Women Religious Leaders

Few in North America are familiar with the writings of Gemma Galgani, the first person who lived into the 20th century to be canonized as a saint. The tempestuous and passionate saint was born in Lucca, Italy, in 1878. (You can tell she's Italian because one of her significant angelic visions occurred in the kitchen while she watched a servant shaping meatballs.) She succumbed to tuberculosis at the tender age of 25, after receiving numerous visits from Jesus, the Virgin Mary and various angels. In The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint, Rudolph Bell (Holy Anorexia) and Cristina Mazzoni (Saint Hysteria) offer the saint's own autobiographical writings, including her memoir of childhood, miscellaneous letters and her diary. The documents raise some fascinating questions about the nature of sainthood and religious devotion. Was Gemma an inspired young woman, heroic in her physical sufferings and prescient in her mystical understanding? Or was she simply mad? Her writings show her to be perhaps a combination of the two—thoroughgoing in her religious devotion, yet also emotionally manipulative and psychologically precarious. This absorbing collection of primary sources and scholarly analysis sheds light on one of the modern era's most intriguing yet understudied female saints. (Univ. of Chicago, $30 336p ISBN 0-226-04196-4; Jan.)

For White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America, Malka Drucker interviewed 31 female rabbis, ministers, authors, gurus and teachers from all over the United States (though, not surprisingly, nearly half were from California). Included are interviews with Goddess worshipper Starhawk, Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, Hindu saint Ammachi, ashram leader Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati (born Joyce Green in Brooklyn) and the mother-daughter team of Helen and Rebecca Cohen, both Unitarian Universalist ministers. The thrust of this book is definitely toward the left end of the religious spectrum, with almost all of the interviewees reflecting commitments to feminism, tolerance and interfaith understanding. Drucker's writing can be intrusive, as she tends to insert too much of herself and her unnecessary commentary into each interview. Still, the subjects are interesting, and Gay Block's arresting photographs of each leader are memorable. (SkyLight Paths, $24.95 280p ISBN 1-893361-64-0; Jan.)

Prayers and Meditations

Christians who have drawn strength and courage from Corrie ten Boom's memoir The Hiding Place can now take a dose of that inspiration on a daily basis. In Each New Day: 365 Simple Reflections, ten Boom provides brief scriptural meditations for each day of the year, arranged thematically according to such topics as forgiveness, joy, holiness and God's will. The themes are also indexed at the end of the book if readers are seeking specific guidance on a particular issue. (Revell, $12.99 paper 224p ISBN 0-8007-5860-9; Jan.)

The irrepressible Zig Ziglar drums the self-help theme again with Life Lifters: Moments of Inspiration for Living Life Better. It differs little from any number of motivational guides, covering topics such as attitude, teamwork, kindness, responsibility and integrity. It's all sound—particularly his no-nonsense advice on parenting—but readers may well have the feeling that they've heard it all before. (Broadman & Holman, $17.99 224p ISBN 0-8054-2689-2; Jan.)

Walter Brueggemann, whose thoughtful and reflective works on the Hebrew Bible have ensured that the term "Old Testament theologian" is not an oxymoron, offers distilled wisdom from his 35 years of teaching in Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth. At the seminaries where he has taught, professors traditionally open their classes with prayer—a practice that for some might devolve into a quick nod to convention, but Brueggemann has always presented the opportunity to involve students more intimately in the assigned biblical texts. This marvelous little book of Brueggemann's start-of-class prayers will have readers cheering, especially when he writes that "much public prayer in the church is careless and slovenly, and... what passes for spontaneity is in fact a lack of preparation." (Fortress, $12 paper 176p ISBN 0-8006-3460-8; Jan.)