By Kathleen Finley Catholic News Service
"Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church" by Vinita Hampton Wright. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2022). 181 pp., $18.95.
Because we have limited options for in-person retreats these days, Vinita Wright offers the reader a much-needed opportunity to listen to and reflect with, the four female doctors of the church. She does so in a clear and articulate way, without being either too basic or too specialized, beginning with a fine explanation of what a saint is:
"Although each person in the family of God is considered a saint with a small s, some people live in such a way that their imitation of Christ's love has great impact on others. ... This holiness goes beyond the piety of saying prayers and maintaining other spiritual practices. ... Such a saint relates to others in a truly Christlike way: with humility, wisdom, passion and a certain spiritual confidence that allows them to act on what they sense God is asking them to do. Saints are brave but not haughty, resilient but not hardened. Saints often suffer greatly, physically and otherwise."
She further explains that "doctors of the church receive that title because we believe their understanding of spirituality, theology and the church to be timeless and of great benefit to any generation and situation."
As Wright takes us by the hand to introduce us to these amazing women she highlights a particular quality of each that may be especially helpful for the reader, from St. Therese of Lisieux, who shows us how to love God through a little way, to St. Teresa of Avila, who encourages us to own our unique life with God, to St. Catherine of Siena, who sets an example of spiritual power in God's loving service, and St. Hildegard of Bingen, who models engaging life with great passion and creativity.
For each woman, Wright chooses excellent passages from their own writings, such as this from Teresa of Avila:
"I have often reflected with amazement upon God's great goodness and my soul has delighted in the thought of his great magnificence and mercy. May he be blessed for all this for it has become clear to me that, even in this life, he has not failed to reward me for any of my good desires."
She goes on to say that God has graciously overlooked her faults and sins.
Wright also quotes Hildegard of Bingen:
"Holy Spirit, quickening life,/ moving all things, the root in all creation,/ who washes all things of impurity,/ removing sins and soothing wounds/ who is shining light and laudable life,/ wakening and reawakening all things."
Wright often sums up and applies these wise women's insights to our lives. For example, referring to Catherine of Siena:
"St. Catherine urged people to see the truth of their lives and God's abundant love. She knew that a person could not bear the truth unless they felt secure in God's love and purpose. If I am confident in God's mercy toward me, then I can deal with the truth of my faults, sins, weaknesses, mistakes and misperceptions. God's love creates a safe place in which to look honestly at myself and at the world. Catherine's understanding of God's limitless mercy has stoked the courage of people across the centuries: courage to tell the truth, to change their ways, to do the right thing."
The only way this inspiring look at these four women could have been improved would have been by using a clearer contrast ink to black, because at times the needed emphasis nearly disappears in the orange ink used for special sections.
One can only agree with the author that "divine love embraced each (of these wise women) in the mystery of her personality, history, temperament and historical situation. It would be interesting to put them all in a room together, wouldn't it, just to see how these four graced lives might interact and what new wonders would be the result. I suspect that they are keeping one another company now, along with the rest of our great cloud of witnesses who have already left this life and gone to be with God in yet another phase of this existence we've been given." Indeed.
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Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including "The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace" and "Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses," and formerly taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.