Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith
by Dr. Robert Kellemen and Susan Ellis
In the writings of early church history, women’s voices have gone underrepresented. This realization began Dr. Robert Kellemen’s desire for writing Sacred Friendships. In addition to his work in biblical counseling, his personal passion is to empower “those who have been robbed of their voice.” Like the women they profile in their book, co-author Susan Ellis’ passion lies in ministering to women and seeing God work in their lives. Kellemen and Ellis combined their passions in order to write the stories of more than fifty remarkable Christian women who offered care and direction for the souls of men and women throughout church history.
According to Kellemen and Ellis, “experts who examine the history of spiritual care have consistently identified” two pillars of christian counseling as soul care (helping people in their suffering) and spiritual direction (helping people fight sin and develop intimacy with Christ). Soul care involves sustaining and healing, while spiritual direction includes reconciling and guiding. Kellemen and Ellis have organized the stories of these women around these two pillars and four areas of Christian counseling. They were careful to study and discern many manuscripts, journals, and correspondence in order to accurately uncover each woman’s unique way of practicing soul care and spiritual direction. The authors ask very specific questions of each woman’s life and her relationships in an effort to understand the natures of each one’s manner of care giving. Christian women have been providing counseling and wisdom in these four areas for centuries. “By following in their footsteps, we can reclaim the ancient gifts of soul care and spiritual direction, restore the forgotten arts of sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding, and experience a reformation in how we minister to one another.”
Beginning with Vibia Perpetua (AD 181-203) and ending with Betsie ten Boom (1885-1944), Kellemen and Ellis uncover the stories of some of the most spiritually influential women of the last two thousand years: women of velvet steel who stood firm in faith and sought to do everything in love. Some names, like Susanna Wesley or Teresa of Avila, will sound familiar, but Catharine Brown and Dhuoda may be unfamiliar. Sacred Friendships includes the stories of more than fifty women and, consequently, as many different ways of ministering to souls. However, one will also find that the women share several common characteristics. For instance, each one lived what she taught, developed a biblical theology of suffering, exhibited a passionate love for God and His people, studied scripture and accurately applied it to circumstances, and displayed humility and a teachable spirit. One of the most interesting common denominators to me is that despite their spiritual gifting and abilities, none of these women sought a title or position within their churches. Though they did not suppress their gifts, they were humble, obedient, and sought only the glory of Christ.
I appreciate each story for different reasons, but I’d like to share a few personal impressions. First, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what I learned about the women commonly referred to as mystics. The women profiled in this book and the manner in which they cared for souls seem to be very different from present-day mystics. There is a growing trend these days to practice the ancient paths in an effort to understand our spiritual roots, however the trend seems to focus more on spiritual experiences. In contrast, Sacred Friendships provides examples of how the early Christian women based their lives on the scriptures available to them and how they courageously faced spiritual and emotional trials “before the advent of modern secular psychology.” When it comes to soul care and spiritual direction, Kellemen and Ellis explain, “The biblically balanced approach is neither mysticism nor scholasticism. Mysticism degrades into a shallow, self-centered focus on experience apart from truth and feelings without core beliefs. Scholasticism collapses into a cold-hearted, Pharisaical emphasis on judgmentalism, sin-spotting, and ‘discernment’ without grace. True biblical soul care and spiritual direction have always combined an unremitting concern for changing lives with Christ’s changeless truth — integrating head and heart, Scripture and soul.”
Another story that impressed me is that of Elizabeth Keckley. My husband and I were watching Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Civil War,” when I learned of Mary Lincoln’s terrible grief following the assassination of President Lincoln. The picture on the screen shows an empty, blood-stained bed, while the voice-over tells the story of a frantic Mary at his side, wailing and grabbing for him so much that the men in the room forcibly removed her from his side. This part of the narrative bothered me, and I wondered what happened to Mary after she was forced away from her husband’s death bed. Kellemen and Ellis answer this question with the story of soul-caring Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who became the dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln. It was to her side that Mary flew and received the spiritual succor she desperately needed that evening and for rest of her life. Keckley endured terrible pain and suffering as a slave for thirty years before moving to the White House. It was her acquaintance with grief that especially suited her to minister to Mary Lincoln. “In those days, of all people, a formerly enslaved black woman was the one human being on the face of the earth who could comfort the President’s widow. And how? With her empathy. With her silence. With her physical presence. With her loving companionship.” Keckley’s story is difficult to read, but inspirational for its example of endurance and hope.
Finally, each woman’s way of life demonstrates at least one characteristic that we would do well to emulate. For instance, Kellemen and Ellis profile Perpetua and Macrina the Elder as they joyfully encouraged one another as they faced persecution and martyrdom; Monica, whose piety drowned out her husband’s irreverence; Gregonia and Clare of Assissi, who were so heavenly minded they were of immense earthly good; Olympias, who was pious and courageous; the Desert Mothers, whose whole lives were open books for their disciples to read and imitate; and most for their theological depth and discernment. Each story also impressed upon me the importance of practicing the spiritual disciplines and cultivating genuine, spiritual friendships with Christian women. Indeed, I found myself longing for a true, spiritual friendship like the beautiful one shared by Marie Goby and Elisabeth Leseur. Marie writes, “These are very intimate matters that I share with you, my sister and friend; there is not another person with whom I would share them. God has placed you in my path, perhaps because he saw that in spite of his loving caresses, I still remained in spiritual isolation, and he wanted to give me the sweet consolation of a completely spiritual friendship. May God be blessed for that!” And from Elisabeth to Marie, “We’re never really separated, since we live and work for the same beloved Master and are one with him in front of the tabernacle or at other times of prayer. And yet I experience such a deep calm, truly a consolation when I’m able to open my heart to you, fully one with you in spirit. Although we’re not near one another, it is so good to know I’m united with a true spiritual sister who prays for me, and that in God there is no distance, since all hearts meet together in the heart of Jesus.”
I am happy to recommend Sacred Friendships to Christian women, counselors and mentors, and women in ministry. It’s a perfect book for a women’s book club or small group; the discussion questions are quite thought-provoking and would lend themselves to an edifying small group discussion. Read it with your mentor or use it to begin your own sacred friendship.