Economies of Sainthood: Disrupting the Discourse of Female Hagiography

Kathleen McPhillips

Traditional stories of saints, known as hagiographies, are texts that commonly position female saints in economies of sacrifice. Women saints are thus exemplars of an all-giving, sacrificial mode of being that characterises holiness and union with God. Traditionally, female saints have been “produced” for the community by male clerics who interpret the “voice” of the saint and produce a saintly life in very particular discursive conditions (Ashton 2000). Through such texts, she provides for the faithful an account of holiness by subjecting mind, body, soul and heart to the rigours and disciplines of a holy life which can involve sacrificing individuality, subjecting the body to extreme levels of pain and martyrdom, denying the body nourishment and rest, repressing sexuality and living with the poorest of the poor. Such economies of sainthood are based on notions of femininity constructed as idealised womanhood and can become “dangerous texts” for women’s struggle towards autonomy and authentic subjecthood (Joy 1994: 117-18).

The interjection of feminist critiques into the discourse of hagiography (Ashton 2000; Jantzen 1995; Joy 1994) aims to understand the ways in which the lives of female saints comply with the normative conventions of hagiography which is largely clericalised and masculinised and how critical interjections might disrupt this discourse to see if saints have something to say of meaning to contemporary women searching for spiritual insight. Remembering the life of one such saint - the Australian Catholic colonial woman, Mary MacKillop who founded an order of religious sisters known as the Institute of St Joseph in South Australia in 1866 - may help us to see that her spirituality and insight could hold a deep wisdom for women seeking an authentic sense of self, one where there is reciprocity, not sacrifice. This is a different economy that takes love as the basis of exchange between women, men and the divine and where voice is not censored but encouraged. In this essay I want to argue that feminist interjections into female hagiographic texts

K. McPhillips (*)

University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

M. Joy (ed.), Women, Religion, and the Gift, Sophia Studies in Cross-cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures 17, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43189-5_4

might reveal a different economy of sainthood: one based on female holiness as reciprocity where the saintly self reveals a voice not completely colonised by the Law of the Father and where other, less censored, resonances might be heard.

I believe that the life of Mary MacKillop is tightly bound in both traditional hagiography and colonial narrative . Because she was a woman born in colonial times, her life is well documented in the thousands of letters that she herself wrote and that were written to and about her. She also kept a journal, which provides a particularised narrative account of her own understandings and insight into her life and self. There are millions of words written about this saint and by this saint, yet do we know who she was? And what she was trying to say about her relationship with God?

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