B.A., Stetson University; M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Harvard University
Sharon K. ElkinsProfessor Emerita of Religion
Scholar of the history of Christianity and contemporary Catholicism with special attention to the Virgin Mary and to women’s spiritual writings.
My studies focus on women in Christianity and on that premier female figure, Mary, the mother of Jesus. I first wrote about women who formed religious communities in 12th-century England, relying largely on economic charters, religious rules, and other rather dry sources that medievalists need to use; but a few of the women I studied recounted visionary experiences in which they claimed they talked with Jesus and Mary. Those accounts I found particularly creative theologically and spiritually. Since then, women’s visionary literature has been the heart of my studies. My approach is two-pronged. I’m writing about women who’ve reported having encounters with Mary, starting in the Middle Ages with Hildegard of Bingen and Gertrude the Great. I’m also finishing a book that both describes as an insider and analyzes as a scholar the types of experiences a woman today can have from following Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
In 1976, my first year at Wellesley, I taught Contemporary Catholicism and Christian Thought 100 to 1600; though what was contemporary then no longer is, those two courses remain a mainstay of my curriculum. I love to teach, and I’m delighted that my research interests dovetail nicely with student interests in Women and Christianity, The Virgin Mary, Christian Spiritual Literature, and in the course I co-teach with Professor Claire Fontijn of the Music Department on the 12th-century composer and visionary Hildegard of Bingen. Although most of my courses have a strong historical focus, they also include a large modern component, and both of my seminars are on contemporary issues: Women Theologians on Jesus, Gender, and the Earth and Liberation Theology (on peace and justice from a Christian global perspective). Several of my courses also count toward a major in Women's Studies, Latin American Studies, and Medieval-Renaissance Studies.
For 25 years I was an adjunct professor at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston where I taught a yearlong course in church history to the first-year men preparing for priesthood as a second career, a group quite unlike my Wellesley students. I found the contrast stimulating. To study modern Marian devotion, I have often gone to Marian pilgrimage sites—Guadalupe, Loreto, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, to name a few. To place Marian devotion in a larger context, I recently traveled with Wellesley faculty to Mysore, India, where I observed the worship of Chamundi and other goddesses.
I enjoy puttering in my flower garden; horticulture magazines are what I read to fall asleep. Every year since 1984 I have made at least an eight-day silent retreat at Gonzaga, Eastern Point Retreat House, in Gloucester, Mass. And I love to travel, primarily to Europe—to Italy as often as possible—but recently I went to Japan, Thailand, and Myanmar, where I stayed briefly in a Buddhist monastery in Lashio. To learn about pre-Columbian religions in the Americas, I’ve gone to Maya sites in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala and to the Inca ruins at Cusco and Machu Picchu.