The Newsroom recently sat down with Liz Kelly, managing editor of LOGOS journal, about the success of her latest book, “Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom & Joy from the Women of the New Testament.” The award-winning book was selected as the October 2018 title for the U.S. Catholic Book Club. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to write your book?
A lot of it came out of the course I teach here in the Department of Catholic Studies, Woman and Man. I’ve been teaching that since 2008 or 2009, so a lot of years just thinking about this question of what it means to be male and female and what are the implications for that. In that process, I discovered a new relationship for myself with the women of the church. Just seeing them and their strength and in their dignity and the gifts that they bring, how important they are.
At the same time, I was going through a program to be certified as a spiritual director, and one of the requirements for the program that I went to is completing the Ignatian Exercises. With the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, you pray basically the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ in a very concentrated way. It’s maybe an hour and a half over nine months every day.
It’s a very intense kind of reflection. It was interesting to me in prayer how much the women were presenting themselves, almost like they wanted to be better known. Not even so much, “Look at me, look at me,” but, “Look at how my interaction with Christ has made me whole and brought me to flourishing.”
You also traveled to the Holy Land. How was that?
It was really cool, walking around feeling like, “I’ve been here before,” because I’ve done the exercises and the deep, intensive prayer. I had been there in prayer. I just felt like especially Mary Magdalene kept me company throughout this whole process. She became kind of the anchoress for the book; she’s the first chapter. It was a sense of wanting to express this kind of new relationship and new respect that I had for especially the women of the New Testament.
Tell me about the awards you’ve received.
The Catholic Press Association gave the book an award in Scripture: Popular Studies. The Independent Press recognized the book as a Distinguished Favorite, which is curious because they’re a secular organization, so the fact that they even liked it made me really happy. They went out of their way to say that they liked the storytelling style of the book, which was really nice.
What do you think of how it’s being so well received? Were you expecting that?
This is my seventh book, so I’m kind of used to the reality, especially in the area that I write, that your book goes out and it’s not very often that you get to meet readers. “Jesus Approaches” has been a little bit different just because we’ve been doing a study with it through the Archdiocese, so I’ve been meeting a lot of the readers of the book.
I recently was on the Catholic television station EWTN on one of their programs every single day for a week. The book went to number one on Amazon! It’s just that power of television.
A woman wrote to me after seeing me on TV, saying that she ordered the book and had a very powerful experience of healing. At the end of each chapter there’s a little assignment for prayer. She was doing that and had a very, very powerful experience, and it happened to be on the feast of Mary Magdalene. She felt compelled to find me on the internet and wrote to me and sent me this story. That was really moving.
I’m never surprised at the generosity of God. He’s always wanting to give us Himself and to bring us into a deeper place of healing and joy. It’s fun when someone actually takes the time to write to me. I will say, this book, more than any other that I’ve written, has gotten a lot more of that kind of response, and I think part of it might be because of those little prayer assignments.
I understand that “Jesus Approaches” is being used as a book study in Florida for inmates.
Yes! This is a pilot, and I’m hoping that if this goes well, we’ll be able to offer it nationwide. I wrote an eight-week study that goes with the book, and we’ve been giving that in our Archdiocese; about 400 women have gone through it so far. It was awesome because the women donated books to send to the inmates in Martin County Jail in Florida after the study. So all these inmates got their own new, fresh materials. I’ll do the study again this fall in two locations and I’ll invite women again to make a donation to the women’s prison ministry.
Did Martin County Jail approach you?
Yes, a woman who took my study knew a gentleman and his wife who did women’s prison ministry in Florida, and it was her idea. She just wrote to them and said, “I think this would be awesome.” I sent them a copy of the book and he said, “I agree.” So that’s how it got started. But it’s such a good idea, I thought, “Let’s do this in other places if it’s helpful.”
An interesting phrase that I read in your book was about Jesus “giving gifts wrapped up as other people.” What are some examples in your life of Jesus giving you gifts wrapped up as other people?
My mom. She’s just an exceptionally prayerful person – really funny with a wicked sense of humor. She also happens to have a great editorial ear. She’s read everything I’ve ever written.
Both of my parents gave me the confidence to pursue writing. It’s been a really good life. It’s been a really joyful and fulfilling experience for me. I remember when I was in graduate school, I was thinking about, “Should I go do an MFA in writing, or should I go to law school?” My dad’s a judge, and I went to him and I said, “I don’t know what to do!”
He said, “I think you’d be a great attorney, you have a fine mind for making arguments, but when you write, I don’t even know where that comes from. To me, that’s special.”
That was really meaningful to me that my own dad would say to me, “You have something even I don’t understand.”
You’ve also shared in the book that you’ve entered the “last portion of your life.” How has your perspective on life changed through the decades?
I have a column that I write once a month called “Your Heart, His Home,” and it’s kind of on this topic – it’s about aging. St. Francis used to refer to his body and its “many demands” and he always wanted it to do more than it could, wanted to fast better, and he used to call it “Brother Ass.” So I’ve kind of started referring to my body as “Sister Ass.” For example, this morning I had to take Sister to the gym and make her work out. Just things like that are harder.
I have MS too, so it’s just an added thing. So many people have chronic diseases. I think that there are many freedoms that come in this stage of life, and many fears fall away or burn away. You live through and realize it’s nothing to be afraid of. So it’s been a very joyful experience. Even though I have more pain in my body or more fatigue in my body or whatever, just the physical aspects of aging, I would say the spiritual aspects of aging far outweigh the aches and the pains and the limitations that sometimes come with that. It’s really like putting on a new set of glasses and you get a new view of things. I have a much deeper sense of freedom.
In “Jesus Approaches” you write about how you loved horses, but you had to move away from all of that because your father was a judge and needed to relocate. How did you feel writing that, and how do you feel now when you recall painful moments from your childhood?
I recall that moment with a great deal of gratitude because of my mom’s response to it. The whole point of telling that story was that she allowed me to grieve and allowed me to be sad. She really demonstrated the truth of compassion, because compassion is entering into another experience.
We tend to think of compassion as, “Well, I’ll write a check to end this suffering.” But really, compassion is entering into and standing with another while they suffer. It requires a lot more of you, and she was so willing to do that. She just stood there and cried with me.
That example of just how selfless she was and how willing she was to stand with me in that terrible pain really affected me.