A woman of conviction creates a pillar of fire

  • Joyce Hollyday, author of “Pillar of Fire.” Photo/MARC MULLINAX

For the Recorder
Published: 1/5/2022 3:00:48 PM

Joyce Hollyday’s life has been picaresque. The writer and minister started her spiritual journey at a Methodist church on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pa. She ended up in Shelburne Falls after a life full of activism, writing and creating community.

The heroine of her new novel, “Pillar of Fire” (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 396 pages, $29), also has a varied life’s journey. As the book opens, the 13-year-old English girl is helping her older sister prepare for the birth of a much-wanted child in the early 13th century.

Clarissa’s life is turned upside down when her sister and the baby both die during the birthing process despite the best efforts of a wise midwife. Her parents want the teenager to marry her sister’s widower, who brings prestige and money to the family as a knight in the Crusades.

Clarissa rebels and runs away from home. She travels first throughout her own country, then to Europe and Egypt. She ends up co-founding a community of women who worship God in a new way, freed from the hierarchy and militarism of the Catholic church.

That community is based on a real-life group. “I discovered the Beguines, these medieval mystics from the 13th century. I was just fascinated,” Hollyday said.

Not exactly nuns but not exactly lay women, the Beguines befriended societal and religious outcasts and created their own communities. “The two options that were available to them were to be wives and nuns. They didn’t want to be under the control of husbands or under the control of the church,” she said.

Intrigued by these women, who were well remembered in Europe but little known in the United States, Hollyday got a grant to travel to Belgium to visit eight of the Beguinages, as the women’s communities were called. UNESCO has designated 13 Beguinages as World Heritage Sites.

Hollyday did extensive research about the Beguines and about medieval life in general to flesh out her novel. She was particularly struck by the life story of Marguerite Porete.

“She’s probably the most well-known Beguine. She wrote a book called ‘The Mirror of Simple Souls,’ which celebrated the feminine aspects of God and the power of love over reason,” Hollyday noted.

The Beguines in general, and Porete in particular, became targets of the Inquisition, Hollyday said. An inquisitor burned Porete’s books in a public square in Paris and ordered her to stop writing … or else. She refused to betray her principles and was eventually burned at the stake.

As Clarissa’s spiritual journey progresses in the book, her fate begins to merge with that of Porete.

Although Clarissa’s life and era may seem far removed from our own, Hollyday believes that parallels exist.

“In this culture we have such a longing for community and for creative ways to live in the world,” she said. “Their world was very much like ours, with great divisions between the wealthy and the poor.”

Strife and religious intolerance were a large part of Clarissa’s era, Hollyday added, calling it “a time of war and plague and tyrants, just like we are experiencing now.”

We sometimes think we’re living in unprecedented times,” she stated. “I think that that keeps us from looking toward history and (seeing solutions).”

I asked her who might be the audience for her book, which I found colorful and absorbing.

“I have a particular concern for young women who get messages all the time that they should be thin in body, mind and spirit,” she said. “I wanted to encourage them to be bold and daring and creative.”

She also hopes the book will “provide encouragement for those of us who might call ourselves progressive Christians or social justice Christians.” She observed that much of the depiction of Christianity in popular culture portrays it as conservative and intolerant.

“We’re in very difficult days. Many of us are feeling that they’re likely to get even more difficult,” she said. “I think we need the stories that will help us see that it is possible to make a change and take a stand, and I hope that ‘Pillar of Fire’ will encourage people to that.”

Hollyday has penned numerous nonfiction works, but “Pillar of Fire” is her first novel. She enjoys creating fiction. “It’s way more fun to get to make stuff up,” she smiled. “When you’re writing a novel, your characters can do and say anything they want to do and say.”

She confided that the natural world around her home in Shelburne Falls has helped inspire her. “There are many aspects of (the book) and many of the characters that came to me as I was walking,” she said.

Hollyday has two other novels in the works. She and her husband, Bill Ramsey, have lived in the area for less than a year but feel very much at home.

“We came to grow old with a circle of longtime friends up here,” she explained.

She described her bonds of friendship with this group as “an informal covenant of faith and mutual care.” Joyce Hollyday’s creation of community in many ways parallels that of her heroine.

“Pillar of Fire” may be ordered from Wipf and Stock Publishers at https://wipfandstock.com/9781725282230/pillar-of-fire/ or from any bookstore.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.


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