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8 Prayer Mentors from History

Christian women throughout the centuries serve as a cloud of witnesses for us, and their stories of faith still speak to us today. These eight women exemplified goodness, truth, and beauty in the midst of struggles, questions, and suffering—and they found strength to do so through prayer. Their prayer practices can breathe new life and meaning into our own.

Vibia Perpetua: Courageous Love

Perpetua (c.182–203) grew up in a Roman family in Carthage when Tunisia was under Roman rule. Changing her faith from the Roman imperial cult to Christianity was illegal. Nonetheless, at the time of her arrest, Perpetua was a committed catechumen—a young believer undergoing training in the faith prior to baptism. As part of her formal instruction of Christian teachings, she likely would have read contemporary North African theologian Tertullian’s On Prayer, which emphasized placing hope in God. After several days of house arrest with her companions, Perpetua was baptized. She and her fellow catechumens were soon taken to prison. The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, one of the oldest Christian texts, describes how Perpetua and her fellow prisoner Felicity “poured out their prayer to the Lord” in the days preceding their execution. At age 22, Perpetua died as a martyr, being tossed by a wild bull and killed by the sword in an arena with many spectators watching. The Passion documents Perpetua calling out at the moment of death, “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another.” For centuries, Christian communities in Carthage read her writing annually and were encouraged by her sacrificial love.

For Perpetua, prayer was an act of courageous love—a way of loving others as a mother would care for her child. While in the dark, crowded prison awaiting execution, she had to confront her fear and anxiety, her familial ties, and especially her attachment to her nursing son. In Perpetua’s Passion, Joyce Salisbury notes how even when she was imprisoned, Perpetua exerted care for others through her prayers, “reclaiming a new maternal role after having renounced the old one.” Perpetua’s internal life of prayer also transformed her horrific death into an extraordinary external witness to the suffering of Christ and the Christian community. Prayer carried Perpetua through the gate of life.

Kassiani: Boundless Mercy

Kassiani (c.805–c.865) was the first female Byzantine composer of liturgical hymns. Born into an aristocratic family in Constantinople (Istanbul), Kassiani studied Scripture and classical Greek texts. She lived during the first iconoclasm—a period of deliberate destruction of Christian images. Kassiani was an iconophile who believed icons aided in prayer and were windows of God’s divine mystery. Because of this belief, she was flogged. Along with other devoted laywomen and nuns, Kassiani regularly visited the exiled and comforted those who suffered. She later became an abbess of a convent and cultivated a life dedicated to charity.

Prayer, for Kassiani, enchants us to God’s boundless mercy. As an inspired and exceptional poet, she prayed through music. More than 800 of her hymns and nonliturgical verses have survived. Her most well-known, “Hymn of Kassiani,” drew from Luke 7:36–50. In this hymn, Kassiani invites us to share in the despair of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed him with perfume. The verses sing, “Accept the fountain of my tears … without measure is your mercy.” Prayer opens the sorrow of our hearts to the merciful God. In Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy, Eva Catafygiotu Topping discusses Kassiani’s hymn: “The prayers [of the sinful woman], which began with a cry of despair and guilt, ends with a statement of faith and hope. The hymn which began with an image of a lost soul ends with the image of the soul redeemed by God’s infinite loving mercy.” Prayer is not just our human efforts of reaching out to God—it is also God’s way of extending his hands to ours.

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Teresa of Avila: A Thriving Garden

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) was a Spanish Carmelite nun, mystic, and prominent theologian. Teresa grew up in a Christian family and studied at an Augustinian nuns’ school. In her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, she described her teenage vanities and how good friendship rekindled her virtues. At age 20, she entered a convent. Her extensive reading and devotion drew her to imitate Christ. Between 1563 and 1568, Teresa mainly prayed and wrote in seclusion. She went on to found convents and monasteries and to reform the Carmelite order for both nuns and monks. Despite facing opposition from religious leaders due to her reforms, Teresa felt comfort and peace from God. In her book The Way of Perfection, she instructs us to imagine the loving God by our side as our friend.

If our lives are gardens, Teresa’s example reminds us that prayer is like water and sunshine that nourish our growth. Teresa urged believers to emulate God the gardener who cultivates the gardens of our lives: “We must strive like good gardeners to get these plants to grow and take pains to water them so that they don’t wither but come to bud and flower and give forth a most pleasant fragrance to provide refreshment for this Lord of ours. Then He will often come to take delight in this garden and find His joy among these virtues.” Teresa’s garden analogy reminds us of the time Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well to draw water to give him a drink. We are not just recipients of God’s living water; we are called to be active participants. In prayer, Teresa reminds us, we are co-gardeners with God, participating in our spiritual growth.

Candida Xu: Compassionate Service

Candida Xu (1607–1680) was one of the most prominent Christians during the Ming-Qing era in China. She exemplifies the way prayer fuels our expressions of faith. Candida learned daily prayers as a child from her devout Christian mother. As an adult, Candida continued a similar practice with her own family, gathering her husband, children, and household for evening prayers and reading devotional books. After becoming a widow at age 46, she continued serving God for the next 27 years through charitable works, including sponsoring many Jesuit missionaries, building churches, printing Christian texts and sacred art, and befriending people with disabilities.

Prayer, for Candida, rooted her life deeper in God and compelled her to serve others with compassion. Her confessor (spiritual counselor), Flemish Jesuit missionary Philip Couplet, wrote her biography, Histoire d’une Dame Chrétienne de la Chine (History of a Chinese Christian Woman), describing how Candida’s pious deeds grew out of her persistent faith. Scholar Gail King’s “A Model for All Christian Women”: Candida Xu, a Chinese Christian Woman of the Seventeenth Century, describes how “[Candida] began every day with a half-hour of prayer before the crucifix in her home chapel.” King emphasizes that Candida was “a woman whose faith was the primary motive for her actions.” Candida’s private and collective prayers animated her dedication and labor of love for the sick and the poor.

Ignacia del Espíritu Santo: Bold Trust

Ignacia del Espíritu Santo (c.1663–1748) grew up facing racial segregation and prejudice. The child of a Chinese Christian father and a Filipina mother, she was baptized on March 4, 1663, in Parián de Chinos (Chinese Market) in Binondo, Manila. During this time, Chinese people were segregated from the rest of the population. When Ignacia reached age 21, instead of marriage, she sought guidance from a priest. She went through The Spiritual Exercises and, after a time of prayer and discernment, decided to pursue her religious calling. Under Spanish colonization at that time, ecclesiastical structures refused to admit native people into religious vocation, so Ignacia lived in a house behind the Jesuit headquarters.

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In times of difficulty or uncertainty, prayer allows us to boldly trust God. For Ignacia, prayer was a lamp unto her feet. Her life of devotion, prayer, and work soon drew other Filipina laywomen to hear her teachings and to live with her. Ignacia and her company of women became known as the beatas (religious women). They developed rhythms of prayer, often praying late into the night. They overcame discrimination and poverty by supporting themselves through alms and manual labor. In contrast to the exclusion Ignacia frequently experienced in her life, she admitted girls and women of all ethnicities into her religious community. Her life was filled with trials, yet Ignacia fully trusted God and laid her burdens before God. Ignacia’s bold trust allowed her to become an instrument of God’s peace and truth.

Julia Foote: An Open Table

Julia Foote (1823–1901) was the first ordained woman deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. She preached as a holiness evangelist for over 50 years. In her autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire, Julia narrates her life growing up in New York as a free Black child of parents who were former slaves. Not being allowed to attend school because of racial discrimination, Julia had great joy in learning the alphabet from her father. She learned the Lord’s Prayer at age eight. “No tongue can tell the joy that filled my poor heart when I could repeat, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven.’ ”

During her married life, she experienced a strong call to preach, but she received pushback from her family and the African Methodist Church due to her gender. After her husband’s death, Julia became a traveling evangelist in the AME Zion church. She ministered among both whites and Blacks and led prayer meetings from house to house. Julia faithfully advocated for women and African Americans. Although childless, Julia emphasized the importance of introducing prayer to children. She declared, “We are never too young to pray, or too ignorant or too sinful.” Her words remind us of the inclusiveness of God’s banquet table, open to all who are willing to come.

Lilias Trotter: Sublime Beauty

When words reach their limitations, visual art can be a mysterious and beautiful way of expressing prayer. Lilias Trotter (1853–1928), a British missionary to Algeria, prayed through her watercolor paintings. Influenced by a Wesleyan holiness group called the Higher Life Movement, Lilias crossed social boundaries and reached out to the marginalized in her native London. She made it a habit to spend time in prayer, read Scripture, and listen to God in nature, where she sensed God “speaks … through all living things.” As a young woman, Lilias was a talented artist, gaining the attention of an influential art critic who urged her to dedicate herself entirely to painting. Instead, she devoted more and more of her attention to ministry. Eventually, she gave up her dream of becoming a professional artist and chose to be a missionary. Rejected by the North Africa Mission because of her poor health, she and two other women ventured to Algiers on their own. Lilias later worked in Algeria as a missionary for about 40 years and adapted the gospel to Algerian culture.

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Eventually, Lilias picked up her paintbrush again, revealing and expressing her love for God, for the land, for people, and for life lessons that God’s creation had taught her. In the documentary Many Beautiful Things, Lilias’s paintings open our eyes to perceive the sublime beauty of God. Lilias’s art, ministry, and prayer habits mentor us to learn from creation and walk in beauty with our Creator.

Alice Kahokuoluna: Fresh Air

For Alice Kahokuoluna (1888–1957), prayer was the breath of Christian life. Raised in a Christian family, she became the first Hawaiian female pastor ordained by the Hawaiian Evangelical Association. She faithfully ministered at churches and, after her husband’s death, cared for leprosy patients in Molokai, Hawaii. There she became known as “Mother Alice.”

In Nels Ferré’s Strengthening the Spiritual Life, Alice talks about learning from Hawaiian practices of prayer: long times of meditation and preparation. She noted how indigenous people “breathe life” into their prayers. Instead of rushing through prayers, Alice took time sitting with God. She breathed much life into her prayers as she met the demands and emotional tolls of being a caregiver for 31 years. Alice’s example invites us to be fully present and take our time when we communicate with God. When we rest in God’s presence without hurry, God breathes life into our prayers and into us.

Susangeline Patrick is assistant professor of world Christianity at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and a faculty member of NAIITS (a seminary focused on addressing theological issues from indigenous perspectives).

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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