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)

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