Women at the heart of the church

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Studying the Constitutions at the Eco Park

I am in love with this way of life. The more that I learn about the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the deeper I want to go and the more that I find that resonates with the graces I received on retreat. We are currently studying our Constitutions together, taking it section by section. Rather than a series of rules and regulations, the Constitutions read more like a guide for living a full and happy life with God. It’s such a rich document. It relates the history of the Institute as well as setting out the way of life we are called to live.

It amazes me that it was only recently (in the 1980s) that the IBVM was finally able to fulfill Mary Ward’s vision for her ‘least Institute’: to take the same as the Society. Meaning that we have the same Constitutions as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In her time Mary Ward was only able to go so far as to adapt the summary document of the full Constitutions, the Institutum (adapted and presented to the pope in 1622), but she wasn’t able to get it approved by the Holy See. It was considered quite radical to suggest a community of missionary apostolic women who would engage in spiritual matters. Here’s a selection that outlines the vision and mission of the Institute, although the language we use today to describe the activities of the mission is not quite the same (e.g. we don’t really use words like ‘evil living’ or ‘women of profligate life’ anymore).

From IBVM Constitutions Volume I: Institutum:

1.       … She is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.

  • by helping them be brought back from heresy and evil living to faith and goodness and to a certain special obedience to the Holy See,
  • by gathering together and disposing the people for public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God,
  • and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of girls and unlettered persons in Christianity,
  • by teaching Catechism and the reverent use of sacred things and by giving that education to them in schools and communities which seem most suitable for the common good of the Church and their own particular good whether they have chosen to spend their lives in the world or in religion;
  • and finally by leading such people to the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful and by disposing them for Confession and the other Sacraments, and by arranging for Preachers and Spiritual Fathers to be send to the country and to the more neglected places;
  • also by seeking out women of profligate life and preparing them to receive grace through the Sacraments so that Doctors, Preachers and Apostolic men of the Church of God may have more leisure to attend to greater and more universal affairs.

Moreover she should show herself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons and hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

Given the restrictions placed on women at the time, I think it’s incredible that Mary Ward and her companions undertook these activities and gave their lives to God out of great love. It took centuries for the Church to fully understand the gift of women’s apostolic congregations and to approve them in the manner that their founders had been divinely inspired. (Praise God for the Second Vatican Council!) Reading our Constitutions provides a mini history lesson as well as a manifestation of the working of the Holy Spirit. The sisters who have gone before me were incredibly tenacious and generous women. They were scorned, misunderstood, and at times manipulated, and yet they continued to strive for Mary Ward’s vision for the Institute.

From Constitutions Volume I: General Examen, Chapter 1:

{1} This least Institute was not brought into being by human means. Mary Ward’s inspiration in 1611 was to take the same of the Society [of Jesus] so understood, as that we were to take the same both in matter and manner, that only excepted which God by diversity of sex hath prohibited. In 1631 Pope Urban VIII ordered the suppression of her Institute. Nevertheless, through the heroic efforts of Mary Ward’s faithful followers, the call to work for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the education of women and girls continued.

…In 1877 the Institute was confirmed by the Holy See; it was not until 1909 that Mary Ward was acknowledged as its founder.

….In the renewal following Vatican Council II, the whole Institute reflected on Mary Ward’s vision and her desire to adopt the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus for her Institute. As a result of this reflection new Constitutions were approved: for the Roman Branch in 1978, for the Irish Branch in 1985, and for the North American Branch in 1986.

In 2009, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the IBVM, a renewed Constitutions was approved by the Holy See. The ‘modern document’, as we refer to it, is an updated version that clarifies certain sections of the Ignatian Constitutions that are no longer valid due to changes in canon law. It is also breathes a beautiful new spirit into the Institute and is written like a piece of poetry.

From Constitutions Volume II: Chapter 1:

1.2 We are companions of Jesus,
women at the heart of the Church,
called to follow Christ
in a discipleship of love,
ready to labour
with freedom and joy,
that in all things God may be glorified.

1.3 The Ignatian tradition,
interpreted through a woman’s eye,
is our graced heritage.
In prayer, Mary Ward was led to see
that this was the way God wanted for her Institute;
this was the pathway to holiness
that she and her companions were to walk.

As I reflect on the Constitutions, I am drawn back to my retreat graces of discipleship and friendship with Jesus. I can see how life in this Institute is my pathway to holiness and that it allows me to live fully the graces I received and as the person I was created to be.

As we continue to study the Constitutions I will write more about them. In this post I’ve basically described some of our history rather than our manner of living so stay tuned for more!

Discovering Noviciate Life

Hello again!

I’m returning to my blog after a little hiatus and a very long journey. It is now going on 6 weeks since I arrived in the Philippines and I began the first year of my noviciate. The past 6 weeks of relative disconnection from the outside world have been a great blessing. The time has allowed me space to transition to the noviciate and to be present to new experiences.

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As I think back on these past weeks, a major theme stands out for me: discovery and adaptation.

Discovery

Each day holds something new to discover. On the first day I arrived (January 1st, which was auspicious, I think) I was confronted with a whole lot of new at once: new country, new culture, new climate, new environment, new community, and new way of life. Since then I’ve been slowly unpacking all of the newness.

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St. Michael’s House, IBVM Formation House in the Philippines

Prayer. The most beautiful and life-giving discovery I am making is in my prayer life. The time and dedication to prayer during this part of formation gives me the opportunity to pray without interruptions (not to say that I don’t get distracted in prayer!), but also to take time to pray in the ways that I know give me life and help me relate to God. In particular, I have been able to return to a daily practice of Ignatian contemplation (scriptural contemplation) and it has been so beautiful and grace-filled. The first time I sat down to pray using the method of Ignatian contemplation, I felt like I received the most loving welcome back from God. Already in this short time, I can feel my relationship with Jesus (because it is Jesus I speak with during my prayer) flourishing and deepening.

Community. Another life-giving discovery I am making is within the community here. I am living with 3 other novices – 1 from Australia and 2 from Vietnam. Our novice director is also Australian and our assistant novice director is Indian. We are a truly an international community and I am learning so much from everyone. We share our respective cultures through meals and celebrations together, and we share our life stories and vocation journeys during times of reflection. I am discovering a world far beyond the world I knew in Canada and my heart and mind are expanding.

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A gathering of members of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Congregation of Jesus for our Mary Ward Week celebration

Spirituality and Religious Life. I am also discovering the person of our foundress Mary Ward through reading and reflecting on her prayer life and at the same time discovering the heart and soul of the IBVM. I am learning more about discernment in the Ignatian tradition, and experiencing the First Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I am learning about the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and discovering their beauty.

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The garden outside our chapel doors

I’m also discovering things that create challenge.

Poverty. I’m discovering that poverty is everywhere. There are many homeless men, women, and children in Quezon City. There’s a slum a short distance away from our house. The causes of poverty are varied and complex. It often feels overwhelming because the poverty is on such a large scale. And yet, the spirit and generosity I have witnessed among the very poor takes my breath away. My heart yearns to find some way to contribute to reducing their poverty and to stand in solidarity with them.

Environmental Pollution. I’m also discovering that Quezon City is very dirty. Pollution is widespread. The air is polluted from the exhaust from the cars, buses, and jeepneys. The waterways and streams are polluted from garbage and sewage. The ground is littered with piles of rubbish. Again, the causes of the rampant pollution are varied and complex, and it will take a lot to create change. I am concerned for the current generation and future generations of Filipinos.

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Painting of Our Lady of the Philippines, Manila Cathedral

Adaptation

I could come up with a list of ways I have had to adapt that would potentially be as long as my list of discoveries, but when it comes down to it, I have one main method of adaptation: surrender. I am learning to surrender to the newness. To surrender my expectations and my biases (which is proving challenging!), to surrender my need to always be physically comfortable (on the hot days I find it impossible to be completely comfortable), to surrender my desire to have control (over knowing the schedule of the day, over what I eat, over relationships with friends and family that are now long-distance relationships, over being able to fix the problems I encounter, etc.), and to surrender to experiencing whatever it is that God wants me to experience in the here and now of the day. This quote from Mary Ward’s spiritual journal summarizes well what my experience has been like so far: God is with me, and I have freedom to speak to Him, and to ask of Him all I would have or know.

All in all, the past 6 weeks have been fruitful and full of the grace of God. I am happy to be here, open to learning new things and to deepening my relationship with God. I hope to post more regularly now and will delve into some of these issues in more detail in the future.

When calamity strikes

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By nature, I’m a fairly conscientious person. I like to get things done. I make timetables and lists, and I check the “To Do’s” off as I finish them. I like itineraries. I guess what I really like is predictability and a sense of control.

I’ve noticed over the course of the last few months, however, that the more I try to order and schedule my life, maximize my time, and be the most efficient I can be, I end up getting knocked totally off course! Case in point: for the past couple of weeks, I had diligently spent time in prayer and reflection in order to prepare for our big Canadian Provincial meeting that was to take place at the end of March. It was my first time participating in such an event and I was really excited about it. I had my notes carefully prepared, and I was looking forward to sharing my thoughts with the sisters. But then last Wednesday, calamity struck!

15 sisters, 3 de la Salle brothers, and several of the staff at the Abbey came down with norovirus. The next day, 4 more people were hit (including me, which makes this illness #4 or #5 I’ve been stricken with since Christmastime – which, by the way, better not be indicative of my future in religious life!). By the weekend, only a handful of people had been spared. I’m happy to say that everyone is recovering well, but we did have to postpone the big meeting. I was disappointed. Even amid severe stomach cramps, I had hoped that somehow we could still make it happen.

Instead, I used the quiet time (immobilized on my bed) to read about Mary Ward’s companions. Since reading a few biographies of Mary Ward earlier in the year, I have been very curious about the lives of her first companions. Not much is known about these women other than what is revealed in correspondence and some of the Institute’s historical documents. These women were quite young (some joined as young as 15 years old!), adventurous, dedicated, and faithful. They endured severe poverty, illness, uncertainty, and persecution. They were put in charge of schools and the formation of novices, were put in positions of authority in foundations in foreign lands, and were required to make difficult decisions. They often went years without seeing Mary Ward, with only letter correspondence to stay in touch. Many of them died while still young (30 years old and younger). Yet they were faithful to Mary Ward’s vision, to their call to religious life, and to the community.  They inspire me and I aspire to grow to be like them – to be steadfast and faithful (in sickness and in health!) and to be open and responsive to God’s working in my life.

And maybe, just maybe, to relinquish the “To Do” lists once in a while.