No Crystal Stair

Womanist Spirituality

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Diana L. Hayes
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     2016.
     176 pages.
     $22.06.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626981959.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

To many womanist scholars, systematic theologian Diana L. Hayes epitomizes an expressive consciousness that centers the presence of deep faith as a well-spring of extraordinary spirituality within the ordinary of black women’s lived experiences. Hayes organized her latest book, No Crystal Stair, to provide a compilation of previously printed or presented essays that coalesce meditative witness and connect varied threads of contemplative sources as a roadmap for readers’ personalized discernment. The author’s overarching aim is to inspire a commitment in readers to awaken those deeply reflective instincts—often suppressed—in favor of analytical logic without acknowledging the depth of human and divine experiential encounters that seed our souls.

The essence of Hayes’s musings in No Crystal Stair is her first-person treatise of re-memory that womanist ethicist Stacey Floyd Thomas describes in Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 2006)  as a purposeful method of embodied testimony and conscientization process. In the Introduction, Hayes sets her re-memory of “where and how God intervened and guided me onto a path I now walk as a Roman Catholic womanist theologian” (xxii), and sets out to share with the reader “a spirituality forged in the awareness and experience of the multiplicative forms of oppression that are used to restrain black women” (xxiii). Hayes’s description of womanist spirituality is simultaneously an ethical and experiential sensing of the divine that guides and affirms human self-actualization. In the first chapter, as Hayes discusses her doctrinal training in Catholicism, she roots her writing within her identity as an African American descendent of African diaspora women, whose shared stories and beliefs provided the foundational gleanings that emerge to undergird Hayes’s scholarly perspectives of religion and society.

Throughout the book, Hayes grounds her personal lens of spirituality as an abiding belief in a benevolent God materially manifested in the incarnational ministry of Jesus, and in the inward breakthrough of the Holy Spirit to offer “Spirit-grounded strength” (17) as an ethical life-force of hope (13-19). In subsequent chapters, Hayes interweaves literary exemplars of social and theo-ethical criticism using black renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, as well as contemporary womanist authors such as Alice Walker and Delores Williams, as central themes to engage in a dialectical process of examining black struggle, black religion, and the centrality of a justice-conscious God found in Scripture, song, prayers, prose, and narratives (58-71). The premise for Hayes’s diverse literary tropes becomes clearer as the book progresses, urging the reader’s recognition of the female fortitude and wisdom which interfaced with human struggle throughout history, and is prescient still in the roles of black women as nodes of testimony, mother-wit nurture, and instinctual dignity (104-120). A call-to-action urges present and future generations of theo-ethically aligned readers to strengthen spiritual disciplines attuned to the works of community making and insistent inclusion. Hayes asserts that in church and society, “All are to be welcome, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, culture or ethnicity, or native tongue” (137).

The only question I have is where to situate Hayes’s work for pedagogical discourse within the larger framework of textual resources on spirituality. In the contemplative yet prophetic tradition of black theology, Hayes freely engages her womanist identity without the restrictions of requisite philosophical underpinnings and introductory comparisons for uninitiated readers. These expressions in No Crystal Stair are those of an already prolific author who writes as much for the reader as for her own pensive autobiographical synopsis. Furthermore, Hayes writes from within the reality of an existential crisis of diaspora consciousness (123-138). On one hand, for readers with basic familiarity of black theology and literature, Hayes continues to weave the wondrous threads of bountiful African American literary expression with selected colorings of biblical text to create melodious strands for reflecting upon inner consciousness.

On the other hand, for the uninitiated reader of the theology of black religion, African American literature, or one lacking a theoethic lens of womanist approaches, Hayes intricate inter-weavings might be mistakenly construed as a claim of cultural romanticism, rather than a recognized black feminist and womanist methodology of socio-critical reflection? Those open to enriching sociocultural orientations to theological perspectives will find Hayes contributes rich insights, whether or not the reader is familiar with feminist or womanist thought. Nevertheless, as a sole resource, Hayes neither offers the uninitiated a systematized process to introduce womanist scholarship nor the ethnographical or methodological cases, possibly because Hayes presumes the reader has basic familiarity with the confessional tenets of womanism or an exposure to her earlier writings on theology and spirituality. Still, the masterful treatment of multi-textural resources in No Crystal Stair is approachable.

Hayes’s writings are a passionate testimony that will not be lost on the uninitiated reader, especially if examined in conjunction with other supplemental readings. Perhaps for that reason, Hayes provides a comparative resource list for spiritual reflection from other theologians such as Stephanie Mitchem, Renita Weems, and JoAnne Terrill to name a few. As a womanist scholar and professor, I will include the book in Christian ethics and practical theology courses along with texts of Cannon, Townes, Floyd-Thomas, and forenamed womanist theologians to broaden understanding in praxis intersections of race and gender, and to examine societal and ecclesial mores of spirituality. Finally, I agree with Hayes’ conclusion critiquing the inequities in present ecclesial praxis while reassuring women particularly, but not solely, that spirituality is a manifestation of faith as inward strength despite the trials and tribulations of our modern societal landscape. As the author reveals, life is “no crystal stair.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Valerie Miles-Tribble is Associate Professor of Ministerial Leadership and Practical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley, CA.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Diana L. Hayes is professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University. She is the author of several books including (with Cyprian Davis) Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States; Were You There: Stations of the Cross, Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality, and Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made Me.

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