern commentary or bias. “None of these women,” she writes, “was a theologian in the formal sense of the term…But all were truly exceptional teachers who reflected on and absorbed the Scriptures; lived the Christian life in creative and full ways; and wrote about major theological topics with passion and insight.”

Dreyer also does a great job in pinpointing each Doctor’s strongest topic. Hildegard, for example, wrote extensively about the “greening” work of the Holy Spirit. Catherine’s passion centered around Christ’s Incarnation and how it affects our day-to-day, sacramental life. Teresa was primarily concerned with our “interior castles” and our prayer life, while Thérèse wrote about how Jesus’ suffering on the Cross gives us the courage we need to face our own agonies.

Jesus, help me to simplify my life by learning what you want me to be and becoming that person. - Therese of Lisieux @ AZ Quotes

Unfortunately, Dreyer’s admirable self-restraint disintegrates a bit in the final chapter of Accidental Theologians*–not to the point where I couldn’t tolerate it, but enough for it to rub me the wrong way. I also irritably scratched out her use of a female pronoun in relation to the Holy Spirit on the very last page. To be brutally fair, Hildegard herself sometimes did this in an artistic way while describing the Spirit’s “maternal” attributes (and I’m thinking here of Biblical descriptions of God as a protective hen with her chicks). But coming from a modern-day author, it smacked a bit too much of New Age philosophy–and I still don’t like it when Hildegard does it, either. The Bible uses male pronouns for God, God describes Himself as male, what God says GOES, and that is the end of the story.  

Holy Spirit, the life that gives life: You are the cause of all movement. You are the breath of all creatures. You are the salve that purifies our souls. You are the ointment that heals our wounds. You are the fire that warms our hearts. You are the light that guides our feet. Let all the world praise you. - Hildegard of Bingen @ AZ Quotes

But those are my sole complaints. I so appreciated reading chunks of the Doctors’ writings throughout this book! It made me want to read more of their own books, especially Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. I absolutely love her shining wit and honesty. I can’t wait to have a proper chat with her one day 😉

I was also amazed by the Doctors’ faith in Christ, their reliance on His grace, and their sheer passion for Him. We Protestants often act like no one had deep, abiding faith in Christ before 1517–and that simply isn’t true. These women are proof of that, even if there were some areas where I, as a Protestant, did disagree with them.

Lastly, I was so encouraged by their active-contemplative lives. They weren’t of the world, but they were certainly in it and glad to be so! But Jesus was always their first love–and as Catherine wrote, He is “madly in love” with His Bride, as well. That wasn’t an abstract concept for them, either. If Jesus is madly in love with His Bride…then He is madly in love with us…with you

And with me. 

Isn’t that absolutely breathtaking?

We are of such value to God that He came to live among us... and to guide us home. He will go to any length to seek us, even to being lifted high upon the cross to draw us back to Himself. We can only respond by loving God for His love. - St. Catherine of Siena @ AZ Quotes

{Header by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash}

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