…I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy... even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Joel’s oracle, in announcing the fulfilment of the universal outpouring of the Spirit, emphatically brings out an inclusive fact: sons and daughters, men and women slaves will be filled with Spirit. Put another way, the prophetic charisma is not subject to gender discrimination. Eloquence, dreams, visions, wise discernment also belong to women.
We encounter them prophesying throughout Scripture and later in Church history. However, they are equally present in every religious experience - think of the Sibyls or the Pythia, sacred to Apollo. Think again of those women – female shamans, soothsayers, healers, “wise” in their ways- who accompany the paths of peoples and cultures.
Although excluded from sacrificial practice - and this too would seem to be an inter-religious constant - they too participate in the gift of the Spirit. The social and cultic arrangements that discriminate against them, denying them subjectivity and speech, fall before its power. It is not hindered by imbecillitas sexus. If anything, its exuberance dissolves it.
Certainly - and it has been done - one could also grasp in the prophetic gift of women a sort of contiguity to that unpredictability, to that alogical eloquence, to those phenomena not ascribable to the rational that discriminate against them. Against this reading, blatantly misogynistic (and hostile to the Spirit), lies the wise, wise, lucid, effective trait of women’s prophecy.
This appears first in the Old Testament. To begin, there emerges the “naturalness” of women’s prophecy. A female prophet is, for example, Isaiah’s wife and the statement needs no explanatory gloss. Then the “authoritativeness”, their authoritative discernment. Such is the case of Huldah (see Alessandra Buzzetti, p. 25), the prophet to whom the judgement on the authenticity of the rediscovered book of the Law is entrusted. At that time, there were quite a few prophets in Israel, and it is truly shocking that one should rely on a woman, who should, because of her gender, be uncultured and very inadequate to what is asked of her. Moreover, discernment, through a kind of oracular representation, can be spoken of with regard to the woman of Tekoa called to induce David not to take revenge on his son Absalon who killed his brother Amnon. Different, but not so distant, in its ability to read salvation history and sing of God’s merciful action, is the prophetic locution of Anna, mother of Samuel. Her song is echoed in the Magnificat of Mary of Nazareth.
In addition, how can we forget, after the prodigious crossing of the Red Sea, Moses’ sister; “Then Mary, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand: behind her came out the women with tambourines and with dances. Mary sang the refrain for them”. Her role in the exodus story is emphasized - after the episode where, together with Aaron, she speaks against Moses - by her staying in the camp until she is cleansed of the leprosy that struck her for seven days. [See Ami-Jill Levine p.16].
In the New Testament, alongside Mary of Nazareth - Jerome identifies her as a prophetess precisely from the Magnificat - stand the old woman Anne who lives out her widowhood by not leaving the temple and the four daughters of Philip. We have nothing to go on except to identify them as prophets. But the full range of the prophetic charisma is discernible in the Magnificat, a song of praise, an acknowledgement of the faithfulness of the God of the covenant, a utopian gaze on a future to come in which the rules of human living so foreign to God’s design will be overturned.
Regardless of the complex exegetical issues, in placing it on the lips of the Mother of the Lord, the author of the Lucan infancy gospel wanted to give a theological and theological portrait of her. In addition, I believe, that more than anything else it stands out, alongside the spirituality of the “poor of the Lord”, the lucid judgement on history, the indomitable certainty of the definitive coming near of the God of the covenant. These testimonies, certainly few in number, in the obviousness with which they are conveyed to us, reaffirm the constant of female prophecy. Which, on the other hand, the Pauline epistolary confirms.
Unfortunately, a certain diffidence - think of the Montanist female prophets – was to produce that exile of the Spirit that, at times and repeatedly, seems to mark the history of the Church. Nevertheless, despite this, the prophecy of women was not extinguished. For example, think of Hildegard of Bingen, and others.
It must also be said that at a certain turning point in history, prophetic eloquence is the only possibility to speak offered to women. A dangerous possibility that can even lead them to death (Margaret Porete is a striking example). Yet, when it is recognised, it becomes vaticinium, science, mysticism, theology, knowledge, speaking in the widest sense of the term. For the most part, it is utterances that are attentive to the present, which shows its errors, its uncertainties, spurring the community to a renewed evangelical feeling, to a renewed purity. Exemplary in this key is St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi in her Letters of Renovation, which probably never reached their recipients, but how lucid they were in a time of crucial transformations. By more explicit means, exposing themselves in the first person was done even earlier by Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. In them, prophetic locution and mystical locution are interwoven together with judgement on the present, not without an open eye to the future. Women’s prophecy is steeped in the present, in a critical way of seeing the present, and for this very reason, it opens it up to the future. It finds multiple forms, not a few of which are sympathetic to women themselves in times that remain adverse to them. Not by chance, the epigone of medieval mysticism, of prophetic figures ahead of the modern age. For example, how can we forget Juliana of Norwich and her theological stature? A huge founding effort was made between the 18th and 20th centuries to set up religious institutes and congregations with the aim of bringing to an end intolerable situations of moral and social illness, often using the education of women as a lever, as a fulcrum. Giving life to them were singular figures who struggled to be heard and who, tenacious and stubborn, resisted pressures of all kinds in order to correspond to the breath of the Spirit. We could also say that, at a certain point, prophetic loquacity is succeeded by factual prophecy in ever-new forms. Unfortunately, it loses its original mystical and theological depth over time. It would be necessary to retrace the history of spirituality to show falls in tone attributable not so much to women as to the idea of the Church elaborated from time to time. And it would also be necessary to understand - and this applies to today - that needs change and to stubbornly keep alive what is dead, not reconverting the charism, is not only a denial of prophecy, but is a sin against the Spirit.
Beyond the inevitable ‘shadows’, in the complexity of stories and people, the prophecy of women persists. And not only in the red thread of enlightenment, when they were often persecuted, but nonetheless victorious in making room for a less rigid, less self-centered, less triumphalist experience of the Church.
From the Montanist prophets, passing through the heresy of Guglielma and Maifreda, we arrive at the Radical Reformation, the Huguenot female prophets, the Methodist female prophets, the renewal of the Spirit as an interconfessional and trans-religious phenomenon.
Women’s prophecy is present in the Church today through the demand for reform, in the search for new authority, in theological and cultural commitment. If the prophetesses of the past, visionary or not, revealed themselves to us as theologians, the prophetic eloquence of women now runs in their passionate questioning of the Scriptures, in revisiting and re-orienting theology across the board. Again, in the careful reading of history, in the utopia of a humanity that is at last sororal and fraternal, open to the gentle and vigorous, joyful and pacifying, never, never homologating, breathe of the Spirit of God.
By Cettina Militello
Director of the Women and Christianity Chair, Marianum Pontifical Theological Faculty