That Incomparable Woman

Each night I try to spend time doing some spiritual reading. Right now I am reading through biographies of Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the community. By getting to know her better, I hope to get to know the community better too.

To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to think of her when I first heard about her a couple of years ago. I had read a fairly brief history of her life, had found out that shortly after she had founded the community, it was suppressed by the Church, and that she was not formally acknowledged as foundress of the community until 1909. I wondered who the heck this woman was behaving contrary to church tradition – why did it take so long for the church to recognize her? I wasn’t too sure that she was someone I actually wanted to get to know better.

But I persisted. I read a bit more, and spent time praying with a little pocket book of her quotes/sayings I was given. She lived in the 1600s and her style of writing was sometimes a challenge for me to understand. I puzzled over her insights on prayer and the interior life. Slowly, I understood a little better and felt drawn to her.

Which brings me to my current reading. I have finished reading a wonderful book entitled That Incomparable Woman, written by Mother Margarita O’Connor, ibvm and have started on a two-volume biography on Mary Ward’s life by Mother M.E. Chambers, ibvm. Both of these woman have written beautifully about Mary Ward. It’s inspiring to read about Mary’s own discernment and the path she took to religious life. While I can’t go into as much detail here as the books go into, I will give a quick overview of her life. I am sure that as I make my way through the candidacy program, I will come back to her life again and again. But for now, I would like to introduce you to a new friend…

Mary Ward was born on January 23, 1585 in Yorkshire, England. Over the course of her adolescence she was increasingly drawn to religious life. In 1606, she entered a convent of Poor Clares at St.-Omer, France as a lay sister. She lived outside the convent and was responsible for begging alms and food for the sisters. She soon realized that this was not the life God was calling her to. The following year she founded a house of Poor Clares for Englishwomen at Gravelines in France, but God revealed to her that she was not called to the contemplative life.

Instead, she resolved to devote herself to active work and returned to England. At the age of twenty-four she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions determined to labour under her guidance. In 1609 they established themselves as a religious community at St.-Omer, and opened schools for girls. The venture was a success, but it was a novelty.

Her inspiration was to create a community of women founded on the model of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In the 17th century, that kind of freedom for women religious met a lot of resistance. The work of religious women was then confined to prayer to be carried on within the walls of a convent. There were other startling differences between the new institute and existing congregations of women, such as freedom from enclosure, from the obligation of choir, from wearing a religious habit, and from the jurisdiction of the diocesan.

Opposition to this new way of life eventually led to suppression by Pope Urban VIII. From 1629 onwards, Mary’s communities in Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Trier, northern Italy and eventually Liege were all closed, and the sisters were urged to return to their families or to join other approved religious communities. Only the sisters in Munich survived because of the protection of the Elector Maximilian, although they lived in extreme poverty for a number of years.For several months in the winter of 1631 Mary was imprisoned in a Poor Clare convent in Munich by order of the Inquisition. When she was released, she and several companions went to Rome, where she proclaimed that she was neither disobedient nor a heretic.

At the express desire of Pope Urban Mary went to Rome, and there as she gathered around her the younger members of her religious family, under the supervision and protection of the Holy See, the new institute took shape. In 1639, with letters of introduction from Pope Urban to Queen Henrietta Maria, Mary returned to England and established herself in London. In 1642 she journeyed northward with her household and took up her abode at Heworth, near York, where she died in 1645. The stone over her grave in the village churchyard of Osbaldwick is preserved to this day.

Excerpted and adapted from: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15551c.htm

Settling In

Three weeks have passed since I arrived. There has been a lot going on. It has been a very busy time. Full of newness: meeting new people at home and at work, navigating a new city, and trying to find a balance between work, prayer, and community life.

I am getting to know many of the sisters here – both those living in the infirmary as well as those living in the Abbey. It has been a real blessing to get to know them better. They have regaled me with stories of their lives: teaching experiences and life at the Abbey prior to the Second Vatican Council when the daily rhythm of life was more monastic. I’ve learned what it meant to be the refectorian, charged with preparing meals and the clean up afterwards, as well as sacristan. I’ve also heard bits and pieces about the hardship that followed when the community went through a major transition following Vatican II and many sisters left the community. It seems to me that the transition continues today as the community struggles to attract new vocations.

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We had a beautiful community celebration for Thanksgiving weekend. We had a fantastic social time (Happy Hour!) with the sisters in the infirmary on Sunday and then a big turkey dinner and Happy Hour at the Abbey on Thanksgiving Monday. It was a lot of fun to come together as a community and celebrate together. I was very happy to contribute a bit to the weekend by helping to decorate and set up the dining hall for the meals, something I always enjoy. We had beautiful flowers and gorgeous autumn colours to make it a very festive and happy occasion.

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winter clothes fashion show
winter clothes fashion show
food for the evening banquet
food for the evening banquet
tea time!
tea time!

For the past week we’ve had an IBVM sister from Kenya, Sr. Marren, staying with us. She is currently studying canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa and was here for Thanksgiving. It was lovely to spend time with her – we had many an evening banquet of toast and tea and fellowship. But most of all, it was a pleasure to experience her passion for religious life. She helps in the formation of novices back in Kenya and we had a few good conversations about the journey through candidacy and discernment. She gave me some very good advice for structuring my prayer to help make sense of what I am experiencing and to try to put all of the pieces together. We also had a great adventure together – venturing out last week to buy winter boots in the midst of torrential rains. Lots of laughter I won’t soon forget!

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I have been reading about the life of the Institute foundress, Mary Ward. I must write more her soon. She is a fascinating woman and her spirit lives on in the Institute. Her life was full of ups and downs and learning to trust God in all the directions life took her. She was confident, determined, deeply compassionate, and had tremendous faith. More on her soon!

How did I get here? (Part 4 – Becoming a candidate)

So then I began the application process to become a candidate with the Lorettos and I did all kinds of brave things. For one, I told my parents! And then I told other family and friends and it wasn’t so scary. I told people at work. By and large, the response has been very positive and I have been supported by so many people.

The application process required more paperwork than I had anticipated. Aside from the application form, I had to provide copies of my baptismal and confirmation certificates and university transcripts (I had to search for long forgotten student id numbers!), undergo a medical examination, and write an autobiography. The autobiography was perhaps the most challenging component of the application process. I had never written one before. I didn’t know which elements of my life should be included or how I should write about my spiritual life. In the end, it was a worthwhile experience to struggle through. It provided me with a good opportunity to reflect on the path I have taken through life and how it has prepared me for religious life.

Flickr/Creative Commons
Flickr/Creative Commons

When I received the invitation to join the community, I had a lot of work to do: I had to find a new home for dog (which was a very painful part of preparing to move), try to find a way to continue my job from Toronto or perhaps transfer to a job that was based in Toronto, and vacate my house and rent it out for a period of a year or longer. It took a number of months for it all to come together, and I admit, at times it caused me a lot of anxiety and worry and I wondered whether it was worth it. But, it all did come together, by the grace of God, and here I am.

Loretto Abbey
Loretto Abbey

 

How did I get here? (Part 3 – Meeting Mary and Iggy)

Although I didn’t feel particularly drawn to marriage and family life, it seemed like the normal thing to do, much better than becoming a nun. Instead of truly discerning religious life, I started to worry about why I didn’t want to be married. “What’s wrong with me?” I would ask myself. “Who cares if I have a longing within me for something “more” that I can’t explain? I should really just focus on more important things like getting married and developing my career.” So for a number of years I did just that. I muddled around, not really sure of what I wanted. I also got very involved in my parish. I found that I felt most alive and happy when I was active in the parish doing things to serve other people. I figured that eventually those feelings would spread to the rest of my life.

(www.blessedsacrament.ca)
(www.blessedsacrament.ca)

For a long time I pushed away the thought of religious life, even though it was always there in the back of my mind. Then in 2012, my parish made a study of the Catholicism DVD series by Fr. Robert Barron and as I watched the different episodes, the ache in my heart grew. I saw how beautiful and diverse the Catholic church is and my longing to be part of it, to be part of something greater than myself, took over. At the end of the series I knew I had to do something about it.

At this point I recognized that I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Left to my own devices, I would freak out or try to avoid discerning again. I knew I needed to seek the advice of a sage. So I went to see the associate pastor of my parish, who is known for being gentle but also very firm when it comes to discerning God’s will. He encouraged me to explore different communities and to listen to what God was telling me in my heart.

I went back to the internet. I didn’t know where else to go.

Again, I researched different communities, mostly Franciscan at first. Eventually, I came upon the website for the Loretto Sisters (also known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and I really liked what I found. I learned about their foundress Mary Ward, their adoption of Ignatian spirituality (although I wasn’t sure which St. Ignatius this meant – I figured probably Ignatius of Antioch because he’s always mentioned in the Litany of the Saints prayer (nope!)), and the international dimension of the community with their focus on social justice.

Mary Ward
Mary Ward

I decided to take the plunge and meet with the vocations director (even though I didn’t have a picture to go by this time!). A few months later, I went to visit the community in Toronto. Over the course of two years, I ended up visiting several times, and I noticed that I felt at home with them. I felt like I could be myself with them and that I belonged.

I decided to learn more about St. Ignatius (of Loyola, I found out! – at the time I couldn’t have even told you that he was Spanish) so I read a lot of books about him and his spirituality, and I fell in love. Soul mate alert! I felt like I had found someone who “gets” me. Last summer, I made my first 8-day Ignatian silent retreat in Guelph, and without being too dramatic about it, it changed my life. I experienced a totally new way of prayer – Ignatian contemplation. I met God, came face-to-face with Jesus as I prayed. Whereas before I prayed to a sort of Jesus void – a Jesus who was somehow all around me – I was now praying to a Jesus who was in front of me, or sitting beside me. I could reach out and touch him. It was like nothing I had experienced before.

While I didn’t come to a decision about a religious vocation on the retreat, I knew that I wanted to continue with the Ignatian prayer. I found a Jesuit in Ottawa who was able to lead me through the Spiritual Exercises towards making a decision about religious life. From last October until this past February, I went through the exercises and learned so much about myself – my fears, insecurities, attachments, my hopes and dreams, my deepest desires. And I learned about my relationship with God and experienced the deep love God has for me. When I made the decision for religious life, it was completely liberating. I felt like I was made into a whole person, not someone who feels constantly torn.

I was ready to take the next step.

 

 

How did I get here? (Part 2)

But annoyingly, the idea of religious life wouldn’t go away.

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Flickr/Creative Commons

Eventually I got a bit fed up and went online and did some research about nuns. Mostly I looked at pictures of vocation directors. When I found one who looked happy and friendly and safe, I contacted her. But I was terrified. I remember thinking to myself What have I done? Eventually, I mustered up enough courage to meet with her and, in time, other members of the community. To my amazement, I really liked them. They seemed so normal.

However, any time they broached the idea of further discernment, I froze. I wasn’t convinced that God had called me. I was waiting for some kind of neon sign from heaven that would tell me what to do.

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Surely, God couldn’t be calling me to religious life. God doesn’t call the wimpy! He doesn’t call people who are too scared to tell their family that they sometimes go to Mass on a weekday for fear of seeming too religious. He calls the bold and the mighty. I was anything but. I was full of questions and fear, and totally confused.

 

How did I get here? (Part 1)

This is a question that has a long answer. The short answer is most definitely: God has called me here. But how do I know that God has called me here? How does anyone know what God is calling them to do? Well, I can’t answer for everyone, but I can answer for myself. It has taken a long time to get to this place (hence, this story will be covered over the course a few posts – prepare yourself!). In fact, it has taken me 9 years to reach this point.

Although I have been a practicing Catholic all of my life, I would never have classified myself as particularly religious. Growing up in Calgary, I attended Mass with my family, went to Catholic schools, and volunteered at my parish here and there, but my faith was not something I advertised or made public. I always felt slightly self-conscious about it. I certainly never would have considered a vocation to religious life – I didn’t even know any nuns! However, in 2003, my mom passed away after a long illness. Faced with questions, doubt, and grief, I turned to God for answers and comfort. It was at that point that my relationship with God matured and I began to pray with greater intent and purpose, seeking direction in my life – what should I do? What kind of career should I have? Where should I live?

After a year of feeling lost and confused, I felt God leading me to Ottawa in 2004 to pursue graduate studies. I felt right at home in Ottawa and quickly found a wonderful community of friends. I joined my neighbourhood parish and was welcomed immediately. My faith life was nourished there and unexpected things began to happen!

I first felt God’s nudge towards religious life in 2005, when I was watching the funeral of St. John Paul II on television. At one point there was shot of St. Peter’s square and I saw all of the men and women religious gathered there. I felt this longing in my heart and I thought to myself, I wonder if I could do that. Of course at the time, I didn’t recognize this a call from God. I just thought I was getting a bit emotional. It was only months later when a friend and I were talking, and she asked me if I had ever thought about religious life. I said, “No. Well, maybe.” I told her about what had happened but that I didn’t think that was how God called people. It felt far too subtle. Don’t most people become nuns or priests after some major supernatural event? Don’t the heavens open up and there are visions of angels and flashes of lightning?

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JPII Funeral 2005

However, my small experience seemed to be good enough for my friend. She pushed me to check out religious communities in Ottawa. I thought, No way. I’m in the middle of a masters degree. When I’m done I’m getting a job with the government. I’m pretty sure God wants me to have a stable job, a good pension, and probably one day to become a Deputy Minister. I pushed the thought away.

 

What am I doing here?

Good question. What am I doing in Toronto with a group of women I barely know, navigating my way through a new city, when it seemed like I had everything I wanted in Ottawa?

Well, the short answer is: I am here because I was called here. (Much more on that later.) By asking to become a candidate with the Loretto Sisters, I have asked to deepen my understanding of religious life by spending a year living with the community. In essence, I am testing it out, seeing whether it is right for me. This next year will be a year of further discernment (reflection, decision-making) of the path I feel God has asked me to take.

I will find out what it means to live my life as a religious sister, to figure out if this is what God is actually calling me to do, and whether this community of sisters, the Loretto Sisters, are the community for me.

It’s a year of unknowns. While some things are the same (I continue to do the same job – albeit from a different location, still have access to my own car and resources, am free to pursue my interests, see friends and family, etc.), other things are very different. I packed up my house in Ottawa, and have gone from having a huge amount of personal space to having my own bedroom. It’s kind of like being in university residence again (although my floor mates are much tidier!), which is an odd place to be in after so many years on my own. I am also living with a group of women who are far older than I am. Many of them have been in religious life for 50, 60, or more years. I am not among my peer group, which I am sure will present its own challenges as time goes on.

But for now, I am savouring the adventure! It’s a chance to be different, to be open to newness, and to see the world from a different perspective.