Not a season of nature – it’s not autumn yet – but a new season of discovery. I begin my final year of theology studies tomorrow. I will be off and running until April.
After the unusual spring and summer of covid-19, I am hoping this new season will bring with it a sense of stability (even as there are worries about a second wave). I cannot say normalcy because I don’t really want online learning to become normal. I already miss being together with my friends and classmates in person. Nevertheless, this new season, with all of its screen time, will bring a certain stability and routine, which I definitely appreciate.
What’s more, I begin this new season in a new space. A new community setting that is intercongregational, intercultural, and intergenerational. New and new and new. And also familiar, in a way. I love domestic life and I am grateful to be living again in a house where I can do domestic things like cooking, and cleaning, and even a bit of decorating.
We are blessed to live close to High Park and to the lakefront. Each day I go out for a walk along the water or among the trees, discover some new sight, and I feel restored and reconnected. Ready for whatever comes next.
And with this new season, I am turning again to poetry (after a spring and summer off) and I find Malcolm Guite (of course) says it so well and with such beauty, especially this excerpt from his poem Strange Surprise:
None of this need have happened, all of this,
These unexpected gifts, this overflow
Of things we know, and things we’ll never know,
None of this had to be, but here it is,
The here-and-now in all its strange surprise;
A space to be ourselves in, and a grace
That spins us round and turns us to the source
Whence all these gifts and graces still arise.
I remember when my mom turned 40. Her sisters arranged a special surprise – we woke up to find a flamboyance of 40 pink plastic flamingos roosting on our front lawn and a sign saying “Honk! Stephy’s turning 40!” to encourage all drivers passing by to pay homage. Her birthday party that evening was filled with “Over the Hill” decorations and gag gifts. I can’t recall if I gave her a pair of dentures or a cane.
My own 40th birthday was not quite so outrageous. The pandemic put a bit of a damper on the celebration I had originally envisioned (a rooftop extravaganza) but it was still a day spent with family and friends (on the phone and online), and it was topped off with a barbecue in the evening with community and five very special guests (our first guests since the pandemic began!). Lots of food and conversation and laughter, and of course, cake.
While I have no qualms about turning 40, celebrating my birthday always reminds me that the summer is passing. It’s surprising how quickly this summer is moving along. March and April were painfully slow in passing but since then, time has sped up enormously. Thankfully, it has been filled with many good things.
For one, I made a book! Not a professionally published book but a self-made book of a number of posts from this blog spanning my first three years with the congregation. It was a project that I had on my ‘To Do’ list for a long time and finally did it. I am really pleased with the result. It’s a lovely memento but also, I hope, I’ll be able to share it with women who are discerning a vocation to religious life. They might appreciate to hear one woman’s experience of discernment.
This month I’ve been in UN mode. Earlier in the year, I was named regional representative to our UN NGO – collaborating with our CJ and IBVM representatives at our NGO in New York – which I am delighted about and which has already been so much fun. I spent two weeks of July glued to my laptop, watching meetings of the High Level Political Forum, and participating in side events on financing for development, child abuse online, and climate change. Now I’m working with the NGO Working Group on Girls and contributing to planning for activities for the International Day of the Girl on October 11th. It’s energizing to be engaged in this work again.
I’ve also been working on research for a comprehensive paper that is part of my theology studies. I’ve been reading about children’s rights and religious freedom, the spiritual and religious development of the child, and ecclesial and sacramental engagement of children. There’s lots to explore and it has been fascinating to do some reading on these topics. I’m grateful to have the time to devote to it and to be able to explore interesting tangents and ideas.
The day after my birthday, I gave my first-ever homily/reflection as part of St. Basil’s parish online Gathering series. I really enjoyed the process of preparing the homily, and though I was nervous about the delivery, it went well, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to do something similar again in the future.
Finally, I’ve been re-visiting last year’s Mary Ward Summer School – reading Mary Ward’s letters again, and adding in some of St. Ignatius’ letters. I’m finding so much that inspires and consoles and challenges and, above all, so much that reminds me of what my vocation is all about and what has attracted me to it. This little extract has given me another way to look at this time of the pandemic:
I would wish you every well-being and prosperity imaginable that might help you in promoting the service and glory of God Our Lord. However, then I think that these illnesses and other temporal mishaps frequently come from the hand of God our Lord so that we have greater self-knowledge and a diminished love for created things, along with a deepened realization of the brevity of this life of ours. In that way we can equip ourselves for the next life which is to last for ever. ~ Ignatius of Loyola, Letter to Isabel Roser, 1532
Of course, in between all of these projects, I’ve spent lots of time on the roof, enjoying the sun and an occasional dip in the pool, reading and relaxing on the lounge chairs (I need more Ted Chiang!), watching the new Babysitters Club series on Netflix (so good – somehow both nostalgic and modern – and brings back lots of memories of reading the BSC books), watching Singy Songy Sessions by the marvellously delightful Kate Rusby, and walking a virtual camino.
And now…I’m going on retreat! A very different experience this year to be sure – a Zoom retreat from my bedroom – but I have no doubt that this 4-day retreat with the “Under 55ish” group of religious across Canada will be just what is needed. Time to reflect and rest and give thanks for these 40 years.
I’m working on a research paper for an Old Testament class, exploring the life and exegetical work of Josephine Butler (1828-1906), an Englishwoman and social reformer dedicated to women’s equality. The more that I read about her and by her, the more profoundly I am inspired by her character and her work.
Through her deep faith and prayer life, she grew to personally identify with marginalized women – the poor and destitute, prostitutes and women in prisons and workhouses – and dedicated her life to working for social change that would improve their lives.
I came across a passage in her memoir that beautifully describes her struggle with God as her vocation to advocate for others emerged.
For one long year of darkness the trouble of heart and brain urged me to lay all of this at the door of the God, whose name I had learned was Love. I dreaded Him – I fled from Him – until grace was given me to arrive and wrestle, as Jacob did, with the mysterious Presence, who must either slay or pronounce deliverance. And then the great questioning again went up from earth to heaven, “God! Who art Thou? Where art Thou? Why is it thus with the creatures of Thy hand?” I fought the battle alone, in deep recesses of the beautiful woods and pine forests around our home, or on some lonely hillside, among wild thyme and heather, a silent temple where the only sounds were the plaintive cry of the curlew, or the hum of a summer bee, or the distant bleating of sheep. For hours and days and weeks in these retreats I sought the answer to my soul’s trouble and the solution of its dark questioning. Looking back, it seems to me the end must have been defeat and death had not the Saviour imparted to the child wrestler something of the virtue of His own midnight agony, when in Gethsemane His sweat feel like great drops of blood to the ground.
It was not a speedy or an easy victory. Later the conflict was renewed, as there dawned upon me the realities of those earthly miseries which I had realized only in measure by intuition, but later still came the outward and active conflict, with, thanks be to God, the light and hope and guidance which He never denies to them who seek and ask and knock, and which became for them as ‘an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast.’
Looking my Liberator in the face, can my friends wonder that I have taken my place, (I took it long ago) – oh! with what infinite contentment! – by the side of her, the ‘woman in the city which was a sinner,’ of whom He, her Liberator and mine, said, as He can also say of me, ‘this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.’”
Her passion and commitment to the sufferings of women reminds me, of course, of the passion and commitment of Mary Ward, another strong and faithful Englishwomen. I look forward to continuing my study of Josephine Butler and undoubtedly I will have more to share here.
It’s challenging to live under these extended quarantine conditions. Whatever novelty there might have been in the beginning has long since worn off. I continue to be anxious about the state of the world and to pray for the many people who are suffering and for those who care for them and who keep our society running. But I am also experiencing psychological fatigue. One day I am feeling up and the next day I am feeling down.
In the midst of this angst, however, I watched an online retreat/talk given by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI in which he presented principles from his new book Domestic Monastery. I find them particularly apt for this pandemic experience and they are helping me to change my attitude.
The principles are derived from the Rule of St. Benedict, and lessons from other monks and mystics. For me, they offer an alternative viewpoint that is liberating and helps me to imagine a way to get through this temporary time of forced enclosure.
Ten Principles for Turning Your Home into a Domestic Monastery
“Regulate your life by the monastic bell” While I do live in a religious community, we do not live by the monastic bell. We do, however, especially in this pandemic time, have a fairly set schedule of activities – particularly prayer and meal times. My monastic bell is also the schedule I set for myself each day – exercise, work on my theology studies, cooking, connecting with family and friends, etc. It helps to find order and flow in the day. It is also intended to remind me that my time belongs to God and not to me. This helps me to find balance, to set boundaries, and to be able to move freely from one activity to the next.
“Stay inside your cell” Rolheiser suggests that this phrase, for us non-monks, means being faithful to our commitments. To stray away from these things is to leave our cell. For me, this means staying faithful to my religious vocation but also to the commitments I have made that have become more challenging to meet during the pandemic. This includes community life, studies, academic committee work, and ministries that have moved online, as well as finding ways to keep in touch with loved ones and to communicate regularly during this time of distancing.
“Let your cell teach you everything you need to know” I find this principle a hard one to live out. Rolheiser says that our fidelity to our commitments will teach us what we need to know. This is a challenge for me. Right now, I feel a lot of resistance and resentment build up because of this forced enclosure. My cell, i.e. school, community, family/friends, ministry, etc. is often teaching me things I’d rather not know – about myself in particular, but also about others, and about the world. Rolheiser says that these things force us to “grow up,” to become more mature, and I suspect, to be more effective agents of God’s love. I take hope that during this pandemic, the moments in which I struggle most with resistance are the moments in which I will be able to experience the greatest transformation.
“Ora” – pray This is essential. Given my current position of comfort and good health and well-being, committing to prayer is one way that I am able go beyond myself and my environment when it is so easy to stay locked within. Praying for the world – for all who are sick and dying, for all those who care for them, for those who continue to serve our society, for those who struggle with financial insecurity and lack of employment, and for everyone who struggles to cope in this uncertain environment. All of these needs of the world draw me out of my selfishness and my limited perspective and force me to encounter the greater reality of this pandemic.
“Labora” – work This principle is all too easy for me. My default setting is to work (at least on the things that I am interested in) and I have been able to find many things to keep occupied during this time. However, work is not meant for work’s sake. Work is meant to remind me of my vocation as a human being to serve God in all that I do. This is something I need to keep calling to mind when I get absorbed in what I am doing and am tempted to forgo other activities in order to keep working on a project.
Live in quiet – be in touch with “the mild” a. Be in touch with what is gentle inside of yourself, others, the world, God b. Be in touch with nature c. Be in touch with your food Living in the quiet has been both calming and unnerving. To live in a quiet Toronto has been very strange even though it is a necessary measure. Within the confines of my home, this principle speaks to me primarily of being quiet within, of seeking a gentleness of heart in a stressful time that tends to bring out the worst in me. It’s a reminder to be gentle with each person in my life and also with myself. Being open to receive the gentleness of God, especially when I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Rolheiser’s sub-points b. and c. remind me to appreciate the natural world around me, especially when I go out for a walk in the neighbourhood, and to appreciate and enjoy the food that I am blessed with each day.
Understand your family as a “school of charity” This principle relates to the third principle: “Let your cell teach you everything you need to know.” This experience of the pandemic is a teacher and I am definitely a student. Because this situation seems to frequently bring out the worst in me, I also need to at least try to let it bring out the best in me, too. In his presentation, Rolheiser speaks of a stone being polished by other stones. The little irritations I feel each day, then, if opened up to God’s grace, can polish me as well.
Do “vigils” when the angel of the night summons you Rolheiser refers to the angel of the night as the grudges, resentments, and unresolved tensions that surface at night and either keep us from sleep or wake us from it. Certainly, these days I feel like the angel of the night is a frequent visitor as I struggle to sleep well. I continue to wake up in the night and to worry about all of the “what ifs” and I battle with the resistances I feel in not being able to live as I would like. It is time to do “vigils” – to confront and find a way to make peace with the angel that disrupts my sleep.
“Celebrate” the joys, particularly the joys of community and simple living – but all the joys of life This is an important principle for these difficult days. It can be easy to focus on the negative right now and to discount the positive. I know that I struggle to allow myself to really celebrate when so many people are grieving, but I think it is necessary. I resolve to find more opportunities to create, celebrate and embrace moments of joy during this time of confinement – simple pleasures like eating lunch on our rooftop patio, watching the tulips bloom in our front garden, and laughing with family and friends over Zoom.
“Persevere” – give your family the gift of your fidelity Perseverance is probably the most necessary guiding principle right now. I must remain faithful to what needs to be done: staying at home, washing hands, and practicing physical distancing, especially when I am tempted to slack off because I am bored, or lonely, or just tired of following rules. Perseverance is assisted by love: being motivated by love for others pushes me to go beyond and do what I might not do solely for myself.
These principles, while not easy to live by, are helpful to me, especially during this time of uncertainty. They have given me much to reflect on, to change my perspective on what it means to live within restriction, and to find a way to navigate through the doom and gloom that rises in my heart when I am not attentive. There is much wisdom to be learned from these monks.
Like many others, I’ve been glued to the news. Over and over again, I’ve heard the words unprecedented and never before used to describe the life we are now living amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We have entered into a time of intense global solidarity that is brand new for most generations alive today. It feels like a moment of great historical significance. We, as a global society, have the potential to be transformed into something new and better than we were before. But we don’t know where we are in all of this. We could be at the beginning of this pandemic or we could be nearing the end. It’s important to pay attention to the shifts and changes around the world and to who we are and how we are living in this time of uncertainty.
As the pandemic has progressed, I’ve noticed significant interior movements within myself. Three weeks ago, I was merely fascinated by what was going on. Having worked previously for the Public Health Agency of Canada and participated in a response to disease outbreak ten years ago, I was captivated by the evolving response efforts. I was nostalgic for my old job and I was in awe of what seemed to be a very smooth unfolding of a coordinated response across the country.
As the crisis has continued to heighten, however, and we’ve entered into a state of emergency, my fascination has turned to worry and anxiety. Family members have been impacted by job losses, so many people continue to become sick and to die. The hypothetical has become very real and the real is scary. As a result, I’ve been struggling to sleep at night. I’ve often woken up early in the morning with panicked thoughts of people in hospital ICUs gasping for breath, of families struggling to make ends meet because of lack of income, of people on the streets becoming ill with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.
I am coping by doing what we are supposed to do: social distancing and connecting with people virtually. I’m focusing on completing my schoolwork. I’m praying with my community and doing my part to take care of them and myself. I’m not able to go out and volunteer as I am accustomed to doing, but I can prepare food for the homeless and give to the organizations that serve them and others in need. It doesn’t feel like enough but it’s all I can do in this moment. I am so grateful to those who are able to be present to people in need right now.
Gradually, my worries and anxieties are being relieved, or at least, better managed. They are embedded in my personal prayer and in my community’s communal prayer. They motivate the little actions I take each day to contribute to the overall sense of goodness in the world. For the past several days, I have felt a sense of steadiness. Not a complacency, but a stability and a quiet trust.
The truth is that this time is a jumble. It is simultaneously a time of all sorts of things. It is a time of suffering: of anguish over rising illness and death, of economic devastation, and separation from loved ones. It is also a time of blessing: of connection and unexpected tenderness found in emails and phone calls, in the outpouring of gifts from musicians and artists to bolster our spirits, and the celebrations of daily life (birthdays, anniversaries and feast days). It is definitely a time of disruption and adjustment as our routines change and we figure out new ways to live, even if only temporarily. It is, I hope, a time of greater introspection and reflection: what does it mean to be human today?
Finally, what brings me the most hope and joy in this time of global suffering is the discovery of all of the diverse ways, large and small, that we can do good together, for each other, and that we are doing it an unprecedented way.
Finally. A new blog post for a new year. What’s up, 2020?
Actually, first, let me say that 2019 ended on a high note. I spent four days at the Rise Up conference in Toronto listening to talks, praying, meeting young people, and chatting about vocations. Best of all, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a number of other younger religious to create a space for participants to take a break, hang out, play games, and talk with religious. I wrote about that experience for Around the Well.
On to 2020. The New Year always gives me a boost. I love, love, LOVE the chance to think about new things I would like to do in the new year, to reflect on all of the possibilities, and to listen to how God is speaking to me, asking me, perhaps to change things up. For a number of years, I would make resolutions and be reasonably good at sticking to them. But this year I decided to do something different. Inspired by this podcast and related blog posts, I decided to make a 20 for 2020 list: 20 activities/goals for the New Year. Not quite 20 resolutions because they don’t all involve behaviour change, but more like a ‘To Do’ list for 2020, with a mix of short term items and some that will stretch into the end of the year. It’s exciting to think of new things I’d like to try as well as finally accomplish some tasks that have been hanging around for some time (like put together an e-book of some my blog posts, especially the ones from my time as a candidate and novice).
There a number of fun projects on the horizon, including some discernment on what I might do when I finish my theology studies (still a year away but very exciting and motivating to start thinking/plotting about it now), some work for the Ignatian Spirituality Project, a new semester of First Spiritual Exercises retreats, and coming up soon, Mary Ward Week 2020 activities at Loretto College (more to come on this).
While action is a heavy theme on my 20 for 2020, I’ve also included a weekly day of rest. When I added this item to my list, it seemed ridiculous to me, but the truth is, I’m really bad at this. I know that I need to take regular breaks, I often long for it and feel frustrated when I don’t take time to just rest, but I’ve been very bad (for many years) about prioritizing it. Being busy is second nature to me (and usually a source of joy and fun) and resting, except when sick, is very difficult. But I know from my fall 2019 First Spiritual Exercises retreat that rest is a gift that God wants to give me, a gift that, obviously, I can choose to either refuse or accept. In 2020, I choose to accept this invitation. To psyche myself up for my day of rest, I’ve been re-listening to my favourite Sabbath-themed RobCasts: The Cellular Exodus, Let the Land Lie Fallow, and Menuha!
I’m now two Sundays into my practice and it’s surprisingly rough going. What I’ve noticed most of all is how tired I am. I spent the entire day last Sunday watching The Messiah on Netflix, and today I’ve spent most of the day watching His Dark Materials. On the plus side, I’ve also started a new Sunday evening ritual, again aided by television, involving Earl Grey tea, Pim’s orange biscuits, and the new season of Doctor Who. I suppose I’ve basically spent my days of rest (so far) being brain dead. I’ve noticed that I feel guilty, slightly depressed, and bored. I don’t really know how to enjoy spending time not working on stuff. I’m going to have to practice. I’m convinced that once I get into the rhythm of regular rest, the rest will eventually turn into play. Even more, while technically not a retreat day, my day of rest will be a day of listening. Listening to my body, my heart, my soul, (perhaps even with my brain disengaged watching tv) and seeing what’s going on inside. Listening for the quiet voice of God to speak.
Coming out of the First Spiritual Exercises (FSE) retreat that recently concluded at Regis College, I made the resolution to make a retreat day once a month. Nothing too formal, just a day set aside to be with God and to hang out the way I hang out with friends. A time out from the usual routine.
So today I purposefully spent the day with God. We walked over to see the old Loretto convent on Brunswick Avenue, now turned into beautiful condos called “The Loretto”. Then we went to Indigo to browse the books and inadvertently stumbled upon Canadian icons. Sharon and Bram (of Sharon, Lois, and Bram fame) were there giving a children’s concert and talking about their book Skinnamarink.
It was a childhood dream come true. I remember watching their show in the mid-’80s and being terribly jealous of the children who got to perform on their show and sing with them (those darned beautiful children with their adorable lisps and slight off key-ness). How I wanted to be up there on stage singing along with “Tingalayo” and “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo”. Well, this morning I had my chance. Not to sing on stage with them. The requisite adorable kids were already there and beat me to it. But I did get to wander along looking at books in the science fiction section, singing along to “Tingalayo” and a new-to-me classic, “I Had an Old Coat”. It was bliss.
This afternoon I continued my retreat by going out for tea. I wanted a chance to read old journals and to write in my current journal. And why not do so in the company of strangers with a chai latte? Questions came up during my FSE that I wanted to explore, and part of that exploration required going back into the past. So, I read a couple of journals from 10 years ago. They made me laugh (and a few entries made me want to cry) and I realized, my God, I am really me. I am so me. While the external circumstances of my life have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, I haven’t actually changed all that much (except hopefully, ever so slightly, for the better in some respects). My preoccupations and anxieties are pretty much the same, just transplanted into a new context. Realizations that I have about myself now are just a bit further along compared to the realizations I had then. In large part, it was consoling to read my journal, to see that I am growing, in baby steps for sure, but growing nonetheless.
This evening I went to the Church of the Redeemer for their monthly Rock Eucharist. Tonight the Eucharist featured the music of Alanis Morissette. How could I resist? If Sharon, Lois, and Bram provided the soundtrack for my childhood, Alanis Morissette provided the soundtrack for my teenage years and early adulthood. It was a beautiful liturgy, albeit with a couple of surprising song choices (I hadn’t expected “All I Really Want” to be the offertory song), but it was meaningful and thought-provoking. The pastor gave a beautiful sermon and spoke about the tensions we all hold in life. Like Alanis sings, “I’m sad but I’m laughing, I’m brave but I’m chicken shit.” We are rarely one or the other. We are both. And often both at the same time.
My old journals reminded me of the tensions I held 10 years ago, which, it turns out, are not so different from the tensions I hold now. In one entry I wrote: You know, for awhile I thought Ron Rolheiser had it all figured out. [I had been reading several of his books.] He knows about loneliness, sadness, feeling unfulfilled, but he seems content to live the tension out. Prolong it, enjoy it almost. It seems so difficult to me. My patience hinders me, well, my lack of patience.
I think Ron Rolheiser does have it figured out. Not that I particularly enjoy the tensions inherent in my life, but by the grace of God, I think they are getting a little bit easier to hold.
As I wait, rather impatiently, for Malcolm Guite’s new collection of poetry, After Prayer, to be released, I am spending time with his collection Sounding the Seasons. Fitting for this weekend, and which I’ve likely shared in years past but am happy to share again, here is…
Thanksgiving Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
Threads of connection no one can unravel.
So I give thanks for our deep coinherence,
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for us all, with every breath.
– Malcolm Guite
(this poem appears as the third poem in a sequence for All Saints)
This Thanksgiving weekend I am giving thanks for lives interwoven. I am thankful for my Loretto community, my family and friends, and all those I have met through my studies and varied works.
What is emerging this fall is the opportunity to deepen relationships. I’ve experienced a deepened sense of intimacy with my Sisters through our Mary Ward Letters Group (a monthly reflection group on the writings of Mary Ward, drawing on my experience at the Mary Ward Summer School). At our first gathering in September, I was delighted and inspired by their enthusiasm and sharing. Learning more about Mary Ward together is enabling us to learn more about each other as well.
(The peace pole in the rock garden of Loretto College)
My ministry work at Regis College is leading me into deeper relationships with classmates through the opportunity to c0-facilitate a retreat from the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola with a friend. We have been leading a group through Inner Peace in Divine Love, a four-week retreat that expands the final exercise of the Full Spiritual Exercises, ‘The Contemplation to Attain Divine Love’. According to Michael Hansen, SJ who adapted the First Spiritual Exercises, “[The retreat] begins with the note that love consists in mutual communication. St. Ignatius continues, ‘The lover gives and communicates to the loved one what they have, or something of what they have, or are able to give; and in turn the one loved does the same for the lover. Each gives to the other’ (Spiritual Exercises 231). This giving and receiving relationship of love cradles my retreat. It goes to the very roots of who I am.” (p.28) The spiritual conversation that is flowing during this retreat is so life-giving. I listen to others share their experiences of prayer and of God’s presence in their lives, and I feel thankful and humbled to receive them. I feel thankful and humbled to be received in return.
(Autumn colours are slowly appearing)
Lastly, my ministry work with the residents of Loretto College is leading me into deeper relationships with them. I facilitated an Ignatian leadership workshop for a group of the residents at the beginning of the term, and, in larger numbers, we participated in the Global Climate Strike together at the end of September. Our monthly social gatherings with the Sisters and residents help us to build relationships of support and make Loretto College a home for each one of us. We are a community that lives together, cares for each other, and brings each other into the heart of God through prayer.
And, of course, this weekend I am taking time to connect with and pray for all the ones I love, especially the ones who live far from me.
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
Week Two of the Mary Ward Summer School passed with astonishing speed. The galloping girls spent the week in the Bar Convent, covering a breadth of topics related to the life of Mary Ward. We studied the allegations made against her by Church clergy in her attempts to have her Institute approved. We learned about the apostolic work her Sisters were undertaking in Europe and in England. They were (and still are) truly courageous missionary women. We entered into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, seeing them through Mary Ward’s eyes, and through the text she and her companions likely used, Meditations upon the Mysteries of our Holy Faith, compiled by the Spanish Jesuit, Venerable Luis de la Puente. We learned more detail about some of Mary Ward’s early companions and read some of the letters she wrote to them. Lastly, we examined the lengthy and complex process of rehabilitating Mary Ward’s name, establishing her as foundress of her Institute, and receiving full approval of her Institute, complete with the Jesuit Constitutions, as she had envisioned, which did not happen until the 20thcentury.
It was a very full week.
There has been a lot to take in over these past two weeks and I am still putting together the various pieces of the puzzle that make up the life of Mary Ward, the lives of her companions, and their work in the world and in the Church.
Images of Mary Ward from the Bar Convent Archives
The personal connection I feel to Mary Ward continues to deepen as I learn more about her. I feel stronger connections to a number of the early companions, too, and feel a great desire to learn more about them (and I lament the loss of so many letters and primary documents that were destroyed in the history of the Institute when Mary Ward’s name had to be suppressed). So many of my questions will remain unanswered.
Early manuscript of the Briefe Relation – Bar Convent Archives
A French translation of the Briefe Relation – the handwriting belongs to Winifred Wigmore – Bar Convent Archives
It was a joy to visit the Bar Convent archives and to have the opportunity to read and, even more, to touch, a letter Mary Ward had written, as well as handwritten manuscripts of the Briefe Relation, the first biography of Mary Ward, written by Mary Poyntz and Winifred Wigmore. It was a thrill, too, to read handwritten meditations from the Spiritual Exercises that the early companions compiled for their use.
Letter from Mary Ward to Winifred Wigmore – Bar Convent Archives
It was so personal and suddenly so real. Mary Ward’s life story was suddenly not just a story, some fable or legend we have passed down through generations of Sisters, but the reality of one woman’s vision, her collaboration with her companions, and their efforts to live the manner of life they felt God had called them to.
Meditations from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola – handwritten by the early companions Bar Convent Archives
Similarly, learning about Mary’s experience of Ignatian spirituality gave her life story a great depth and meaning that I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier. She lived her spirituality, she lived her faith every day. It is evident in the letters she wrote, in the documents she wrote in trying to have her Institute approved by the Holy See, and it is evident in the letters people wrote about her, regardless of whether they were negative or positive. She embodied the virtues of the Just Soul: freedom, justice, and sincerity, but only because she was so grounded in God. Through her prayer life she strove for the disposition of indifference, to act with right intention, to develop interior peace and spiritual balance, to be humble, to be grateful and hopeful, and absolutely, at the foundation of her being was her love for Christ and her desire to serve him, follow him, and give her life totally to him.
Tapestry of Mary Ward and Ignatius – Italian Province of the Congregation of Jesus – courtesy of Anna Quinterio, CJ
As we enter into the Third Week of the Summer School, Mary Ward’s character and history have become more complex, more nuanced, and truthfully, much more real and human. I look forward to discovering even more about this unique and visionary Ignatian woman.