Good with a good spirit


Paval Hadzinski @Flickr

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about women in the Church called ‘Great Things’. It was about two things: the need for change, so that the light that women bring to the Church can be on the lampstand, not under a tub, and the need to remain always in the way of Jesus, who tells us that ‘anyone who wants to be first among you must be your servant’.

Although the post was about the position of women in the Church, it sprang in part from a deeper journey. Over the last two years, I have come to realise that I am not just writing about peacebuilding, but being called by the Lord to become more and more nonviolent. Through being accompanied and changed by those without power, I have sensed the Lord calling me to share in his powerlessness, his refusal to retaliate. Somewhere in that bearing and hoping, that nonviolence and absolute trust in God, is the passage from death to resurrection that is at the heart of the paschal mystery. As the children’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt puts it: ‘We can’t go over it… we can’t go under it… oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’

This growing sense that I am called to nonviolence, as well as my experience in Guyana struggling against embedded injustice, has led me to reflect often on Pierre Favre’s maxim about ‘doing good with a good spirit’.

This is Pope Francis on the subject:

‘We can also take a step forward in doing good with a good spirit: “thinking with the Church”, as St Ignatius says. It is also a distinctive service of the Society [of Jesus] to


St Pierre Favre SJ

facilitate the discernment of how we do things. Faber formulated it by asking for the grace that “all the good that can be realized, thought, and organized, be done with a good spirit, not a bad spirit”. This grace of discerning, which is not limited to thinking, doing, and organizing the good, but also doing these things with a good spirit, is what roots us in the Church in which the Spirit works and distributes his various gifts for the common good. Faber used to say that in many cases those who wanted to reform the Church were right, but God did not wish to correct the Church using their methods, the methods they proposed.’

(Pope Francis, Address to GC36, 24th October 2016)

‘Doing good with a good spirit’ has come back to me often over the past few weeks, when there has been so much written and said about women in the Church, from the Osservatore Romano article on women religious in the Vatican, to the Voices of Faith conference, at which Mary McAleese described the Church as ‘a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny,’ a ‘male bastion of patronising platitudes’, confined ‘to recycled thinking among a hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite flattered and rarely challenged by those tapped for jobs in secret and closed processes.’

I found those words painful. Yes, we need change in order to have the ‘more incisive presence’ of women in the Church that Pope Francis has spoken about – change that is by no means confined to the hierarchy, as I’ve said elsewhere. But I also believe that we must have ‘good with a good spirit’. This is not about ‘play nice and you’ll get what you want’, which women hear so often. It is a sort of active Gamaliel principle: if it is of God, it will happen, but God’s work must be done in God’s way. That means with mercy, with charity, with patience, with understanding for the sheer humanness of others – whether or not those attitudes are ever reciprocated or even recognised. It’s true that frustration and anger are not always of the bad spirit, but we have to be –I have to be– sensitive and humble enough to spot when the bad spirit is using our frustration and anger for his own ends, rather than God’s. We must do good with a good spirit.

Mary Ward wanted change, and she challenged the Church of her day to recognise that ‘there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things’. She pushed the limits –and ended up in prison– but was also deeply obedient, all her life, trusting that the God who gave her her vocation, who ‘would not deceive me, nor could he be deceived’, also spoke in the Church, even in ways that were hard to understand or accept. She always strove to ‘do good with a good spirit’ and lived, I think, in that bearing and hoping which is at the heart of the paschal mystery. She died in failure, in trust, in hope. We live.

The Church needs all of us if it is to remain faithful to the Lord: instinctive conservatives and instinctive innovators, people who will push and people who will hold back. Sometimes it also needs conflict, as the Lord struggles through us to show us the way forward. I do not wish to accuse anyone of bad faith, and perhaps this path of nonviolent change is my particular vocation only. But whatever we do, please – let us ‘do good with a good spirit’.




When I told some of my community that I was running the London marathon this year, one of them said, ‘Do you want to do it in a veil?’ She was only half kidding. Cue some consideration from me, and much discussion with others. The ‘ayes’ thought it would amazing publicity for religious life (always assuming people didn’t think you were on a hen do and had somehow got caught up in the race by accident), along the lines of ‘Lo, sisters still exist, and some are young and run marathons!’ The ‘nays’ said that, as I didn’t wear a habit normally, and nor did any of the other CJ sisters in the UK, it didn’t make much sense.

The visibility discussion is one I have pretty regularly with all kinds of people, from laypeople or bystanders interested in religious life -and interested in why I’m not wearing a habit- to other priests and religious, particularly of the post-Vatican II generations.

In my own community, the Congregation of Jesus, we don’t wear religious dress in this province. We used to wear a pretty full-on habit, which changed in the 80s to something simpler, along the lines of a long skirt and a veil. Many of our sisters worldwide still wear religious dress of this kind: not a defined ‘habit’ as such, but a recognisably-a-religious assemblage. Nowadays in the English province, we all wear secular dress. Talking to our older sisters about their decision to come out of religious dress is interesting. Some of them talk of experiencing religious dress as a barrier, which prevented genuine encounters with people. Instead of seeing and encountering you, they would see and encounter their prejudices and preconceptions about religious life, or just dismiss you as ‘good sister so-and-so’ and pay no attention at all. Coming out of religious dress meant being really able to meet people where they were. Some sisters have also spoken to me about having no privacy when they wore religious dress, in the sense of the privacy that comes from just being able to blend in. One priest I know speaks of his positive decision not to wear a clerical shirt all the time: he wants his appearance to communicate to people, ‘I’m not on some special, holy, higher journey – I’m on the same journey as you.’ That last remark, in particular, resonates with me.

We are fortunate as a congregation, insofar as Mary Ward’s attitude to religious dress seems to have been practical: mission comes first, and you wear what you need to to get the job done. Thus, our sisters wore religious dress when they were on the Continent (kind of a mucked-about Jesuit cassock type thing…), and disguise when they were in England, where Catholicism was illegal, and wearing religious dress would have meant pretty swift arrest. ‘Mission first, and clothing serves the mission’ is still my preferred way of approaching a question that can carry huge ideological freight. The question is: what is our mission now, in a culture very different to the 1960s? Do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

The question is a neuralgic one, and can easily get bound up in the Catholic ‘culture wars’, or in intergenerational misunderstandings or miscommunication. Younger religious for whom recognisable religious dress is important can hurt older religious, for whom shedding the habit was a careful discernment and not a mere matter of convenience or a personal whim. At the same time, older religious can perceive younger religious who do want to wear a habit as ‘conservative’, ‘immature’, ‘tied to the externals’, or simply assume that they will ‘grow out of’ their need for outer religious symbols. Neither is helpful, and I suspect neither is true.

I respect absolutely the discernment made by the older generations of my province to come out of the habit, and if we’re going by Mary Ward’s own rule of ‘mission first, outfit later,’ then I think it was the right decision for their time. But the question remains for me, as for many others of my generation in religious life: do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

Why is this a question for my generation? (I should add that ‘generation’ here is loose. I mean people of my age as well as my stage, so I’m including people who entered religious life aged 45+ but are still in formation.) Most of us grew up without knowing religious, and without seeing them: they were not in our parishes or in our schools. The religious life option simply wasn’t visible. That might seem superficial, but think on it: we know that people who grow up in deprived communities are much less likely to become doctors, lawyers etc., and part of the problem is that there are fewer role models for them. What we don’t know and can’t see we don’t think of as a possibility. I think for people in my generation, there’s often a desire for religious to be more visible not just to ‘the world’ or culture at large, but specifically to the Church. We need the sign that is religious life -a sign of a different way of being in a world more stiflingly obsessed than ever with money, sex and power- but we can’t see it.

I think, too, that my generation want to revisit the questions of mission and privacy. For sure, a habit is going to be a barrier for some people. One of our sisters told me that, when you were wearing a habit, you never knew how many people didn’t talk to you for that reason – people who looked at you and thought you might judge them, or that you were too other-worldly to talk to. But, talking to priests especially, I’m often struck by the opposite: we don’t know how many people don’t talk to us because they can’t see us. A Jesuit friend, who rarely wears a collar, has told me of many encounters that happened on the occasions he was wearing one: hearing confession on a station platform, being asked to pray for people, conversations on trains. Our society is increasingly secularised, but there is still a thirst in people for encountering God, and a thirst for encountering people whose lives are all about God. Forty years ago, a habit got in the way of those kind of encounters. But now, in a changed world, might religious dress enable encounters like these, too – even at the cost of a privacy which, quite honestly, I’d prefer to preserve?

Our sisters came out of religious dress because, symbolically, it had become too heavy to move in easily: it bore the weight of a theology that said religious life was a ‘more perfect way’, set apart from the world and superior to it. Does it say that today? To an older generation who remember the pre-Vatican II years, possibly, but for my generation, definitely not. The symbol of a ‘nun’s outfit’ -people don’t even know the word ‘habit’ anymore- means practically nothing except hen dos, fancy dress and kitsch: it has been evacuated of meaning. The problem is that nothing has taken its place. One of our sisters, disapproving of the idea of running a marathon in a habit said, ‘Couldn’t you wear something else that showed you were a sister?’ But a CJ t-shirt (much as I like our ‘Brownie uniform’!) and the cross of my order communicate precisely nothing to most people. Very observant Catholics would be lucky to spot it if I was three feet away. There just isn’t anything that says ‘I’m a sister’ in the same way as a habit does, if immediate visual recognition is what you’re after. I think this is partly key to understanding the attitudes of younger religious who do wear religious dress. It’s often perceived by older religious and laypeople alike as ‘going back to the past’, but I think this is not entirely accurate. At least in part, it’s the pragmatic use of a symbol that has largely lost its content, and which -to an extent- we can re-populate with different content. The generation of bricolage away are using that symbol to say a range of things, from communicating that members of the religious life are ‘not of the world’ and reject its values (perhaps especially those to do with women’s appearance) to communicating that religious are ‘for others’, and therefore recognisable in the same way that public servants like police officers are. The symbol can also have less positive content. Habits don’t mean one thing.

What do I think about the issue of visibility, personally? I don’t know. I don’t like the way that the question has become so ideologically freighted, especially for women. I know that for some apostolic congregations it’s an all-or-nothing issue, either habit all the time or not at all, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be approached in this way. I think it should be discerned on the basis of mission, not as a one-off, but continually. I think that I need to have the spiritual freedom to consider wearing something recognisable, as well as free not to do so. Personally, 99% of the time I don’t like the idea of wearing religious dress. I also recognise, very honestly, that a lot of that is to do with wanting to defend my privacy and anonymity, so I can go where I want and do what I want without people always looking weirdly at me or taking photos. (One of our young German sisters who wears religious dress was once asked by a waitress, ‘Are you real?’) Yet, if I am to be searingly honest, I suspect that kind of reticence is selfishness, and that is not a good reason. So I don’t know, and I suspect the visibility issue will be an ongoing question for me. What I do know is that, ultimately, I want to be free to do whatever helps me to encounter others, and helps them to encounter God.

And you’ll just have to watch the marathon to find out what I decided…


Great things

Recently, I was asked if I wanted to contribute to a panel event on the place of women in the Catholic Church. The organisation wanted someone who would be able to put across their message – that the Catholic Church needs to put more women in positions of El_Greco,_Annunciationleadership. Eventually, it became clear that I was not able to put across their message in the way they hoped. What I wanted to say was, ‘Well, yes – but not for the reasons you give.’ It gave me an opportunity to think through, very seriously, what I think about power in the Church, and what I think about women in the Church and -because it’s how I clarify my thought– I ended up writing something about it. Below is that something. In a debate where there are strong views on both sides, and not much in the middle, it seemed important to put it out there, because it’s very hard for anything other than the entrenched positions of ‘right’ and ‘left’ to gain a hearing.

I speak for nobody but myself. It may not be what I always think on the issue, nor how I always feel, but for now, this is it. And I will say this once only: I am not talking about ordination, in my own or any other denomination.

Great Things

There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things.’

Mary Ward, 1617

There have been times in my life when I have felt deeply frustrated, even angry, with the Church: times when I have felt trapped, unable to fully flourish or find a place in the Church, but unable to walk away. There have been times when I have felt that I cannot serve the Lord in the way I want to within the Church, and wondered whether I should leave.

It is obvious to me now that these were periods of deep desolation. ‘You can’t flourish here,’ ‘You can’t serve the Lord here,’ ‘You should give up,’– these are thoughts that come from the dark spirit, who wants nothing more than to discourage us and draw us away from the Lord. But, as I look back, it is also clear that these periods of desolation were part of the ‘growing pains’ of an ecclesial vocation. From a young age, I had desired religious life, and as a young woman in my twenties pursuing theological study, I had a growing sense that I wanted all my gifts to be placed in the hands of the Lord. Even as a successful career in academia beckoned, I knew that I wanted something different. I wanted to live my life explicitly for the greater glory of God, and to be more generously at his disposal.

Eventually this desire brought me into religious life in the Congregation of Jesus. There I was blessed with a deeply wise and humane novice director, from whom I learned a good deal about discernment, and about desolation. In desolation, she would say, there is usually a grain of truth, because otherwise it wouldn’t get under the radar. As I reflect on those periods of desolation, this strikes me: in my desolation, my feelings of frustration and pain with the Church, my feeling unable to find a place where I could give of myself, there was a grain of truth.

What was it?

Before I answer, let me tell you something about the journey into religious life. I have already said something about my growing desire to live for God, and to place my gifts in his service. As a theologian, I also had a growing sense of a vocation to serving the Church, rather than the ends of the secular academy.  During those years of discernment, I remember coming across a book in the university library, Karl Rahner’s Ignatius of Loyola: Letters to a Young Jesuit. I remember exactly where I was when I read this sentence, about the Jesuit vow not to seek office in the Church: ‘[T]he motive,’ Rahner says,

‘…is Jesus, dying unto death, Jesus himself and not a socio-political calculation. He alone can preserve you from the fascination of power which exists in a thousand forms in the Church and which will always remain there; he alone can rescue you from the only too plausible thought that basically you can only serve mankind by having power; he alone can make the Holy Cross of his powerlessness understandable and acceptable.’

It struck me so much I committed it to memory. The only too plausible thought that basically you can only serve others by having power over them, the fascination of power and, standing apart from these two on the cross of powerlessness, Jesus, dying unto death, Jesus himself.

The journey of my formation in the Congregation of Jesus has meant coming closer to Jesus himself, dying unto death, and knowing him better. It has also been a painful process of realizing just how deeply rooted that ‘fascination with power’ is in me, and in all of us, because we are human.

Let me explain. In the Spiritual Exercises, just before we begin contemplating the public ministry of Jesus, Ignatius places before us the Meditation on the Two Standards. In one scene we see Satan, on a throne of flame, scattering his demons to tempt people in all walks of life to riches, position and pride. In the other scene we see Jesus, on a low plain, not compelling us but attracting us to him, and sending us out to call people to poverty, and to humility. At the end of this meditation we pray earnestly for poverty, we pray to be belittled and humiliated. This is not some pious gesture. Ignatius was someone who knew just how deep the desire for glory went in his own soul, and just how completely opposite is the way of Christ.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Ignatius gives us a very clear picture: this is how God does things. God becomes flesh, a provincial peasant in an oppressed nation. God spends his life among the poor and rejected, among those at the bottom of the pile, and it is here, among the lowest and least noticed, that the Kingdom comes and grows, quietly, like dough rising. Jesus himself never held a position of power; he could not compel others to listen to him, only attract. In the end, Jesus dies, crucified by those in power, like a lamb never opening its mouth. This is how God does things. This is God’s way of having influence, God’s way of exercising power, and it goes against everything in us.

But if we want to follow him, this is how we must be. This is why Ignatius gives us this picture before he asks us to make a decision about whose side we are on, about who we want to follow. He knew how deep the roots of that fascination with power go, and they go deep in me, and in every person. It’s easy to read Ignatius’ description with a sense of relief: ‘Temptation to riches, position and pride? Oh, that’s not me, I don’t want riches or a great position.’ Don’t you? Don’t you shrink from humiliation, defend yourself, and strike out against those who belittle you? Don’t you want recognition, success, praise? How easily these things slip in, under the appearance of good! How often during my noviceship I wanted my small congregation to be a bit bigger, a bit younger, a bit more dynamic, a bit more successful – something to take a bit of worldly pride in! And how often I learned that God was glorified, not in what was strong, but in our weakness, our frailty, in lives of quiet and ordinary faithfulness.

Christ is the power and the wisdom of God, and that power seems to us to be weakness and foolishness. This is how God works. And this is why we cannot, must not ambition for power, whether we are women or whether we are men. We must not look at the Church with the eyes of the world, and say, ‘Where are the top positions?’, and then aim for them for that reason, because they are ‘top’. Jesus saw his disciples doing this, and he said ‘It shall not be so among you.’ If we ambition for power in the Church, we part company with Jesus: we go our way, and he goes his, carrying the cross. Please note that I am not saying that to find oneself in a position of power or leadership in the Church is leaving Jesus behind! But if we ambition for office, for leadership, just because it is ‘being top’, and we think ‘being top’ is what counts, then all is lost. This is not the way of Jesus.

During my formation, prayer, community life, and accompanying those who are poor and marginalized has brought me closer to Jesus himself. It has shown me just how much I need to be converted to the way of Jesus, and just how deeply the fascination of power goes in me. Especially in working with the destitute, and with indigenous peoples, I have experienced Jesus calling me to come closer to the Holy Cross of his powerlessness.

This is where I am now, but what of the beginning? I spoke at the beginning about times of desolation when I felt unable to flourish, unable to find a place in the Church. Yes, some of that was the fascination with power, the dark spirit masquerading as an angel of light. But there was a grain of truth in it.

The grain of truth is this:

It is not wrong to want to be a lamp, alight and shining.

As well as insisting that his men should not ambition for office, Ignatius gave his Society the phrase ad majorem Dei gloriam. It is repeated over and over in his writings, it is the keystone of discernment: we decide whatever is for the greater glory of God. The desire for glory in the old Ignatius becomes the desire for God’s glory, the straining always for the magis, for what is greater.

For the foundress of my own congregation, Mary Ward, that meant a vision that women could do great things for the glory of God. She saw the pressing needs of her age, in the Church and in the world, and she saw how much women could do for the greater glory of God – apostolic work, teaching, catechesis, pastoral work. She spent her life trying to establish apostolic religious life for women, modeled on the Society of Jesus. But the Council of Trent had insisted on enclosure for women, and the Vatican hierarchy of the day was not ready for Mary’s vision of the magis. Mary Ward faced profound interior struggle, ridicule, accusations of disobedience, even –at one stage- imprisonment and excommunication by the Holy Office. She burned for the greater glory of God, and she could not let go of the truth that God had given her:

‘there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things… I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much’

                                                Mary Ward, 1617

It is not wrong to want to be a lamp, alight and shining. It is not wrong to want my life to blaze for the greater glory of God.

If we look at the Church in our day, there are, as there were in Mary Ward’s day, many things that prevent the light that women carry from shining out. Women in our time are doing much, but they can do greater things yet for the glory of God. But seeking these ‘great things’ is not about looking at where the positions of power and influence are, and asking why women are not represented. It shall not be so among you! It is about lifting up the bushel basket, taking the light that women are bringing to the Church, and putting it on the lampstand.

Let me give some examples.

  • When women religious whose charism is pastoral work among the poor are treated by the parish priest as domestic servants, so that they are not free to pursue their work. Their light shines, but under a tub.
  • When young, gifted laywomen cannot find scope for exercising their gifts, and the only roles open to them are ‘assistant’ roles in which they can exercise only limited initiative, leadership and vision. Their light shines, but under a tub.
  • When women who have been engaged in the frontline struggle for justice and peace for years are forgotten when it comes to finding an advisor to a Bishop’s Conference, because that role has always been filled by a priest before. Their light shines, but not on the lampstand.
  • When women’s religious congregations do not educate their members, or do so only to the minimal extent necessary, so that the richness of their formation is constrained by the paucity of roles traditionally open to women in the Church, or in their society. The light of those women continues to shine, but not on the lampstand.
  • When women religious rarely end up in positions of leadership, in spite of their gifts, because their congregations are small and do not run their own institutions. Their light shines, but not on the lampstand.

Let me note three things: first, this is not just about women. In most cases it applies to laypeople, both men and women. Second, it is not just about the Church. The world puts women’s light under a bushel as well, and in many cases the ‘bushel basket’ is as much to do with a local culture, or local expectations of women, as it is to do with ecclesial culture. Third, it is only partly about the hierarchy. If we want to put women’s light on the lampstand, it means we need to change at the personal level, at the parish level, at the diocesan level, at the level of religious congregations.

Change how? Change what? This is not about bringing the Church up to date with the world. Nor is it about giving women ‘power’, because that is what the world tells us we should want. This is about having the vision and the courage to respond to God’s gifts. It is about all of us taking care that our ecclesial culture, our limited imagination, our societal norms, our age-old habits or our unexamined prejudices do not put women’s light under a bushel. It is about putting the light of the gospel, carried by women in so many ways, where it can shine out to the greater glory of God.

Every day, I pray the Examen. It is a prayer in which I look at my experience during the day, and see where and how God has moved me, where and how he has led me, even in surprising ways. The premise of the prayer is that God is concretely present in my everyday experience, that he always makes the first move, and that it is my task to notice his graces, to respond with gratitude, and to allow them to concretely shape my life.

Pope Francis has asked us to become a ‘discerning Church’. Let us look at the Church with the eyes of the Examen, then. Let us each ask God to show us the concrete graces he is giving to the Church through the presence, the witness, the ministry of women. Do not just look in the places you expect to find them, but day by day, remain open and allow the Lord to show you. Then, in a spirit of gratitude, ask how you can respond to this grace, and ask what you can do to put this light on the lampstand.



The word that is life


Recently I spent a morning talking to a woman about her children. Two had run away from school in their teenage years, one to domestic work in Brazil and one to work in the mines. She has never seen them since. As she spoke, her youngest child sat next to her, twining her arms around her mother and now and again looking into two fragments of a broken mirror, which she held together in front of her face.

Later that day, as so often here, I was filled with a hundred and one thoughts, about a technical college for teenagers, about a really good primary school, about a feeding programme for pregnant women, about a hardship fund for secondary school parents – about all the things I desperately wanted to see done. The difference is that when I think these thoughts now, I know this work is not mine to do. I could no more become a good primary teacher than a good ballerina, and the thought of running an agriculture college is like the thought of becoming a professional musician – possible, perhaps, but utterly unrealistic. Once I wondered if I had the vocation to this kind of work, but not the generosity for it; now I know I have the generosity for it, but not the vocation.

I am absorbed by my work here, sifting UNICEF reports, sleuthing out statistics, interviewing parents, teachers and community members, and bringing together all the pieces that make up the picture of the educational injustice facing indigenous people here in Guyana. It’s not work at the coalface, but it is very necessary. I have been thinking much of a speech Ignacio Ellacuria SJ gave in 1982:

‘The university should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice, the intellectual support of those whose very reality makes them true and right and reasonable, even though this sometimes takes the form of having nothing, but who cannot cite academic reasons to justify themselves.’

I can cite the academic reasons, and so my job here is to speak the word that is life for these people – the word that is justice, education and dignity. But even as I immerse myself in this social scientific work, I know that my deeper call is to speak the Word that is life, that is Christ. I am a theologian.

I have oftentimes shied away from being a theologian, particularly in academic clothing, because it seems so impractical, so useless and so privileged. I have felt that I ought to be and do something different, and that, if I was more generous-hearted, I would be doing something different. It seemed to me sometimes that only my lack of faith and some suspected self-indulgence kept me from throwing theology up in the air, and going off to do something more practical and worthwhile.

Increasingly, however, I recognise that the path that brought me to theology was graced, and not mistaken. I have begun to recognise that overlooking my gifts is overlooking the gifts of God. Theology remains my calling, I think, though I still do not know what shape it will take, and I still harbour doubts about academia.

I find myself thinking of something a nun said to me when I was 20 or so, when I first thought seriously about religious life and went to visit a few communities. ‘A vocation,’ she said, ‘is what you find you have when you can’t do anything else – and you’ve tried.’

Strong like turtle


We arrived in Sawariwau just before 5pm, and discovered that everyone was in a village meeting that had been going on since before 9am without a break. When they eventually emerged and came over to greet us, I said ‘You must be tired!’ One of the women, Edna, just laughed. ‘Sister, you have to be like us!’ she said ‘Strong like turtle!’

I think back home, we’d say ‘strong like a bull,’ or ‘strong as a bear’. We’d choose something big and ferocious, something muscular and aggressive. But here, strong is like tortoise, or a land turtle, as they get called here. The next day, we met a little girl with a pet tortoise which, like most pets of small children, put up with a lot, including regularly being airborne. The week before, we’d sat with a teacher in Karaudarnau who told us about a friend’s pet tortoise, which she put out to roam, assuming it wouldn’t go far. The tortoise made an unnoticed bid for freedom and went off into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. Tortoises may not look like much, but they have a quiet, unassuming determination.

Edna named a kind of strength that I have been admiring in Amerindian people, and learning a great deal from. Our bull-and-bear kind of strength means that we take a ‘win or lose’ mentality with us into conflict situations. The choice is between being a victor, or being a doormat. Amerindian people rarely get to be victors in our sense: colonised in the past and marginalised in the present, they are the poorest communities in Guyana, and the most exploited and pushed around. But they have a way of not being a victor that is definitely not being a doormat. It’s being a tortoise. Amerindians put up with a lot, with quiet determination, and they have a way of ‘disappearing’ from situations in which things are being forced on them. You won’t hear raised voices, and most often you won’t see people fighting back, but don’t mistake that quietness for assent or defeat. It’s the sound of a tortoise walking off into the undergrowth.

The path to launching our Quality Bilingual Programme for Wapichan Children has not been as smooth as we’d hoped. Often, in our exchanges with the government, we find ourselves in frustrating situations. Exasperated as I often feel, I know bull and bear tactics won’t work here. We need to be strong like turtle. And the Amerindians I’m working with are teaching me how.

The Friendship of the Vows

I’m writing this from Georgetown, Guyana, to a cacophonous background of beeping horns and chattering parakeets. I arrived last night. This morning I fly to Lethem in the interior, and later this month begin my mission for the next three months or so: supporting the beginnings of a bilingual education programme for indigenous children in South Rupununi. If it comes off, it will be the first time Wapichan children have been able to have formal education in their own language as well as in English, in a curriculum appropriate for their needs and experience.

That’s the next three months or so, but in the last few months a lot has happened as well. On Wednesday last week, I made my first profession in the Congregation of Jesus. It was such a grace, and such a joy. It felt very much like something for which I have been waiting –and something for which God has been waiting, with great patience and gentleness– for the whole of my life.

There’s so much I could write, but I find that the deeper things go, the harder it is to say anything at all. So I just want to share two images that I was praying with in the run-up to my vows, and which say something about where I find myself at the moment. Both are images from the Painted Life of Mary Ward. (Internet limitations here mean you’ll have to look them up yourself!

The first image, number 10 in the series, is a picture of Mary Ward as a young woman. It was around the time that she was preoccupied with thoughts of martyrdom. She had grown up not just with the stories of martyrs in times past, but with the present reality of Catholics, including relatives and family acquaintances, dying for their faith in England. At this age, she had a ‘burning desire’ to be a martyr. This, she thought, was the ultimate way to give your whole existence to God. In the painting, Mary is kneeling, embracing a gallows tree, holding a guilloting and surrounded by a grim selection of torture instruments, from cutlasses to a rack. In an inset in the top left corner, a row of priests are hanging by their necks, while others are hung, drawn, quartered and burned. The picture speaks of youthful ardent desire, and faith as a heroic struggle. Here, self-gift to God is a kind of self-immolation – perhaps even a kind of violence against oneself.

Over time, Mary’s desire for martyrdom waned. Initially, this change troubled her, and she wondered whether she was just going cold on the idea. But God showed her that she was called to a different kind of martyrdom: living the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in religious life. On the face of it, this is not the most inspiring understanding of religious life. But the painting of this scene shows something more profound and beautiful than the substitution of one sort of martyrdom for another. The vows are not portrayed as armed to the teeth against the desires of the flesh, or portrayed as executioners of the passions. Rather, the three vows are portrayed as three young women –three friends– embracing one another. God offers Mary something less heroic and less dramatic than her dreams of martyrdom, something more beautiful, gentler, tender, and ultimately profound: God’s own friendship, discovered through the friendship of the vows. The vows are not heroism, not a grand gesture of self-gift, and not an act violence against ourselves: they are the quiet coming-near of God who desires our friendship, and desires our good.

‘It is good pleasing the Friend of friends, and labouring in eternal works, and above all to be entirely and forever at our Master’s disposal.’

(Damian Howard SJ’s homily for the first profession of three Jesuit novices had some nice things to say about heroism and communion:

In high heels, backwards

My grandmother Madeline was heard to say that Ginger Rogers was twice the dancer Fred Astaire was, because she had to do everything he did, but backwards and in high heels. When I see a portrait of Mary Ward hanging next to a portrait of St Ignatius, as in our house in Alltöting, I can’t help thinking along the same lines.

I am in Germany at the moment. It’s an opportunity for meet our German sisters, and to undertake the last experiment of my novitiate – a two week pilgrimage in the footsteps of Mary Ward, from Feldkirch to Innsbruck. It’s also been an opportunity to see some of the Mary Ward materials and archives in CJ houses in Germany. This is how I found myself, on Tuesday, in a room in our convent in Alltöting, with two huge portraits of Mary Ward and Ignatius hanging side by side and, on the next wall, a cupboard containing some of Mary Ward’s belongings: her walking shoes, two pilgrim hats, a rosary and psalter, and a remarkable seventeenth century travel clock.

I found myself moved – greatly and surprisingly so. At the time of her death, Mary Ward could hardly have hoped that, over 400 years later, two novices of her Institute would be standing in front of her earthly belongings. I was so full of gratitude for all that she has given me. It seemed to me beautiful and fitting that these are all the things we have from her: no great shrine or church, no house, not even a body, though we have the gravestone. All we have from Mary Ward are the things for a pilgrimage: shoes, hat, prayer beads, clock. They spoke to me so clearly of a woman who had left everything behind, and who was absolutely open to the will of God, wherever it would take her.

I found myself hugely moved, too, by all the women whose faithfulness and courage meant that I could stand there, in front of those objects. Women who persevered after the order was suppressed, refusing to give up on the apostolic life to which God had called them, and in which Mary Ward had led them. Women who preferred to take private vows and live as a secular association, rather than trade in their apostolic freedom for recognition as religious – who would rather be called ‘Mrs’ and get on with their mission than forsake it for the title of ‘Sr’. Women who refused to hand over precious documents, like letters from Mary Ward and biographies of her, when this was demanded as the price of their recognition as religious women. Women who kept on commissioning pictures of Mary Ward holding the Constitutions, with a ray of light spelling out ‘Hic Regula Vitae’ falling on the open book, which often reads ‘Scientia Iesu Crucifixi’. Women who never lost sight of Mary Ward’s founding vision to ‘take the same of the Society’ – to take the same spirituality and rule of life as the Society of Jesus, whose constitutions they secretly handed down for generations. The history of Mary Ward’s Institute is a history of women’s apostolic life surviving and flourishing against all odds. If the early history of the Society of Jesus is Fred Astaire, Mary Ward’s Institute looks a lot like Ginger Rogers.

To be standing there, hundreds of years later, a novice in Mary Ward’s Institute, and formed by the Constitutions that Mary Ward so desired, was a joy and a privilege.

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.’ (Mt 11.25)