Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Mary Ward Summer School – Week 3: A Woman Like Us

St. Thomas Parish, Osbaldwick

We’ve wrapped up the third and final week of the Mary Ward summer school. This has been a shorter week – only three and a half days – but it has been equally intense. We examined the period of Mary Ward’s life after she arrived in Rome in 1621 up until her death in England in 1645. The years between 1621 and 1631 were a time of rapid expansion of the Institute and of tensions with Church authorities, resulting in the suppression of the Institute.

This period of Mary’s life gives something of a balance to the earlier period of her life in that it gives us a reality check on who she is: a woman with flaws. Our earlier studies, and especially the study of her spirituality and her inspirations for founding the Institute (‘Glory’) and its manner of life (‘Take the Same’) and the qualities of its members (‘The Just Soul’) emphasized the virtues and courage Mary exhibited. This latter part of her life, while still demonstrating virtue and courage, also showed us the actions of a woman who made some poor decisions. During this time, she was often severely ill, likely extremely fatigued, burdened by administration and care for the well-being of her Institute members, and consequently, appears to have made some imprudent decisions.

Mary’s tombstone in St. Thomas Parish

While it is true that Mary strove for a new form of religious life for women in a period of Church history that was not ready for it, her burst of apostolic activity [expansion into Cologne and Trier (1620-21), opening a school in Rome (1622), setting up foundations in Naples (1623), Perugia (1624), Munich and Vienna (1627), and Pressburg (1628)] without the Institute being approved by the Holy See, and in certain cases, without permission of the local bishop to step up shop, was not good strategy for being accepted by the Church. We also learned that the foundation in Liege had suffered terribly in Mary’s absence, its members suffering from poverty and hunger, and, in fact, dying from these conditions. Given the suffering in one of her foundations, it is hard to understand why Mary put so much effort into expansion.

We can interpret her activity as being based upon her conviction that she was following the will of God for her Institute, believing that “by their fruits ye shall know them” and attempting to demonstrate the value of her Institute to the Church, thereby securing approval for it. However, the reality of the political situation at that time really required more careful diplomacy from her. In addition, she was initially defiant in response to the suppression of her houses, seemingly based on misinformation, which did not help her cause either. The actions of one of her companions, Winifred Wigmore (who I love for her feistiness but who I suspect had a difficult personality), also contributed to the subsequent Bull of Suppression in 1631.

A letter from a school visit to Mary Ward’s tombstone

Of course, it is easy from this point in history, when we have access to all kinds of information and have a better understanding of the political and religious lay of the land than Mary Ward did, to point out the flaws in her judgment and in her strategy. She did what she was able to do.

This week, then, has been about seeing Mary Ward in, perhaps, a more realistic light. She was truly a visionary woman, grounded in Ignatian spirituality, who believed that women had a significant role to play in the Church and in spiritual and religious formation/education, and she was tenacious in her efforts to have her Institute approved. But she was also a woman so focused on her divine ambition that she expected her members to make significant sacrifices, she didn’t pay careful attention to the conditions of some of her foundations, and she didn’t play the political-religious game well, to the detriment of her work and of members’ well-being. She was, in short, a woman like the rest of us: a woman of divinely inspired potential, striving for the greater glory of God within the limitations of her humanity.

At the end of our summer school program, we made a little pilgrimage to Osbaldwick, the site of Mary Ward’s burial. Her tombstone hangs in the parish there although we don’t know for sure whether she is still buried in the churchyard or if her body had been moved elsewhere at some point in history. Regardless, it is a meaningful place for all Mary Ward women, the galloping girls, to visit. We ended our summer school together with a time of profound prayer and unity with each other and with our foundress, inspired by the words on her tombstone:

To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live, die, and rise with them
was all the aim
of
Mary Ward who
having lived 60 years and 8 days
died the 20 of January 1645

These words have taken on a deeper meaning after our studies, now that we can interpret them more fully. She loved the poor (the materially poor, the spiritually poor – in England and elsewhere), persevered in the same (of the Society), lived, died and (will) rise with them (the members of her Institute). Mary Ward’s mission and charism are there for the world to see.

With the end of the summer school, it is time for this galloping girl to head home. With a suitcase and a heart full of treasures.

The participants of the Mary Ward Summer School 2019


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Resurrection Sunday

(I took these photos when I visited the Heidelberg Project in Detroit in 2013. Begun partly as a political protest, the Heidelberg Project is revitalizing the blighted neighbourhood of McDougall-Hunt. I was fascinated by this community’s efforts to change their city. )

In her message for Passover, Rabbi Sharon Brous recalls the wisdom of a friend who taught her to challenge the narrative of a story, whether Scripture or the story of her life. She shares three questions we can ask ourselves when we contemplate our own narratives.

We begin by asking ourselves, “When have I been a victim in my life? Can I name one specific moment where I was the victim?” We have all experienced times when we were the victim of a circumstance or of another’s actions. It is important to recognize these moments because they hold a truth about that experience. However, we must not stop there. We need to continue and ask the next question. Looking at the same story, we ask ourselves, “How was I the hero of the story?” Oftentimes, in challenging circumstances, we have been both victim and hero. We have suffered because of external conditions but we have also been graced with agency and the ability to act and take responsibility for ourselves. It is important to acknowledge these moments in our lives, too. And finally, we look again at the story, and we ask, “What did I learn?” We see that in all stories, we may be victims and we may be heroes, but we are also learners. We are always disciples seeking truth. Rabbi Brous says we are “learners on a timeless journey from narrowness to great expansive possibility”.

The Resurrection opens us to great expansive possibility. Pope Francis, in his homily for the Easter Vigil, makes this clear. He suggests that in our lives we often come up against the stone that blocks the tomb. He says, “At times it seems that everything comes up against a stone”. In the readings for the Vigil, we are reminded of the stones that mark salvation history: the beauty of creation but also of the reality of sin, the liberation of the Israelites but also their infidelity to God, the promises of the prophets and the indifference of the people. The stones that mark salvation history mirror the stones that mark our own lives.

In the Resurrection, however, the narrative is changed. The stone is rolled away. And all because of a simple question that is asked of the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. A simple question, one we need to ask ourselves, day after day: Why do you seek the living among the dead?

This is the question that changes the narrative. From failure to victory. From victim to hero. From victim to hero to disciple. Jesus is not dead, he is risen. Why do you seek the living among the dead? This question calls us (and calls me very loudly!) to look carefully at our own lives and ask the questions: In what ways am I looking for the living among the dead? Do I even realize that this is what I am doing?

Waking up this morning to news of the bombing in Sri Lanka was devastating. To learn of innocent lives taken and senseless violence that destroys families and communities does not square with Easter joy. It is not easy to encounter the violence that exists in the world, in our cities, and even in our homes. Where is the Risen Christ in a violent world? There are no easy answers.

In the Easter season, however, not only are we being asked to challenge the narrative of our lives, but to do so within the hope of the Resurrection. I experienced this hope profoundly in the Easter Vigil celebration last night. I was reminded that I, and all of us, have been given the Light of the World. Symbolized in the stark beauty of the Easter candle alit with new flame, I saw that the flame is undiminished no matter how it is divided. In fact, the more it is divided (symbolized in the tapers we lit last night), the flame glows all the more brightly and vividly. We take the hope of the Risen Christ, the flame of the Light of the World, out into the world with us and we challenge the narrative of the violence of our world. It is not an easy task but we are disciples who learn along the way, who journey from narrowness to expansiveness.

I’d like to end this blog post with excerpts from the Exsultet, that ancient prayer of the Easter Proclamation. It never ceases to give me goosebumps when I hear it chanted. It proclaims the victory of Christ, the victory of the light over darkness. May it give us the hope our world so desperately needs.

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred,
fosters concord,
and brings down the mighty.

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed
to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

 


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The way of love

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered today in the United States. I am a relative latecomer to his sermons but I have been deeply moved by the power of his rhetoric. My favourite of his sermons is “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”. In it, he speaks as the Apostle Paul, offering a critique of American society. His words continue to resonate and are significant for many societies around the world, including Canadian society. I’d like to share an excerpt from that sermon. Its words speak to my heart and are needed more than ever in today’s world where so many of our actions emerge from a place of fear rather than a place of love. This excerpt is taken from “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” found in the anthology Strength to Love published by Fortress Press.

American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language and you may possess the eloquence of articulate speech; but even though you speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, you are like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

            You may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behaviour of molecules, you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you have all knowledge, and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but, devoid of love, all of these mean absolutely nothing.

            But even more, Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor, you may bestow great gifts to charity, and you may tower high in philanthropy, but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilled blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s supreme heroes; but even so, if you have not love, your blood is spilled in vain. You must come to see that a man may be self-centred in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego and his piety his pride. Without love, benevolence becomes egotism and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

            The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.